He might now be the Player Formerly Known as Elway. His
bothersome right hamstring takes three weeks instead of three
days to heal. And the mantle of most indispensible player in
Denver now rests squarely on the shoulders of Terrell Davis. But
no athlete is more beloved by his teammates, coaches, fans and
rivals than Broncos quarterback John Elway. The latest proof
came during Denver's position meetings on the eve of Sunday's
AFC Championship Game with the New York Jets.
This is an article from the Jan. 25, 1999 issue
"Tomorrow may be John Elway's last game at Mile High Stadium,"
special teams coach Rick Dennison told his troops. "I want to
make sure that everyone in this room does everything he can to
make sure this is a great day, a special day, for John."
A half hour later, Elway's best friend in football, Broncos
offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, turned off the overhead
projector, which displayed the script of Denver's first 15 plays
against the Jets, and flipped on the lights. "I don't know if
this is Seven's last game," Kubiak said, referring to Elway's
jersey number. "He won't tell me. But we all know how special
this man is. I've witnessed a lot of ass-kickings he's directed
in this stadium. Let's make tomorrow the biggest ass-kicking
Seven's ever had."
As it turned out Denver's 23-10 victory was more of a Texas Death
Match, with a lot of bizarre twists thrown in. The high-powered
Broncos were shut out for the first 34 minutes. The Jets
committed six turnovers. A New York rookie who hadn't played
since Oct. 25 blocked a punt. Denver inadvertently pulled off a
39-yard onside kick. Elway wound up completing 38% of his passes.
It wasn't a game you would have put in a time capsule, but you
would have wanted to bottle the raw emotion at Mile High. When
Broncos coach Mike Shanahan told Elway that the plan was to
introduce the defensive starters during pregame festivities and
then send him onto the field to be recognized, Elway protested.
"I might start crying," he said. They compromised. After the
defensive players were announced, the captains of the offense and
the special teams were introduced, with Elway coming out last.
The roar that greeted him as he ran onto the field made the
At halftime, after Elway had completed just four of 14 throws,
his longtime agent, Marvin Demoff, found John's wife, Janet, in
her luxury box, worried sick that a premonition she had had about
her husband was coming true. "Her greatest fear," Demoff said,
"was that his last game at home--assuming it was his last
game--wouldn't go well. She saw it happening."
After the game, over the public address system, Elway screamed to
the 75,482 on hand, "I love you!" In the southwest corner of the
stadium, streaks of the blue-and-orange Broncos insignia on a
twentysomething woman's cheek ran down her neck because she
couldn't hold back her tears. "John!" she shouted. "Please stay!"
When John met Janet and their four kids on the field, all of them
were either crying or close to it. "I saw them," John said after
the media throng had left him, "and then I teared up."
The emotion of the day almost worked against the Broncos. They
were too mile high. Also, the Jets, who might have won but for
their inability to hold on to the ball, were clearly better than
Denver thought. The night before the game, Shanahan's final words
to the Broncos included these: "You guys know we can dominate any
team we play.... I'm so sick and tired of hearing what a great
defense they have. Our defense will show what a great defense
Well, he was right about his defense. During their seven-game
winning streak leading up to the AFC title game, the Jets scored
an average of 29.6 points. They pride themselves on creating
confusion with their offensive schemes, a dramatic change in
philosophy for veteran coach Bill Parcells. When his New York
Giants won the Super Bowl 13 years ago, Parcells used an
offensive playbook that looked like Cliffs Notes compared to the
encyclopedia the Jets lug around. "We've charted them in 63
formations," said Tennessee Oilers coach Jeff Fisher, whose team
came out on the short end of a 24-3 score on Nov. 22. "The
average team might have 35 in a season." In their AFC divisional
playoff win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Jets ran their 77
plays from 38 formations and sent a man in motion on 54 snaps.
It's amazing that a team with a new center (Kevin Mawae), a new
quarterback (Vinny Testaverde) and a new running back (Curtis
Martin) ran such a complex offense with such precision. "Which
goes to show you Parcells is a coach of the 1990s," Denver free
safety Steve Atwater said last Friday. "He adapts to the talent
"Watching tape of the Jets, I saw it all," said Broncos strong
safety Tyrone Braxton. "One back with Keith Byars spread wide.
Five receivers in every combination. Motion everywhere. And I
think to myself, This is a Bill Parcells offense? What's going on
Nevertheless, Denver played terrific gap-control defense,
shadowing Martin and never allowing him to get untracked. Martin,
who rushed for 124 yards against the Jaguars, carried 13 times
for 14 yards on Sunday; his longest run was four yards. Though
Testaverde, who completed his first 13 throws into what Elway
called the worst Denver wind he had ever experienced, played
superbly through three quarters and finished with 31 completions
in 56 attempts for 356 yards, he couldn't do it alone. In 16
possessions New York scored one touchdown, and it came on a drive
of about 24 inches. That rarely used rookie, Blake Spence,
blocked a Tom Rouen punt at the Denver goal line with 12 minutes
left in the third quarter, and Martin scored on the next play to
give the Jets a 10-0 lead.
Elway, meanwhile, was forcing the ball at times and short-arming
it on other throws. "At halftime," he said after the game, "Kubes
came up to me and said, 'Forget what's happened. Go with what got
you here. Just start flinging it.'"
"What's great about John," Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe said,
"is when the game gets tight and everyone's running around crazy,
he's methodical. We're down 10-0, and he comes into the huddle
with a sense of urgency but no panic." It was the volcanic Sharpe
who got the Broncos revved up. In the huddle during the TV
timeout before Denver began its comeback, he screamed, "Here we
go! It's time! This is for all the minicamps, all the weights we
lifted, all the sprints we ran! We're better than this!" He
stared at wideout Rod Smith and yelled, "Make a play!" Ditto the
other receiver, Ed McCaffrey. Sharpe stared at Davis: "Look here!
Run it right behind me! I'll give you a hole!"
Yet when the Broncos broke the huddle for a first-down play from
their 36-yard line, McCaffrey and Smith lined up opposite to
where they should have been. The two started to switch sides, but
seeing that the play clock was ticking down, Elway motioned for
the two to stay put and screamed, "Run each other's route."
Thanks to a blown coverage by strong safety Victor Green, who bit
on Smith's shorter crossing route, McCaffrey was alone down the
middle of the field. "Victor went to sleep," Parcells said
afterward. Elway hit McCaffrey for a 47-yard completion, and two
plays later Elway lasered a throw into fullback Howard Griffith's
gut for an 11-yard touchdown.
Things really got bizarre on the ensuing kickoff. Aware of the
tricks that the wind can play at Mile High, Denver's Jason Elam
intended to kick high on the ball and drive it through the gusts.
Instead, he caught the ball lower than he wanted, and it
ballooned in the wind. The ball hit around the Jets' 22 and
bounced back to the 31, where it was recovered by Broncos
linebacker Keith Burns. "Pure luck," Elam said. Davis ran left
for five yards, but his 15-yard run around right end was negated
by a holding penalty, forcing Denver to settle for a 44-yard Elam
field goal that tied the score.
New York went three-and-out on its next two possessions, while
Denver was just getting warmed up. Between those two series,
Elam's 48-yarder gave the Broncos their first lead, 13-10, with
three minutes left in the third quarter. Then Darrien Gordon
returned a punt 36 yards to the Jets' 38. That's when New York's
defense, on the field for the sixth time in the quarter, finally
broke. Davis cut left for four yards. He bounced around left end
for three. Then he took a pitch from Elway, waited for left
tackle Tony Jones and left guard Mark Schlereth to set up their
blocks, and zoomed down the left side for a touchdown. In 10
minutes Denver had turned a 10-point deficit into a 10-point
Davis, who finished with 167 yards on 32 carries, is the perfect
confluence of speed and power. In 18 games this season he has run
for 2,374 yards, the highest single-season total, including
playoffs, in NFL history. In seven career postseason games he is
averaging 148.3 yards. At 26, he's the Man in Denver. He's also
very tired. "I'm just glad there's only one game left this
season," he said.
For Davis, yes. For the 38-year-old Elway, who completed 13 of 34
passes for 173 yards, every arrow points to the Super Bowl
matchup against the Atlanta Falcons as being the last game of his
career. Elway won't acknowledge that publicly, but Demoff says,
"Earlier this season I thought there was some competitive zeal in
him that might make him come back to try to win three straight
Super Bowls if the Broncos won this one. Not anymore. He's past
Indeed, Elway, who will become the first quarterback to start
five Super Bowls, has had enough fame. Kubiak knows as much. As
Elway left Mile High on Sunday night, Kubiak handed him a compact
disc, country singer Randy Travis's You and You Alone. "Listen to
track six on your way home," Kubiak told him.
The song is called I Did My Part. It goes like this:
I'll do my part, I'll try my best.
I'll give my heart, I'll take no rest.
Time will tell, if I left my mark,
But I'll know full well, I did my part.
had had about her husband was coming true.
of speed and power. At 26, he's also the Man in Denver.