Dan Reeves figures he has received about 100 letters containing proposals and résumés from professional and amateur psychologists and psychiatrists. They were selling elixirs. One Ph.D. after another wrote, Give me a chance to help your team; you must heal the head before the body.
In the NFL, making it to the Super Bowl is a terrific feat, and the Denver Broncos got there with Reeves as coach in 1987, '88 and '90. But in the U.S., coming up short in a championship test is the mark of a loser, and Denver was beaten in the three Big Ones by 19, 32 and 45 points, respectively.
When we last left the Broncos, two hours after Super Bowl XXIV last January, they were anguishing over a 55-10 blowout at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers. Reeves and his 22-year-old son, Lee, were sobbing in each other's arms. The Elways, quarterback John and wife Janet, were walking the length of the field to the team bus, their hands gripped tightly, while nine persistent paparazzi surrounded them, camera motor drives whirring. Finally, at midfield, a worn John El-way stopped and said, "Can't you let a guy sulk in peace?"
And so we did. The Broncos led fairly normal lives in the off-season, as if they had never been brutalized by the 49ers. A record 42 veterans took part in the four-times-a-week off-season conditioning program at the club's new $8 million training complex south of Denver. Reeves gave a lot of thought to how he would treat the off-season and to what kind of message he would try to get across to his players. He had to work on the negativism swimming in their heads.
"[Former Cleveland cornerback] Han-ford Dixon told me that after we beat them in the playoffs, he had nightmares about losing to us," Denver strong safety Dennis Smith says. "I'm saying, It's just a football game. But then we lose to San Francisco and I had nightmares. I couldn't believe it. I kept dreaming of Jerry Rice catching touchdown after touchdown. No way you can forget that game."
"That game has tormented me," Denver wide receiver Ricky Nattiel says.
How would the Broncos face each other—never mind the opposition—when they came together again in mid-July for training camp? And so, as the mail piled up, Reeves thought to himself, Maybe one of these shrinks can help.
Then he nixed the thought. Hard work was a better idea.
"Part of being a coach is being a psychologist and psychiatrist," Reeves says during a break at training camp in Greeley, Colo. "I thought about having one of those people in. But then I thought, If I bring someone in and we do well, the story will be, 'The Broncos turned to a psychiatrist, and that's why they're winning.' I didn't want any Norman Vincent Peales coming in, not now at least. The secret to coaching is to get players playing to their abilities, and I think that's accomplished by hard work. The team that blocks and tackles the best wins."
Nevertheless, the Broncos realize the value of a psychological lift. Usually the rings designed for the Super Bowl losers are big, with maybe a diamond or two on the face, but not as gaudy as those created for the winners. But the rings presented to Denver's players and staff in mid-July look more like the Wayne Newton variety that Super Bowl winners receive, with three diamonds, signifying the three recent AFC titles, surrounded by 14 diamonds set in the shape of a football.