If Elway was growing tired and jaded after the Broncos went 7-9 last season, Bowlen knew how to inject new life into his franchise quarterback. He fired Wade Phillips after two seasons and brought in Shanahan, who was more than just an offensive whiz. He was a close friend of Elway's. The two have played golf together, although, like most people who tee off with Elway, Shanahan gets plenty of strokes.
"John had his best years when Mike was coaching him," says Reeves, now the head man with the New York Giants. "Mike knew how to get the most out of him. There was a respect between the two guys that's obviously still there today."
Elway appreciated Shanahan even more when Shanahan went out and hired some help on the other side of the ball. For all the attention Elway and the new offense have received, the team's biggest holes were on defense. The Broncos had no draft picks in the first three rounds, but Shanahan acquired a stable of veteran free agents, including former Cleveland Brown tackles Michael Dean Perry and James Jones. Shanahan also is pursuing free agent cornerback Deion Sanders, whom he took to lunch when Sanders was in town with the Cincinnati Reds in June.
On offense the Broncos are hoping that tight end Shannon Sharpe can play on bad ankles and that an adequate tailback emerges from a dubious field. It may seem like a rebuilding season, but there is no such thing as long as Elway is around. "I don't know if John will admit it, but he's really excited about this season," says Sharpe. "He thinks this team can win a championship, and he knows this might be his last chance to get one."
It almost seems silly to ask the question: Is time running out on John Elway? Does it ever? Elway made a living and created a legend by beating the clock. He will not be remembered as the greatest quarterback ever, but when the subject turns to clutch performers, Elway goes to the top of the list.
Elway has led Denver to 34 come-from-behind scoring drives in the fourth quarter. The Broncos have put the winning points on the board with less than two minutes to play 15 times since he took over. As long as he is limping back into the huddle, the Broncos have a chance. "If Number 7 is up under center," says Sharpe, "we feel like we're going to win."
Sharpe is heading into his sixth season with the Broncos, and he has never been to a Super Bowl. Elway is one of only three players on the roster who were with Denver for the Super Bowl losses in '87, '88 and '90, and those disappointments are among the reasons he says he is still around. He has two years remaining on a four-year, $19.3 million contract. He has a beautiful family, seven thriving car dealerships and a microscopic handicap. He is still the man with everything, the Golden Boy with the golden touch, but he is getting greedy in his old age. He wants one more thing before he limps away forever.
"There's such a stigma about the guys who've never won it," says Elway. "It's not fair, but I know that's the way it is. I would love another chance. You could say that's why I'm here. I want to retire a champion."
The most exciting young quarterback in NFL history is growing old. Time is running out on John Elway. You might want to pull up a chair one last time. This could be good.