Underrated strong safety Dennis Smith has recharged Denver's dogeared D of '88 with a season even All-Pros fantasize about: two interceptions, one interception caused, a blocked field goal, six passes foiled, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. "It used to be, the runner could come through Door No. 1, Door No. 2 or Door No. 3," says Smith. "If I chose the wrong door, whap, touchdown. Now, I have to squeeze in between our own guys to make a tackle. I like that."
Says new secondary coach Charlie Waters, " Dennis Smith is the best strong safety I've ever seen." And Waters was a strong safety. Maybe what's got into Smith is a fear of being outdone by the surprise of this year's draft, free safety Steve Atwater from Arkansas. Atwater, who leads the team in tackles, is a human supercollider with thighs stolen from Eric Heiden.
Anyway, with that kind of defense, Denver coach Dan Reeves can afford to be—and whisper this around Reeves—conservative with Elway. "Conservative?" says Reeves. "Our offense may be struggling, and our quarterback may be struggling, but it's damn sure not because we've been conservative."
Says Elway, "I threw our bread-and-butter pass play from last year, just a crossing route, for the first time all year [in Denver's 24-21 victory at Seattle on Oct. 22]. For the first time all year! Everything we do now is ball control."
When Elway hasn't been handing off, he's been running for his $2-million-a-year life, as he was Sunday. The offensive line has struggled with new starters at three positions, none of whom could be depended on to get you through Penn Station, much less the Redskins. "Everything we do is quick, quick," says Elway. "I think we've got to start looking for the big play more than we have."
Elway can give you the big play, but he can give you the big oops, too. Since 1987 he has thrown more interceptions (30) than touchdowns (26). He has been wild this year, sometimes outrageously so. On a simple rollout eight-yard pass to fullback Jeff Alexander earlier in the season, Elway unleashed a bullet 10 feet in front of Alexander and another 10 too high. After seven years, Elway is still not familiar with the phrase touch pass.
So if Reeves wants to reel Elway in a little this year, who can throw stones? After the kind of off-season Reeves had, he can use Elway at noseguard if he wants. Reeves fired defensive coordinator Joe Collier. Big uproar in town. He hired Phillips. Joe who? He dropped placekicker Rich Karlis, the town pet, and kept rookie David Treadwell, who made his first 11 kicks. He risked a lawn-burning by cutting adored wide receiver Steve Watson, tackle Dave Stud-dard, safety Mike Harden and running back Gerald Willhite and by gently urging former All-Pro defensive end Rulon Jones to retire. In all, Reeves has replaced half the 22 starters from the team that made its second straight Super Bowl appearance in January 1988. Some people think their replacements might play in Super Bowl XXIV this January. "This team has more talent and enthusiasm than the two Super Bowl teams," says owner Pat Bowlen.
Then Reeves cut himself: He rehired Mike Shanahan to coach Elway, the job Reeves thought he could do himself. Reeves has never let pride elbow out smart. For one thing, unlike Shanahan and Elway, Reeves and Elway have never been spit-in-your-palm pals. Elway and Shanahan remained close during Shanahan's year-and-a-half stint as coach of the L.A. Raiders. Also. Reeves can be impossibly demanding, and Shanahan is a perfect buffer. Besides, Reeves didn't have time to work with Elway. Doing both jobs. Reeves was allowing himself nine minutes for lunch and worked at home into the skinny hours. So in limped Shanahan on Oct. 16, looking grayer and bearing Al Davis's pink slip from the Raiders.
Who can second-guess Reeves's use of Elway? Wins are up from the same point last year. Don't let mistakes kill you in the first half, and if you're behind in the second half, turn the greatest street-ball quarterback in history loose. Watch him scramble the Buffalo Bills crazy for a 28-14 win on the road in Week 2. Watch him flatten Raider safety Vann McElroy into a hash mark while scoring the first touchdown in a 31-21 Bronco victory a week later. Watch him launch four aerial shells in the second half against Seattle for the 15th fourth-quarter comeback win of his career. For one of the worst-rated passers in the league this season, he sure turns up on a lot of highlight shows, doesn't he?
"The frustrating thing is," says Elway, "as good as we are on defense, I know we've got a chance to win it all if we can just get that good on offense."