Elway also threw his share of unearthly fastballs, including a 46-yard touchdown strike to Sharpe on Denver's second play from scrimmage and a 41-yarder to wideout Anthony Miller in the third quarter that set up the Broncos' final touchdown. Elway was eating up yardage so quickly that even the chain gang couldn't keep up with him: An official timeout was necessitated in the first quarter when the first-down markers became entangled after a 31-yard completion to Miller.
The Chiefs, now 5-3, were equally crossed up. "We were all geared up to stop the running game," defensive end Neil Smith said after the loss, "but John came out and jumped on our ass. The guy is unbelievable."
This was supposed to be the game in which Smith, who has struggled this season, would regain the form that has earned him five consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl. On the Monday before the game he was pulled aside by defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham, who criticized Smith's run defense and said, "I need you to play better." All week Smith and Kansas City's other pass-rushing star, linebacker Derrick Thomas, prodded each other to turn up their intensity, fueling their ardor with some statements allegedly made by Denver offensive line coach Alex Gibbs, who held a similar position with the Chiefs in 1993 and '94.
Smith insists that after Gibbs left K.C. he privately referred to Thomas as "soft" and to Smith as a derogatory term that is a profane synonym for wimp. No one knows whether Gibbs said these things—as the architect of the season-long media boycott by the Broncos' offensive linemen, he does not talk to reporters—but the Chiefs milked it for all it was worth. "Hey, soft!" Smith would yell to Thomas, who would invariably respond by calling Smith by Gibbs's alleged descriptive. This made Smith grumpy; it was as if that 1-800-COLLECT commercial in which Thomas riles up Smith had come to life. "People love that ad," Smith said last Thursday while eating some tasty shrimp étouffée at Copeland's of New Orleans, the restaurant he recently opened in Overland Park, Kans. "Before our first game this season, my voice mail was filled up with people calling me collect: men, women and children."
It's funny how these motivational myths get circulated. Last Friday, as Smith, Thomas and several other K.C. defensive players watched film of Elway, they spoke of an alleged taunt made by San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau during the Broncos' 28-17 victory over the Chargers on Oct. 6. It's a taunt Elway says he doesn't recall, but it's worth noting that the Broncos did rally from a 17-0 deficit to win that game. "Junior knocked John down early on and told him, 'Hey, old man, you ain't got it no more,' " Smith said. "John got pissed and started kicking ass. The best thing to do is just say nothing to John. If he smiles at you, smile back and help him up."
Neither Smith nor anyone else had a chance to oblige Elway on Sunday because the Chiefs never knocked him down. He even emerged unscathed from his headlong flops. "I've always felt more protected going headfirst; it's the hardest part of my body, after all," Elway said. "Pete Rose would have been proud."
Elway's head fared better than that of Shanahan, who was drenched by his first career Gatorade bath, courtesy of free safety Steve Atwater and defensive end Alfred Williams. The Broncos, with 1,047 yards in their past two games, have the NFL's top-rated offense, and shouldn't we all have seen this coming? Shanahan, who coordinated the 49ers' record-breaking attack during their Super Bowl season two years ago, confounded the Chiefs with a five-receiver set that helped Sharpe (six catches, 99 yards) thrive despite near-constant double coverage.
Even more impressive than Shanahan's game plans has been the ease with which he has transformed the Broncos into a hard-nosed, no-nonsense outfit. Despite his cherubic face and slight build, Shanahan is a demanding leader who doesn't have to scream to get his point across. "Mike has brought a different attitude here," Sharpe says. "When you look at Mike you don't necessarily think of someone being tough. He doesn't cuss and throw things, but when he says something, you listen."
Shanahan has attempted to replicate the winning atmosphere he was a part of under coach George Seifert in San Francisco, right down to the annual training-camp fishing derby. "He's even acquiring a small streak of George's superstition," Sherrard says. "The week after the [first] Kansas City game we skipped our Hail Mary drill at the end of the Saturday practice, and we won the next day. We don't run the Hail Mary drill anymore."
Denver owner Pat Bowlen lauds Shanahan, who has control over personnel decisions, for acquiring good citizens like free agents Williams and linebacker Bill Romanowski and 1996 first-round draft choice John Mobley, an outside linebacker who is expected to become a pass-rushing sensation. "Mike's really a new breed of coach," Bowlen says. "People laugh at the chemistry thing, but I've really seen it make a difference here."