It came up in chitchat at the training camp of the Denver Broncos. Someone remarked to John Elway that he looked happier this year, and he said, "well, the shoulder's O.K." Shoulder? We knew he had a sore knee last year and that a painful bursa sac was removed from his right elbow after the season. But the shoulder?
"First exhibition game last year," Elway said. "I strained the rotator cuff. I was never 100 percent. I tried to fight through it and blank it out." Really? Nothing was ever written about it. "I didn't tell anybody." said Elway.
He certainly had an off year. For the first time since '85 Elway threw more interceptions than touchdown passes. Tony Dorsett was brought in to bolster the running game, but it ended up 19th in the league. The defense slumped to 22nd. The Broncos suffered their first nonwinning season since 1982.
Then the house fell down. Coach Dan Reeves, who lost his offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan, and two other assistants to the Raiders a year earlier, fired his entire defensive staff. Wade Phillips, formerly Buddy Ryan's defensive coach in Philadelphia, is the new defensive coordinator, and he says his unit will attack and swarm. Every new defensive coordinator says his guys will attack and swarm. Just once I would like to hear one say, "Well, we'll pull back and play more coverages."
The front seven got outmuscled in '88, but the coaches promise big things from second-round draft pick Warren Powers, a defensive end with the kind of size (6'6", 287 pounds) that the Broncos have seldom had. Top draft choice Steve Atwater, a 217-pound defensive back, was expected to beat out 30-year-old strong safety Dennis Smith, but instead Atwater is giving 192-pound Mike Harden a run at free safety. All in all, the defense will have more muscle.
The offense will have bigger guys too. Reeves has never had a big back, but now he has two—6'1", 225-pound Melvin Bratton, who scored 32 touchdowns at Miami before tearing up his knee and sitting out last season, and 232-pound Jeff Alexander, a first-year player who spent last season on injured reserve. The Broncos have a lot of ifs—Elway's return to form, the productivity of Bratton and Alexander, the heftier defense. But it won't take much to win the West.
I keep jotting down little W's and L's for the KANSAS CITY CHIEFS, and keep coming up with a 7-9 record, the same one I get for the Raiders and the Seahawks. So what gives the Chiefs the edge? New coach Marty Schottenheimer, for one thing. In 4� seasons as coach of the Browns he showed that he knew how to put a team together.
I also like Kansas City's assistant coaches. Most of them worked for Schottenheimer in Cleveland. In addition, Al Saunders, who's handling the receivers, is a former head coach of the Chargers, and Tony Dungy, who's in charge of the defensive backs, was Pittsburgh's defensive coordinator last year.
The Chiefs were hapless in '88, with two aging quarterbacks, Steve DeBerg and Bill Kenney, a sporadic running attack and a defense dotted with fine players—nosetackle Bill Maas, linebacker Dino Hackett, most of the secondary—who had trouble staying healthy. Another aging quarterback, 38-year-old Ron Jaworski, will start, which means K.C. is just trying to get through the season. Second-round pick Mike Elkins isn't ready to take over.
The stabilizing influence in the ground attack could be 37-year-old Mike Webster, who joined the team to coach but decided he could help more at center. Though he missed most of camp in a contract dispute, linebacker Derrick Thomas, the No. 1 draft choice, could light up a defense that finished third from the bottom in sacks last year. Things are improving, but the Chiefs are still two drafts away.