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1 - Denver Broncos
Having finally won the big game, the Broncos faced a big question. The answer they got augurs well for another successful season
"Everyone is saying I can go out now and have fun and relax, and that's the biggest pile of b.s. I've ever heard," he says. "A farewell tour? I don't think so. Like I'm going to go to other stadiums and they'll cheer for me? It'll be, 'Let's all join together and kill him one more time.'"
When the legendary quarterback announced on June 1 that he had elected to subject himself to a final season of punishment, the air pressure over the Rocky Mountains eased as if a major storm had blown over. That sigh of relief you heard above all others emanated from Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who had just been spared the prospect of defending a Super Bowl title with Bubby Brister as his quarterback.
Elway did his share of exhaling as well. From the moment the Broncos defeated the Packers 31-24 to win Super Bowl XXXII last January, Elway was asked the Question by reporters, teammates, friends, family members, an endless stream of well-meaning Denver fans and, not least, Shanahan, whose plans for free agency and the draft were more than a little dependent on Elway's answer.
When Elway agreed to come back, it changed everything for a Broncos team that also kept the rest of its championship roster virtually intactand, as a result, should be very much in the title hunt this season. Previous Super Bowl winners of the salary-cap era were decimated by free-agency defectors, but only two Denver starters went elsewhere: guard Brian Habib (to Seattle) and linebacker Allen Aldridge (to Detroit). Left tackle Gary Zimmerman, one of the NFL's elite players over the last 12 seasons, announced his retirement for the second straight year but was reportedly coaxed back into the fold by Elway.
As ambivalent as Elway himself was about returning, he swears his last hurrah will not be halfhearted. "I thought about whether quitting would be in the back of my mind," he says. "I said to myself, 'If you're gonna make the decision, make it 100 percent, because it's not like you can coast through an NFL season.'"
From all indications this summer, Elway's hyper-competitive drive has not waned. "No, because he's put the John Elway mystique at such a high level, and he doesn't want it to slip," All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe says. "He doesn't want to be like another quarterback who came into the league when he didI won't name names, but he's a guy in the south part of the United Stateswho's no longer the player that he was." (That comment just might find its way onto the locker room wall of Dan Marino's Dolphins, who host Denver on Dec. 21.)
The Broncos' major upheaval will come next year, when, for the first time since 1982, they will look to someone other than Elway to provide stability at quarterback. Following a legend has its headachesjust ask Steve Youngbut with Shanahan's inventive game plans and All-Pro halfback Terrell Davis signed through the 2006 season, this is one of the plum jobs in sports.
It's also possible that the 36-year-old Brister could take over as a short-term starter, but if neither Griese nor Lewis emerges with haste, Shanahan is likely to go shopping for a free-agent signal-caller.
"It's unusual how quickly Brian has picked up our system, and I've been impressed with the way he has handled himself and with the way he has thrown," Shanahan says. "But this is a year-by-year game now, and you really don't know what you have at quarterback until he's thrown into a situation where there's some pressure."
Speaking of pressure, Shanahan hasn't given up hope of persuading the 38-year-old Elway to return in '99. "He's already trying," Elway says, "but it's not gonna work this time."
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