Under the kaleidoscopic cover of a Rocky Mountain twilight,
after an afternoon of vintage highlights, John Elway finally
began to act his age. Elway, the Denver Broncos' 36-year-old
quarterback, had just produced one of the more energetic
performances of his extraordinary 14-year NFL career in leading
Denver to a 34-7 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs at Mile High
Stadium on Sunday. In addition to throwing for 286 yards and
three titillating touchdowns, Elway had run with the reckless
abandon of a much younger man. Twice he had found himself in the
middle of the field just short of a first down, and twice he had
lunged forward for the needed yardage. Elway finished with a
career-high 62 rushing yards. "It felt like a thousand," he said
at game's end. He was only half joking.
"I'm really tired," Elway added as he trudged off the field. "I
kind of feel old." Then he flashed that toothy grin--the most
famous smile in all of Colorado--and left a bystander to wonder
about the relative degrees of seriousness and sarcasm contained
in the statement. For as he puts the finishing touches on a
career that will land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on
the first ballot, Elway is being revitalized by a precocious
group of Broncos.
After missing the playoffs three of the last four seasons,
Denver is enjoying a revival under second-year coach Mike
Shanahan, who has quietly produced the AFC's best team. This
season's Broncos, who are 7-1 and own a two-game lead over the
Chiefs in the AFC West, are not of the same breed as their
Elway-era predecessors, including the three teams in the 1980s
that advanced to the Super Bowl only to be pushed around like
unwelcome drunks crashing a party. This year Denver is physical,
purposeful and well-rounded. But though there are many
compelling reasons for the Broncos' sudden status as Super Bowl
contenders--a burgeoning star halfback in Terrell Davis (SI,
Oct. 28); an unstoppable tight end in Shannon Sharpe; a silent
but deadly offensive line; an aggressive, unrelenting defense;
and the leadership of Shanahan--it all comes back to Elway, as
it always does in Denver.
With apologies to Troy Aikman, Brett Favre, Jim Harbaugh, Dan
Marino and Steve Young, the most dangerous quarterback in
football is Elway. Still blessed with a cannon arm, a
scrambler's flair and remarkable durability, he has become
comfortable in the jazzed-up version of the Bill Walsh offense
that Shanahan brought with him from San Francisco, following
three years as the 49ers' offensive coordinator. "If John had
had a system like this--not to mention this kind of
personnel--when he was a rookie, I'm not sure there's any record
he wouldn't hold," Shanahan says.
As it is, Elway has a record collection that would make John
Denver proud. On Sunday Elway joined Fran Tarkenton as the only
NFL quarterbacks to exceed career totals of 40,000 yards passing
and 3,000 yards rushing. An equally amazing achievement is that
in 14 seasons Elway has missed only eight starts because of
injury. Yet as recently as five weeks ago, after he threw two
interceptions in a 17-14 loss in Kansas City, he was being
described by the Denver media as battered, creaky and, yes, old.
Elway is one of three surviving members of the celebrated
Quarterback Class of 1983, and when the other two, Marino and
Jim Kelly, went down with injuries earlier this season, some
assumed Elway would be the next to fall.
That columnists and radio commentators were making a big issue
of Elway's age was hardly shocking. The real surprise was that
Elway bought into it. "It's almost like I was brainwashed," he
said last Saturday while munching on a doughnut covered with
maple frosting. "When all you hear about and talk about is how
old you are, it starts to sink into your mind. For a while I was
believing what everybody was writing, that I was old and
couldn't move anymore."
He broke out of that funk a couple of days after the setback in
Kansas City, when he began considering his age in terms of
nonfootball pursuits. Old at 36? As the owner of seven
Denver-area car dealerships, Elway is a fresh-faced executive.
As a father of four, he's a relatively hip parent. His wife,
Janet, says he remains spry and virile on the domestic front.
"Except when he wants to get out of doing something," she says.
"He'll say, 'Honey, I'm too beat up to take out the trash. Have
one of the kids do it.'"
With all this in mind, Elway made a decision before practice one
day: "I finally said, 'Screw this, I'm tired of worrying about
it. I'm going to run around when I need to, and if it doesn't
work, fine.' It was an awesome decision. I probably should've
done it a heck of a lot earlier."
In the four games since his epiphany, Elway has been brilliant,
throwing 12 touchdown passes and only four interceptions, while
ringing up a quarterback rating of 107.7 over that span. He had
three consecutive 300-yard passing games, the first time he had
done that in one season, before the near miss on Sunday, when he
sat out most of the fourth quarter.
With excellent protection and a typically innovative Shanahan
game plan, Elway was free to hang back and fire away against the
Chiefs, and some of his tosses were magical. One play after
missing on a pass to Sharpe near the goal line late in the first
quarter, he lofted a 10-yard touch pass to Sharpe in the left
corner of the end zone for a 17-7 lead. With 46 seconds left in
the first half, he floated a tight spiral down the left sideline
that appeared to be beyond the grasp of wideout Mike Sherrard,
who had a step on cornerback Darren Anderson. But Sherrard, who
earned the nickname Venus Flytrap during his years with the
49ers in the late 1980s and early '90s, reached out and snatched
the ball for a 25-yard score.
Elway also threw his share of unearthly fastballs, including a
46-yard touchdown strike to Sharpe on Denver's second play from
scrimmage and a 41-yarder to wideout Anthony Miller in the third
quarter that set up the Broncos' final touchdown. Elway was
eating up yardage so quickly that even the chain gang couldn't
keep up with him: An official timeout was necessitated in the
first quarter when the first-down markers became entangled after
a 31-yard completion to Miller.
The Chiefs, now 5-3, were equally crossed up. "We were all
geared up to stop the running game," defensive end Neil Smith
said after the loss, "but John came out and jumped on our ass.
The guy is unbelievable."
This was supposed to be the game in which Smith, who has
struggled this season, would regain the form that has earned him
five consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl. On the Monday before the
game he was pulled aside by defensive coordinator Gunther
Cunningham, who criticized Smith's run defense and said, "I need
you to play better." All week Smith and Kansas City's other
pass-rushing star, linebacker Derrick Thomas, prodded each other
to turn up their intensity, fueling their ardor with some
statements allegedly made by Denver offensive line coach Alex
Gibbs, who held a similar position with the Chiefs in 1993 and
Smith insists that after Gibbs left K.C. he privately referred
to Thomas as "soft" and to Smith as a derogatory term that is a
profane synonym for wimp. No one knows whether Gibbs said these
things--as the architect of the season-long media boycott by the
Broncos' offensive linemen, he does not talk to reporters--but
the Chiefs milked it for all it was worth. "Hey, soft!" Smith
would yell to Thomas, who would invariably respond by calling
Smith by Gibbs's alleged descriptive. This made Smith grumpy; it
was as if that 1-800-COLLECT commercial in which Thomas riles up
Smith had come to life. "People love that ad," Smith said last
Thursday while eating some tasty shrimp etouffee at Copeland's
of New Orleans, the restaurant he recently opened in Overland
Park, Kans. "Before our first game this season, my voice mail
was filled up with people calling me collect: men, women and
It's funny how these motivational myths get circulated. Last
Friday, as Smith, Thomas and several other K.C. defensive
players watched film of Elway, they spoke of an alleged taunt
made by San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau during the
Broncos' 28-17 victory over the Chargers on Oct. 6. It's a taunt
Elway says he doesn't recall, but it's worth noting that the
Broncos did rally from a 17-0 deficit to win that game. "Junior
knocked John down early on and told him, 'Hey, old man, you
ain't got it no more,'" Smith said. "John got pissed and started
kicking ass. The best thing to do is just say nothing to John.
If he smiles at you, smile back and help him up."
Neither Smith nor anyone else had a chance to oblige Elway on
Sunday because the Chiefs never knocked him down. He even
emerged unscathed from his headlong flops. "I've always felt
more protected going headfirst; it's the hardest part of my
body, after all," Elway said. "Pete Rose would have been proud."
Elway's head fared better than that of Shanahan, who was
drenched by his first career Gatorade bath, courtesy of free
safety Steve Atwater and defensive end Alfred Williams. The
Broncos, with 1,047 yards in their past two games, have the
NFL's top-rated offense, and shouldn't we all have seen this
coming? Shanahan, who coordinated the 49ers' record-breaking
attack during their Super Bowl season two years ago, confounded
the Chiefs with a five-receiver set that helped Sharpe (six
catches, 99 yards) thrive despite near-constant double coverage.
Even more impressive than Shanahan's game plans has been the
ease with which he has transformed the Broncos into a
hard-nosed, no-nonsense outfit. Despite his cherubic face and
slight build, Shanahan is a demanding leader who doesn't have to
scream to get his point across. "Mike has brought a different
attitude here," Sharpe says. "When you look at Mike you don't
necessarily think of someone being tough. He doesn't cuss and
throw things, but when he says something, you listen."
Shanahan has attempted to replicate the winning atmosphere he
was a part of under coach George Seifert in San Francisco, right
down to the annual training-camp fishing derby. "He's even
acquiring a small streak of George's superstition," Sherrard
says. "The week after the [first] Kansas City game we skipped
our Hail Mary drill at the end of the Saturday practice, and we
won the next day. We don't run the Hail Mary drill anymore."
Denver owner Pat Bowlen lauds Shanahan, who has control over
personnel decisions, for acquiring good citizens like free
agents Williams and linebacker Bill Romanowski and 1996
first-round draft choice John Mobley, an outside linebacker who
is expected to become a pass-rushing sensation. "Mike's really a
new breed of coach," Bowlen says. "People laugh at the chemistry
thing, but I've really seen it make a difference here."
Still, the man who makes the biggest difference is Elway, who
has an NFL-record 39 fourth-quarter comebacks. Appreciate him
while he's still here; the man is an athletic wonder. On
Saturday night he watched the New York Yankees win the World
Series and considered what might have been: He was the Yankees'
first-round draft pick while at Stanford in 1981 and played a
year of Class A ball for the organization before deciding on a
football career. Fourteen years later, he's still getting chased
by vicious 300-pound linemen and diving headfirst. "He loves
football so much," Janet said on Sunday, as she stood on the
Mile High turf, waiting for John to emerge from the locker room.
In the background two of their three daughters, Jessica, 11, and
Jordan, 9, were tossing a miniature football--and, yes, each
Elway girl has a gun for an arm. As John walked toward her,
Janet turned sentimental. "He's not going to be one of those
players who hangs on too long," she said. "He'll probably retire
a lot sooner than people here would like."
There are about a thousand players around the NFL who would love
to throw him a going-away party today.