Sunday, January 31, 1999

Where there's a will, there's an Elway

The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Complete coverage from Associated Press
        MIAMI — Just tell him what he needs.

        That's the big gag between John Elway and Bubby Brister, his backup quarterback. Elway and Brister will be shooting pool, or fishing, or playing Pop-A-Shot and Elway always asks when they start keeping score.

        “What do I need?” he'll say.

        He did it in Boston after he and Brister went to a Red Sox game. They went to a joint and ended up shooting hoops.

        “What do I need?” Elway asked.

        Brister looked up at the machine and said something like 52 points, a number no one could get on that contraption. Elway pumped in 54.

        “It's like the way he is when he brings the team back in a game,” Brister said last week with an admiring shake of the head. “He looks up at the scoreboard to see if "I need to get in field-goal range or if I need to score a touchdown. What do I need to do to get a chance to compete, to win.'

        “That's John Elway. One of the all-time great competitors.”

        What do you need today, John, in what is expected to be your last NFL game?

        The first thing, naturally, is for his Denver Broncos to beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII.

        The second thing is for everyone to forget about Dan Reeves' heart, Ray Buchanan's dog collar, Shannon Sharpe's mouth and Mike Shanahan's script. What you need to realize is that the man who gave you “The Drive,” is standing at the goal line of his historic 16-year march into the teeth of inept teammates, coaching controversies and unbridled expectations.

        As he stands over center for today's first snap, Elway, 37, can look back on 98 yards of slants, screens and bootlegs he completed through a junkyard of obstacles. Somehow, he rolled away from trouble and found a way to become the first quarterback to play in five Super Bowls. Somehow, he split the Mile High wind with accurate passes that gave him an NFL-record 150 victories. A win today gives him back-to-back Super Bowl titles, putting him into the Super elite of quarterbacks — Starr, Griese, Bradshaw, Montana and Aikman — and forever erases the albatross of his 0-3 start in the big game.

        “He's the only guy I know,” Sharpe said after Elway won his fifth AFC title two weeks ago, “who can make chicken salad out of chicken you-know-what.”

        That's his legacy. Chicken salad with a little mustard. He's at his best when the rest is against him. His defining moment came in the final seconds of the 1986 AFC title game in Cleveland when he drove the Broncos 98 yards into the end zone and the Super Bowl, his most famous of 47 fourth-quarter comebacks. With the Dog Pound howling on third-and-18 and Elway working the silent count, a shotgun snap bounced off receiver Steve Watson going in motion. Somehow, Elway converted.

        “That kind of put me on the map,” Elway said. “I just remember standing in the end zone, it was a TV timeout and it was one of those days that as a kid you look back and remember the Jim Browns and this type of thing when you saw Cleveland Stadium and it was a cold, wet day. We're standing there during the TV timeout and it doesn't look good and Keith Bishop looks at me and says, "Well, we've got them right where we want them.'”

        Wasn't the entire 1998 season just like that? A 98-yard challenge of will and grit? Elway's wife became ill during training camp and needed surgery. His father broke his leg. A daughter got sick. He missed three games with a right hamstring problem, a lower back injury and rib muscle strain. Brister, his training camp roommate, watched in awe.

        Right where you want them.

        What do I need?

        “I'd have trouble keeping focused, I don't know he did it,” Brister said. “He'd leave camp for a few days, come back, and he was as sharp as ever. That's John Elway. He wouldn't walk away from his commitment to the team.”

        It all looks so easy for him. The big arm, fast legs, toothy smile. But once upon a time, Elway was on the 2-yard line of life and wasn't so sure what was going to happen. Whenever she sees him on TV, a woman named Suzanne Longo remembers the 22-year-old Elway.

        Longo was the 21-year-old general manager of the Class A Oneonta Yankees when Elway was the buzz of upstate New York in the summer of 1982. The Yankees had drafted him and Elway was spending six weeks giving pro baseball a shot before he returned to Stanford for football.

        When he left to go back to California, the O-Yanks had a farewell party for him at the fraternity house where he stayed, and Longo stopped by. At one point, the discussion turned to the future and the worries of the soon-to-be adults surfaced.

        “We joked he had nothing to worry about, but he sounded like the rest of us,” Longo said. “I guess he had to worry about getting hurt, if he would win the Heisman, where he would get drafted, all those things. He was down-to-earth. He sounded like anyone at that stage in their life.”

        Elway was right. There were concerns. He forced a trade out of Baltimore when he got drafted. He went to a struggling team. He clashed with coach Dan Reeves over philosophy and eventually got the coach fired. He lost three Super Bowls. Even now, at the pinnacle, he still has critics. They say he doesn't belong in the pantheon because he's 1-3 in Super Bowls and his postseason passing rating of 78.9 nearly matches a mere workmanlike 79.8 overall rating.

        But he's 13-7 in playoff games, which is how he rates it.

        “I think the bottom line is to win,” Elway said. “Not necessarily how many world championships you have, but winning football games means a lot. You can take statistics from quarterbacks and take a look at them. But the bottom line is what you do to help your team win. I like the idea of the winning part.”

        He likes it so much, he does things you don't see average quarterbacks do. He doesn't do it as much, but suffice it to say his arm and legs have been so lethal that he's the only quarterback in history to throw for 50,000 yards and rush for 3,000.

        “The improvisation just comes from the competitor in me,” Elway said. “It's not wanting to give up on a play, and even though it doesn't look good, trying to figure out a way to make something happen. Over time, you learn when's the right time and the wrong time ... The chances that I've taken, those have been outweighed by the plays that have been made.”

        Such as his scramble against the Packers last year in which he hurtled his body through the air, the signature play of Super Bowl XXXII.

        “That helicopter through the air,” center Tom Nalen said, “as an offensive lineman, that inspired me the rest of the game.”

        Which is what quarterbacks are supposed to do. Listen to Reeves, who as the Falcons coach must try to deny Elway. Reeves, who coached and played with Roger Staubach in Dallas, gave his former quarterback the ultimate Cowboy compliment last week, comparing their competitiveness and intensity.

        Reeves remembered watching Elway scramble, wriggle and jiggle as Reeves would yell, “No. No. No.” Then, “Yes! Yes!”

        “You've got some great players up there — Namath, Staubach, Starr, Aikman - and I think John belongs up there with all those guys,” Reeves said. “I never believed that a guy strictly had to win a Super Bowl to be a great quarterback. John is the complete package ... He would just make plays by natural football instincts, and that is what he got by on a lot early in his career until he started seeing things better and anticipating things.”

        It's funny, because Staubach is in Elway's top three QBs of all time because he was his idol and because he won. The others are Dan Marino and Johnny Unitas. And Elway has been to two more Super Bowls than Staubach, has thrown 16 more touchdowns than Unitas and has as many Pro Bowl nods as Marino (nine).

        But there is open talk here of how Elway's not even the best quarterback in today's game. How he looked old against the Jets in the AFC championship. How he has had more bad games than good ones lately, completing just 27-of-57 passes in this year's two playoff games. How the Falcons are going to play eight men at the line to stop Denver running back Terrell Davis and dare Elway to beat them.

        “I'm not the scrambler and I can't run around and do those type of things that I used to do,” Elway said. “But I think mentally I'm a lot better now and I'm throwing the football probably better than I ever have. I don't think I've lost a lot of arm strength. I can't make the big plays, but I think I'm probably a better quarterback.”

        But his teammates insist he can still make the big play. He did it in the AFC title game, blunting the Jets' momentum with a 47-yard pass out of a broken play.

        What do I need?

        There is enough left that he wouldn't retire because of a lack of skills. He also doesn't see himself as another Michael Jordan with that burning desire to go out on top.

        In fact, another win might make it harder for him to retire.

        “I think the thrill of winning the game is really hard to walk away from,” Elway said as a reason he didn't retire after last season. “That will be a problem if we get a win this year, then I'll probably have the same problem. Hopefully I have to cross that bridge.”

        No team has ever won three straight Super Bowls. Can't you just see Elway going to camp next year, asking, “What do I need?”

        Brister can.

        “I took him fishing for the first time and he asked me what's the biggest fish I ever caught,” Brister said. “I said about eight pounds, eight ounces. He says, "What do I need?' and the next day he goes out and catches a nine-pounder. I'd been fishing there for years. He does it one day. He wants the biggest dang fish.”


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