Elway finished last year with four wide-outs—Arthur Marshall, Derek Russell, Kitrick Taylor and Cedric Tillman—who have been released or traded a total of 12 times in their careers. In the off-season the Broncos acquired Miller, who went to four Pro Bowls while with the Chargers, and Mike Pritchard, who had 201 catches in three seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. Yet Denver has averaged nearly two fewer points a game than last season.
What is even more significant is that in his 12th season Elway, the master of The Drive, has come up short in the clutch. In the first game of the season, with the Broncos trailing San Diego 37-34 with 43 seconds left, and with a second-and-goal from the Charger three, Elway rolled to his right and picked out a receiver in the end zone. But as he threw the ball, it slipped from his grip, went straight up and then fell like a wounded duck. San Diego linebacker Junior Seau recovered the fumble, and Denver was 0-1. The next week, with Denver losing 22-19 to the New York Jets late in the fourth quarter, Elway brought the Broncs to the Jet 12, but he could not get them into the end zone. Denver settled for a field goal, lost the overtime coin flip and never touched the ball again. The Broncos were 0-2.
The following Sunday, Elway was respectable, but everyone else was awful in a 48-16 loss to the Los Angeles Raiders. Then against the Bills, with Denver trailing 27-20, Elway had a fourth-and-two at the Buffalo four with 25 seconds remaining. Under pressure, Elway launched a pass into the end zone that sailed five feet over Tillman's head.
Elway gutted out the win in Seattle, banging his right thumb on a Seahawk helmet on the second series of the game and playing with a bad bruise the rest of the day. His 15-for-29, 146-yard day was far off his standard, but it did the job. "That wasn't a monkey on our back," he said. "It was a 500-pound gorilla. Now I don't have to wake up to the clock radio telling me about the 0-4 Broncos."
Yet Elway and Fassel still have some explaining to do. Why spend a mint on Miller and send him on pass routes to nowhere? Elway didn't throw to Miller for the first 26 minutes of the Seattle game and wound up passing to him only five times in 29 attempts on the day. After the game Miller was frustrated. "I'm the person who caught 84 passes last year, and now I've caught 12 in five games," he said. "I've been the man in any offense I've been in, but now, because I'm not seeing the ball much, when it comes my way I'm startled."
On Sept. 16, Phillips's father-in-law died of a heart attack. On Sept. 18, while coming off the field at Mile High Stadium after the Raider debacle, Phillips was pelted with debris. On Sept. 19, three Denver newspaper columnists called for Phillips to go. On Sept. 23, Phillips attended his son Wesley's junior varsity football game—the boy threw three interceptions—and then joined the youngsters at a McDonald's after the game. "Hey, coach," said a fellow diner, "you probably haven't heard about Mike Pritchard yet."
"What are you talking about?" Phillips asked.
"He's in the hospital with a ruptured kidney or something," the guy said.
That afternoon at practice Pritchard had dived for a pass and landed with the ball beneath him. That night Pritchard was admitted to a hospital with internal hemorrhaging from a lacerated kidney. The Broncos don't know when he'll return to action. Then on Sept. 26, in Buffalo, running back Rod Bernstine, another $1.8 million weight on the Broncos' salary cap, was lost for the year with a knee injury. On Sept. 29, Phillips's wife, Laurie, stepped in a hole and broke her foot.