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'I'M ABOUT TO SUFFOCATE'
Rick Reilly
November 06, 1989
As the biggest sports star in Denver, John Elway has always been subject to intense scrutiny. But this year is different
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November 06, 1989

'i'm About To Suffocate'

As the biggest sports star in Denver, John Elway has always been subject to intense scrutiny. But this year is different

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Them Thar Hills of Colorado are full of happy campers this time of year, but Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway is not one of them. Everywhere he goes, he's the roast of the town. "They talk about my hair," he says. "They talk about my teeth, how much I tip, how much I drink, how I'm playing, when I'll talk to the media. I'm sick of it."

In his seventh year in Denver, Elway is starting to itch. He says he feels like a big fish in a very small pond. "And I'm running out of water," he says. "I'm about to suffocate."

With Elway's poor season last year—he ranked 18th among NFL quarterbacks—and his erratic first half in '89. some people, even outside Denver, have been trying to saw the legs off his throne. Before the Eagles defeated the Broncos on Sunday. 28-24. Philadelphia coach Buddy Ryan said what some folks have been thinking—that Elway is not the shiniest model on the showroom floor anymore. "People used to compare Randall Cunningham to John Elway," said Ryan. "Now they compare Elway to Randall."

Elway could only shrug at the remark. "Just another day in Beat Up John Elway Week." he said.

What's wrong with this picture is that Elway's team has been kicking gluteus for most of this year. Despite losing to Philly. the Broncos are 6-2 and two games up on the rest of the AFC West. Denver's only other defeat. 16-13 to the Browns, came amid a fourth-quarter shower of dog biscuits, eggs, rocks and batteries from the litterati in the Cleveland Dawg Pound on Oct. 1. The referee made the Broncos change end zones for the team's own protection. Later, with the wind then behind them, the Browns kicked a 48-yard field goal to win the game.

Elway's day Sunday was almost as schizophrenic as his season—overthrowing wide-open receivers by five yards one moment, then dropping a spiral, sidearm, over the fingernails of two Eagles and into the arms of some stunned Bronco the next. He had 19 completions, 20 misses, eight overthrows, three flagrantly wide balls, two drops, three interceptions, four miracles, seven sacks, two TDs by air, one by land and 278 yards—all while wearing the Eagle pass rush like an overcoat.

But if Elway is this unhappy at 6-2, imagine what he would be like at 2-6. "I don't want to sound like a crybaby, so I don't talk about it," he says. "But it's just gotten to be too much lately. I'm just torn up inside right now."

Would he like to be traded? "I don't know." Would he like to quit? "I don't know." How much more is he willing to take? "Not much." Would he like to pull a Steve Carlton and not talk? "Yeah, but nobody in this organization would let me do it." Would he like to leave town? "We bought a place in Palm Springs, and we're going to get away more often now."

This is a guy who is 60-30-1 as a starter; among active quarterbacks, only San Francisco's Joe Montana has won more games. However, the stats don't stop there. They also show that he ranks 24th this season among NFL quarterbacks. That he has thrown for 200 or more yards only three times this year. (He did it 10 times last season.) That he has only nine touchdown passes in '89. along with 11 interceptions, and has completed only 50.4% of his throws, down from his career percentage of 54.3.

All of which leads us to another problem. To Bronco fans, Ferraris don't blow gaskets and Elways don't have bad years, so they hunt for character flaws. "Just because I don't have the numbers this year, they start talking about the other stuff," he says. Some of the shots get pretty cheap.

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