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Rick Reilly
December 12, 1988
The Raiders edged the Broncos to create a logjam in the AFC's mild mild West
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December 12, 1988

A Trio At The Top

The Raiders edged the Broncos to create a logjam in the AFC's mild mild West

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Look at it from Shanahan's side. He was allowed to hire only two of his 12 assistants. Here, son, the car is all yours tonight. Mind if I drive? And now that staff has shown signs of coming un-sprung like a cereal-box watch. Offensive coordinator Tom Walsh is reportedly ready to quit because Shanahan changes so many of the plays that Walsh calls from the press box. Linebacker coach Sam Gruneisen wants the head job at UNLV, and defensive backfield coach Willy Brown yearns for the one at Grambling. Not only that, but after a critical blitz backfired near the end of a 38-35 loss to the Houston Oilers on Sept. 11, Davis had to be talked out of firing two defensive coaches, including the coordinator, Charlie Sumner.

Then again, look at it from Davis's point of view. He gave Shanahan a Learjet—three Heisman Trophy winners ( Tim Brown, Bo Jackson and Marcus Allen), plus Schroeder, plus Gault, James Lofton and Swervin' Mervyn Fernandez—and Shanahan uses it to taxi down to the 7-Eleven. Los Angeles has the league's worst pass-completion percentage (42.8%) of the 1980s. Attendance is paltry—this season the Raiders have drawn three of their eight worst crowds since moving to L.A.—and the franchise could lose $7 million this season alone.

True, Brown has been a sensation—was Gale Sayers this exciting as a rookie? But Gault has only two catches in his last seven games. One pass was thrown his way on Sunday, and it was incomplete. Nobody is catching many balls except Brown, who has 38 receptions. Even tight end Todd Christensen, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since Oct. 2, was taken out of the offense. He had only 11 catches.

Denver has had more than the usual snippiness, too. There was talk from Elway that the team is "burnt out" after two long Super Bowl seasons. And for a guy who has rushed for only 617 yards and four touchdowns, Dorsett sure keeps getting mentioned a lot. Before the Broncos-Colts game on Oct. 31, Elway told the press in Indianapolis that maybe coach Dan Reeves was letting the tail wag the dog. "We've gone away from what made us successful to give Tony the football," said Elway. "We're running the ball in some situations where we would have thrown it last year." Elway also wondered what happened to Denver's shotgun, the one that helped the Broncos go 8-2 from the day they installed it last year.

Says Dorsett, "Since Indianapolis, I've only carried the ball in double figures, what, twice? I don't know where the ball is going, but it sure ain't into 33's arms, unless I'm missing something." On Sunday he rushed five times for 18 yards.

So add "feuding with teammates" to the other rumors that have surfaced about Elway this year. One of the most popular is that he has been overweight. (Actually, he has been within three pounds of 215, his normal playing weight, all season.) Another theory is that he has had marital difficulties; this was supported by a Los Angeles Herald Examiner story claiming that Elway was at a striptease bar on his birthday. (In fact, he was at his parents' house.)

The truth is, Elway has been the same off the field as he has always been. On the field, he hasn't been himself. He has completed fewer passes for fewer touchdowns and thrown more interceptions than last year. The source of his trouble, he said, has been his right shoulder, which he injured throwing an exhibition-game bomb about 70 yards. "Three weeks ago was the first time I felt real good all year," said Elway. "It took me that long before I got the confidence to turn it loose again."

So why not tell somebody? "Because it would have sounded like an excuse." Yeah, a good one.

But Elway's shoulder wasn't hurting when he threw his worst pass of the year. With the Broncos trailing the Raiders 14-0 with 5� minutes to go in the third quarter on Sunday, he was starting to cut up the L.A. secondary like a six-foot-three Veg-O-Matic. Then, with the ball on the Raider eight, he lofted a sloppy little pass toward running back Steve Sewell into the right flat. Townsend, who has been getting plenty of playing time since Howie Long sat down with an injured calf four weeks ago, stepped in front of Sewell and "looked it into my hands, just like a receiver." He took off on an 86-yard touchdown sprint.

Townsend had returned a fumble for a touchdown against Seattle on the previous Sunday night. With two TDs this season Townsend has more than Lofton, Gault and Christensen put together. Davis must have been grinding his molars. You pay millions for Heisman Trophy winners, and who keeps scoring your touchdowns? A 250-pound lummox.

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