He might now be the Player Formerly Known as Elway. His bothersome right hamstring takes three weeks instead of three days to heal. And the mantle of most indispensible player in Denver now rests squarely on the shoulders of Terrell Davis. But no athlete is more beloved by his teammates, coaches, fans and rivals than Broncos quarterback John Elway. The latest proof came during Denver's position meetings on the eve of Sunday's AFC Championship Game with the New York Jets.
"Tomorrow may be John Elway's last game at Mile High Stadium," special teams coach Rick Dennison told his troops. "I want to make sure that everyone in this room does everything he can to make sure this is a great day, a special day, for John."
A half hour later, Elway's best friend in football, Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, turned off the overhead projector, which displayed the script of Denver's first 15 plays against the Jets, and flipped on the lights. "I don't know if this is Seven's last game," Kubiak said, referring to Elway's jersey number. "He won't tell me. But we all know how special this man is. I've witnessed a lot of ass-kickings he's directed in this stadium. Let's make tomorrow the biggest ass-kicking Seven's ever had."
As it turned out Denver's 23-10 victory was more of a Texas Death Match, with a lot of bizarre twists thrown in. The high-powered Broncos were shut out for the first 34 minutes. The Jets committed six turnovers. A New York rookie who hadn't played since Oct. 25 blocked a punt. Denver inadvertently pulled off a 39-yard onside kick. Elway wound up completing 38% of his passes.
It wasn't a game you would have put in a time capsule, but you would have wanted to bottle the raw emotion at Mile High. When Broncos coach Mike Shanahan told Elway that the plan was to introduce the defensive starters during pregame festivities and then send him onto the field to be recognized, Elway protested. "I might start crying," he said. They compromised. After the defensive players were announced, the captains of the offense and the special teams were introduced, with Elway coming out last. The roar that greeted him as he ran onto the field made the ground shake.
At halftime, after Elway had completed just four of 14 throws, his longtime agent, Marvin Demoff, found John's wife, Janet, in her luxury box, worried sick that a premonition she had had about her husband was coming true. "Her greatest fear," Demoff said, "was that his last game at home—assuming it was his last game—wouldn't go well. She saw it happening."
After the game, over the public address system, Elway screamed to the 75,482 on hand, "I love you!" In the southwest corner of the stadium, streaks of the blue-and-orange Broncos insignia on a twentysomething woman's cheek ran down her neck because she couldn't hold back her tears. "John!" she shouted. "Please stay!" When John met Janet and their four kids on the field, all of them were either crying or close to it. "I saw them," John said after the media throng had left him, "and then I teared up."
The emotion of the day almost worked against the Broncos. They were too mile high. Also, the Jets, who might have won but for their inability to hold on to the ball, were clearly better than Denver thought. The night before the game, Shanahan's final words to the Broncos included these: "You guys know we can dominate any team we play.... I'm so sick and tired of hearing what a great defense they have. Our defense will show what a great defense is."
Well, he was right about his defense. During their seven-game winning streak leading up to the AFC title game, the Jets scored an average of 29.6 points. They pride themselves on creating confusion with their offensive schemes, a dramatic change in philosophy for veteran coach Bill Parcells. When his New York Giants won the Super Bowl 13 years ago, Parcells used an offensive playbook that looked like Cliffs Notes compared to the encyclopedia the Jets lug around. "We've charted them in 63 formations," said Tennessee Oilers coach Jeff Fisher, whose team came out on the short end of a 24-3 score on Nov. 22. "The average team might have 35 in a season." In their AFC divisional playoff win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Jets ran their 77 plays from 38 formations and sent a man in motion on 54 snaps. It's amazing that a team with a new center (Kevin Mawae), a new quarterback (Vinny Testaverde) and a new running back (Curtis Martin) ran such a complex offense with such precision. "Which goes to show you Parcells is a coach of the 1990s," Denver free safety Steve Atwater said last Friday. "He adapts to the talent he's got."
"Watching tape of the Jets, I saw it all," said Broncos strong safety Tyrone Braxton. "One back with Keith Byars spread wide. Five receivers in every combination. Motion everywhere. And I think to myself, This is a Bill Parcells offense? What's going on here?"