Sometimes you can tell a lot about a football team by the way it practices. One afternoon last week, as the Denver Broncos prepared for Sunday's road game against the Seattle Seahawks, they were obviously trying to find some way to right themselves after an 0-4 start.
Denver coach Wade Phillips, whose job was hanging by a chin strap, had been preaching that everybody needed to do that little bit extra to win. And so at the Wednesday practice, when the kick-return unit was going through its paces, the man at the end of the line for the scout team, right next to practice-squadder Tom Nalen, was quarterback John Elway. He sprinted downfield and threw a block at linebacker Richard Harvey. "Never seen a superstar do that before," Phillips said.
In two of Denver's losses Elway had lost his grip and thrown a costly errant pass on Denver's final play, so early in this practice assistant head coach-offensive coordinator Jim Fassel could be heard yelling, "Wet-ball drill! Wet-ball drill!" Two footballs wrapped in wet towels came in from the sideline, and Elway and his backups threw the sodden balls to their receivers for 10 minutes.
Later, Phillips, who used to be the Broncos' defensive coordinator, did some hands-on coaching of the defense. After Denver's 27-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 26, the Bronco defense was yielding a league-high 34.3 points a game. Phillips, who had taken the unit from defensive coordinator Charlie Waters, presided over the switch from a 4-3 defense to one combining the elements of the 4-3 and the 3-4.
And in the wake of a run of injuries. Phillips showed a gallows-humor side in mid-practice. "Hey, did you hear we set a record today?" he said to Denver personnel director Bob Ferguson. "We had our 15th surgery of the year."
But of all the nutty things to happen to the Broncos this season, none has been nuttier than this: Elway, the Hall of Fame shoo-in, has the best supporting cast he's ever had on offense, and until Sunday, Denver was winless. A 16-9 victory over the Seahawks was salve for the wounded Broncos, but Denver is still 1-4 with a harrowing stretch of division contenders—the Kansas City Chiefs, the San Diego Chargers and the Cleveland Browns—looming the next three weeks. Amazingly, the defense carried the Broncos in Seattle, but the offense continued to be mystifyingly inept. For example, Elway, the $4.7 million-a-year quarterback and his frustrated $2.6 million-a-year receiver, Anthony Miller, did not connect on a single pass.
Over the last two off-seasons no other team has attacked the new free-agent market with the gusto of the Broncos. And yet no other team has been stung more by it. Denver hit the salary cap without filling all of its needs, especially on defense. And its high-priced offensive acquisitions have not given it the explosiveness it had hoped for.
The pressure to reverse this season's downward spiral has fallen squarely on three men: Elway, Phillips and Bronco owner Pat Bowlen.
Elway lost his customary cool momentarily during a conversation a few days before the game against the Seahawks. How in the world, he was asked, could Denver be 0-4? "Look," he replied, "I make no personnel decisions. People think, well, this is John Elway's team, and that means it's John Elway's fault. I don't make any decisions. I'm a cog in the machine."