He bounded onto the field with a spring in his step, as elated
as the 76,965 fans at Arrowhead Stadium were deflated. John
Elway, one of the more dignified competitors of his generation,
had succumbed to the sadist within. His Denver Broncos, just
having repelled the Kansas City Chiefs' last-ditch fourth-down
pass into the end zone, held a 14-10 lead with 12 seconds
remaining in their AFC divisional playoff game. All Elway had to
do was handle one snap and take a knee, and Denver would advance
to the AFC Championship Game in Pittsburgh against the Steelers.
This wasn't as gripping as the Drive in 1987 or any of Elway's
other famous comebacks, but to him it was just as sweet.
"There's nothing I love more than going on the road and shutting
up an opposing crowd," Elway had said three days before Sunday's
victory--the Broncos' first road playoff triumph in nearly 11
years. "People are yapping at you all day long, calling you
every name in the book. Then you win, and nobody makes a sound."
Those closing moments in Kansas City were about more than the
thrill of victory; here was the chill of mastery, evidence of a
spiteful streak in Elway that the public seldom sees. Then Elway
snapped out of it. He danced off the field like a much younger
man, headed through the tunnel toward the locker room and
slipped into the California-dude vernacular of his past.
"Awesome," he said. "Just awesome."
After a season of handing the ball to All-Pro halfback Terrell
Davis and trying to protect leads, the Comeback Kid is alive. In
Pittsburgh, Elway, 37, will face the new wonder: Kordell
Stewart, who got an up-close view of Elway while playing
quarterback at Colorado and who has referred to him as the Man.
The 25-year-old Stewart is, as Elway once was, an athletic
anomaly who has burst onto the scene and demonstrated uncanny
grace under fire. Though only a first-year starter at
quarterback, Stewart outplayed his idol in the Steelers' 35-24
victory over the Broncos at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 7. And
Stewart passed his first playoff test last Saturday by guiding
Pittsburgh to a 7-6 home triumph over the New England Patriots.
But as he heads into the fifth AFC title game of his career,
Elway is playing his position as adroitly as Jimi Hendrix played
guitar: Kordell, are you experienced? Have you ever been
experienced? Well, I have. "John has been there before, and it
shows," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said after Sunday's game. "I
don't think he made one mistake today."
A few minutes earlier a Broncos official who has kept a close
eye on Elway's career for more than three decades had
proclaimed, "John's playing as well as he's ever played, maybe
better." Denver director of pro scouting Jack Elway should know,
and once the Steelers study the Broncos' most recent game tapes,
they are likely to share the proud papa's assessment.
It's unlikely either quarterback will be subjected to a
defensive assault more daunting than those they endured last
weekend. The Patriots blitzed Stewart on almost every down,
often with cornerbacks and safeties. New England even lined up
defensive backs in the three-point stance, concealing them
between linemen who sometimes dropped into coverage. Pittsburgh
was seeing some of these blitzes for the first time, yet Stewart
made just one glaring mistake, a second-quarter pass that
cornerback Steve Israel intercepted deep in Patriots territory
(and replays showed that Israel, who had to dive to make the
play, may have trapped the ball).
More significant, while New England neutralized Steelers Pro
Bowl running back Jerome Bettis and kept Pittsburgh from
connecting on a scoring pass, the swift Stewart made the play
that held up as the game-winner, racing 40 yards down the left
sideline for the game's lone touchdown on the Steelers' opening
possession. "I blew off scrambling for most of the season; I'm
just getting started now," he had said while sitting on the hood
of his new car in late December. "Once I start running, with the
weapons we have, the only way we can be stopped is if we stop
Some of the blitzing against Elway was personal. Though Kansas
City coach Marty Schottenheimer has done his best to downplay
the history between the two, it clearly haunts him.
Schottenheimer has made the playoffs 11 times in 13 seasons as a
head coach but has yet to reach the Super Bowl; he came closest
when his Cleveland Browns reached the 1986 and '87 AFC title
games, but both times Elway thwarted the Browns. Elway entered
Sunday's game holding a 13-8 career edge over Schottenheimer,
with seven fourth-quarter comebacks.
Think Schottenheimer gets a kick out of the rivalry? Anyone who
spent time with the Chiefs last week can set you straight.
Schottenheimer is big on rhetoric and notorious for going over
the top in his speeches during meetings, but he hit a new
plateau. Among his biting comments to K.C. players was a
facetious slap at Elway's bowlegged gait: "I want you to take
that crook leg of his and straighten it."
It may be that Schottenheimer is merely a victim of bad timing,
a valiant competitor destined to play Alydar to Elway's
Affirmed. Now Elway will try to torment Schottenheimer's
disciple, Steelers coach Bill Cowher, and attempt to silence
another raucous crowd. Elway might have pulled it off during
Denver's regular-season visit to Pittsburgh had his receivers
held on to the ball; by Shanahan's count the Broncos dropped
eight passes. Schematically Denver's passing offense matches up
well with Cowher's zone-blitz-oriented defense. If anyone has
shown an ability to dissect that trendy defense, it's Shanahan,
as he showed in the Broncos' 34-0 victory over the Carolina
Panthers on Nov. 9. And if any quarterback can handle the
blitzing pressure, it's Elway, who still has a serviceable
amount of his trademark mobility and is the league leader in
Against the Chiefs, Elway was sacked only once, while connecting
on 10 of 19 passes for 170 yards. The Steelers had to be
especially impressed by a play on the second snap of the fourth
quarter that sparked the game-winning drive. Kansas City had
just taken a 10-7 lead. On third-and-five from the Chiefs' 44,
Elway, working from the shotgun formation, read a zone blitz in
which no defender rotated to the left flat. Wideout Ed McCaffrey
ran a right-to-left crossing route from the right slot. Elway
delivered the ball perfectly, and the slow-footed McCaffrey
chugged down the left sideline to the one, setting up a second
touchdown run by Davis, who finished with 101 yards on 25 carries.
Because the Broncos were such front-runners this season--Denver
never trailed in the fourth quarter of its previous 13
victories--Elway's comeback skills had been dormant. "I like to
think it's like riding a bike, that you never lose the ability
to come back," he said last Thursday. "Playing with a lead is
totally different. There's a fine line between not losing your
aggressiveness and making dumb plays that let them back in the
Elway then brought up the mother of all blown opportunities: the
Broncos' December loss to Pittsburgh, a game in which Denver
squandered a 21-7 lead. Expect Shanahan to take the handcuffs
off his offense in the rematch, especially because the Broncos
may find it tough to run the ball against the league's top
rushing defense. In the first meeting the Broncos were held to
89 yards on 24 attempts. "We'll come up with something,"
Shanahan insisted after Sunday's game. "We have to have a better
game plan than we did last time, that's for sure."
One strategy on defense may involve moving the safeties up for
support against the punishing Bettis and to limit big plays by
Stewart. Denver had success blitzing Elvis Grbac from the weak
side, but the Broncos caught a break when the K.C. coaches
failed to adjust. Blitzing Stewart, and thus forcing him to
scramble, can be dangerous; there's no easy way to contain him.
"We didn't even slow him down," Shanahan said on Monday of a
game in which Stewart passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns
and ran for 49 yards and two more scores. "He's been able to
make the big play when there's nothing. Not only is he fast, but
he also has the arm strength to throw any pass--the 70-yarder,
the comeback route. He can hurt you in so many ways."
On occasion the Patriots used linebacker Tedy Bruschi as a "spy"
to shadow Stewart, who nevertheless ran for 68 yards. Of course,
the tactic also leaves the opposition with one less defender in
Another problem for Denver is that Stewart and Pittsburgh
offensive coordinator Chan Gailey have been outstanding at
adjusting on the fly. Already Stewart has established a pattern
of following weak first-half efforts with second-half
brilliance, another reason he seems destined to become the Elway
of his generation. "I've always looked up to John Elway,"
Stewart said after beating New England. "It's not how many
points he scores or the stats. With him it's all about winning.
When I saw him play, I always thought we did the same
things--scrambling, moving around, making things happen no
matter what was going on around us."
When those comments were relayed to Elway on Sunday evening, he
broke into a huge smile, saying, "Yeah, but he's faster and
stronger and a lot better at all that now than I am. His
athletic ability can make up for his inexperience."
Stewart and the Steelers are all that stand in the way of
Elway's getting a fourth crack at the ring that has eluded him.
His quest to redeem himself after three well-documented Super
Bowl failures would make for compelling theater, and it's
presumed to be the sole force that drives him in the twilight of
his career. This is what we are supposed to believe, yet upon
closer inspection he shows a coarser edge.
As he walked into the chilly Kansas City night to join his
teammates on buses in the Arrowhead parking lot on Sunday, Elway
was besieged by autograph seekers. He happily obliged those
wearing Broncos colors, but he had no time for Chiefs fans.
"You've got the wrong hat, dude," Elway said to one teenager. A
few steps from the bus, a freckle-faced youngster wearing a
sweatshirt bearing Schottenheimer's likeness tapped Elway on the
shoulder. Elway whirled around.
"Please, John," the boy begged.
For a split second Elway appeared sympathetic. Then his face
turned cold. "Sorry, buddy," Elway said. He spun and boarded the
bus, crook leg and all.