Elway has done some thinking about the Drive in recent days and feels that as stunning as the march was, it was "the magnitude of the game" that made the event so exceptional—plus the fact that 60 million people were watching on TV. But in truth, Elway has been pulling off similar feats for as long as he has been playing football.
"In 1984 we were 13 and 3, and John must have pulled out five or six games in the final two minutes," says Reeves. Elway himself recalls the Stanford—Ohio State game his senior year as being a big comeback win for him. Down 20-16 with 98 seconds to go, Elway led the Cardinal on an 80-yard drive that ended when he scrambled and threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Emile Harry for a 23-20 victory.
Indeed, the Drive confirmed that Elway is, with Dan Marino, one of the two best come-from-behind QBs in the game. Elway has never produced the sparkling across-the-board stats of other premier NFL quarterbacks, mainly because he doesn't get fired up until the game is on the line. Last year he led the NFL in total offense with 4,144 yards, but his completion rate was only 54% and he threw more interceptions (23) than touchdowns (22). This year he completed 55.6% of his passes for 3,485 yards and 19 TDs, but his quarterback rating was only 79.0, 11th-best in the NFL. In the playoffs his rating is a lowly 65.2 (50% completion rate, two touchdowns, three interceptions), while Broncos opponents have a 90.8 rating. But guess who's going to the Super Bowl.
"I have no idea why we have to wait so long to get going," says Elway in genuine dismay. "We just have a quiet confidence when things are tough. But I wish we could have that killer instinct from minute one. I think what happens to me is that in tight situations I stop worrying about turnovers. There is no pressure. I can just cut it loose."
At practice last week, inside the canvas bubble at the Broncos' headquarters in Denver, Elway started to unleash a long pass to wide receiver Vance Johnson, then let up ever so slightly, releasing the ball at less than full force. The bubble is only 70 yards long, and Elway admitted later he didn't want to lead Johnson smack into the far wall.
Jack Elway, now the coach at Stanford, advised his son years ago never to just "turn your arm loose," for fear of injuring it, and John never has. Still, the quarterback estimates he could throw a football 85 yards. And a baseball? "I think I could throw one out of the Stanford ballpark," says Elway. "It's 335 feet down the line. Everybody has their own security thing. Mine is my arm. I have great confidence in it."
His cannon arm was a shock to Denver receivers when he first arrived in the NFL. "His ball was harder than anything I'd ever felt," recalls veteran wideout Steve Watson, adding that Elway now has better touch on his passes than he did at the beginning. "Most of the time when he guns one in there, it needs to be gunned."
"There is no question John can be the greatest two-minute quarterback ever," says Reeves. "He's got that arm, and the point of a two-minute attack is that everybody in the world knows you're going to throw, and your arm is strong enough to do it, anyway."
The other factor, of course, is that Elway can run. Indeed, he started his football career as a running back in the fifth grade. "That's what I wanted to be," he recalls. "I was always the fastest kid in my class. Then in the seventh grade I started growing and my speed went. That's when I became a quarterback."
At Stanford, Elway had to sprint for his life. With the Broncos he loves to run, to make other teams miss and pound the turf in disgust. He is Denver's alltime leader for backs in average gain per carry (4.8), and he has led AFC quarterbacks in rushing for the last three years—stats he is most proud of.