You expect a throw like this from George Plimpton. Or Garo Yepremian. You do not expect it from a future Hall of Fame quarterback whose name is synonymous with fourth-quarter comebacks.
With the ball on the San Diego Charger three-yard line, just 43 seconds left in regulation and the game in the balance Sunday night, Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway sprinted to his right, cocked his arm and...lost his grip on the ball, which traced a lazy parabola into the arms of San Diego Charger linebacker Junior Seau. The play was ruled a fumble, rather than another interception, of which Elway had already thrown two. But it was this final piece of slapstick that sealed San Diego's 37-34 win and spoiled the unveiling of the new and allegedly improved 1994-model Broncos.
The Denver brain trust had gambled in the off-season, loading up on expensive options for the team's souped-up offense. It added a pair of quicksilver wideouts in Anthony Miller, the former Charger who was signed as a free agent, and Mike Pritchard, who was picked up in a trade with Atlanta. A punishing inside runner, Leonard Russell, was also added as a free agent from the New England Patriots. But the Broncos were less extravagant about upgrading their defense, which was in far greater need of maintenance. After all, Denver had the NFL's second-worst pass defense last season, when the Broncos went 9-7 before crapping out in the first round of the playoffs.
Sure enough, the Denver offense looked potent against the Chargers in the early going. The Broncos scored twice in their first nine plays from scrimmage and led 24-6 before the game was 19 minutes old. Then suddenly the Bronco defense couldn't stop anyone. The Chargers went 81 yards on four plays, culminating in a 47-yard TD pass from Stan Humphries to wideout Shawn Jefferson. Toasted on the play was Ray Crockett, one of two new cornerbacks the Broncos had imported in hopes of improving their pass defense. With the score 24-13 Humphries connected with wideout Mark Seay on a 29-yard scoring pass. No Bronco was within a pooch punt of Seay. You half expected the hospitable Denver defensive backs to come out for the next series with HI, MY NAME is...stickers on their jerseys.
The script called for Elway to come charging to the rescue. Instead, after marching the Broncos 67 yards, he let go an ill-advised throw—"the stupidest I've made since my rookie season," he later estimated—that diving Charger free safety Stanley Richard intercepted at the one-yard line with 12 seconds left in the first half. Richard lay on the ground for an instant, seemingly at a loss for what to do next, before gaining his feet and sprinting 99 yards for the go-ahead score.
That electrifying play was in contrast to the winning touchdown, a ho-hum, one-yarder by Natrone Means, San Diego's Humvee of a running back, with 4:01 remaining. Means's TD capped an 89-yard, 19-play purgatory of a drive in which the Chargers converted five third downs.
For Bronco fans the loss was a painful demonstration that the Denver defense has, at best, remained in place since last year. Before the game Bronco safety Steve Atwater recalled the helplessness he felt in 1993: "Our offense was doing so great, and they'd come off the field, and we'd have this look on our face like, 'Man, I'm sorry, but we can't stop them.' I don't want to have that feeling anymore."
But Atwater & Co. will face offenses far more potent than the one that steamrollered them Sunday night, so the feeling figures to be back.