Perhaps the most amazing part of all his legendary fourth-quarter comebacks was that Elway invariably was limping into and out of the huddle when he performed them. For all his remarkable physical gifts, his durability might be the most impressive part of the package. Elway has missed 17 of a possible 186 starts. He frequently plays hurt because he doesn't know any other way. "And unlike some quarterbacks, he never looks over at the sidelines or up in the stands when he takes a hit, trying to elicit sympathy," says seven-year veteran Hugh Millen, entering his second year as Elway's backup. "He knows it's part of the game. Everyone gets hit. He just gets up and goes back to the huddle. Believe me, his teammates notice that."
Team doctors do, too. Elway runs through his medical history without a hint of self-pity, the way a pro golfer reviews a bad round. "Nine surgeries," he says. "Both shoulders, elbow, foot and five on the knee." Before you offer to throw him over your shoulder and Medi-Vac him to the cafeteria for lunch, Elway adds, "But only one was a real operation—the one on my knee in high school. The rest were just cleanups." He makes it sound like all it took was a little soap and water.
The left knee is the one that worries most Bronco fans. Elway tore his lateral meniscus cartilage during his senior season at Granada Hills (Calif.) High and says he has played without an anterior cruciate ligament since. "You get used to it," he says. "My bad knee is actually more stable than my good knee."
The team might prefer to see him settle into the pocket and not scramble so often this season. Shanahan's new offense calls for quicker drops and shorter pass routes, which, aside from trying to keep Elway in one piece, will give him more opportunity to dispel the notion that he is all bombs and bravado, a macho gunslinger in an increasingly high-tech game.
Unlike Steve Young and Joe Montana, Elway never has been considered a cerebral signal-caller who can work within the precise confines of the offense. He doesn't always make the right decision, and he has been reluctant to throw the safe pass to the secondary receiver underneath. He has one of the strongest arms in the game, and to his way of thinking it isn't there to hang sweatbands on. He wants to use it.
"The rap against me has always been that I can't read coverages and I can't throw the touch passes," says Elway. "Well, we'll see soon enough. As soon as I found out Mike got the job, I was excited. I knew I would get a chance to do the things Steve Young has done in San Francisco."
Elway had worked before with Shanahan, who was an assistant in Denver for seven years (1984-87 and '89-91). In 1985, when the Broncos promoted Shanahan to offensive coordinator, Elway threw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns for the first time, and it was Shanahan who was pulling strings in the background during Elway's three Super Bowl seasons. But back then he was coaching Dan Reeves's conservative offense.
At Mile High last Saturday, Elway got his first real taste of the Broncos' new attack and looked comfortable in a brief appearance. Elway played the first quarter, completing 7 of 12 passes for 73 yards as the Broncos beat the Niners 9-7. From across the field, Young saw no reason why Elway couldn't thrive in Shanahan's offense.
"He's a great quarterback who will flourish in any offense," says Young. "But I think he's going to do well with Mike [Shanahan]. He'll throw fewer long balls, more quick routes, and he'll have a high percentage. As long as his receivers get the timing down and learn the system—and that's not easy—John will be great."
Elway estimates that he had to learn 100 new plays and 400 formations in the first week of camp. The Broncos' two passing playbooks are seven inches thick between them. "I'm just glad I'm getting a chance to learn this offense before my career's over," says Elway. "I've got to be patient and take my time, but this offense will bring out the best in me."