The Players are quick to remind you that it's still a pro football camp. "Lost six pounds yesterday," says Dennis Smith, a Denver Bronco safety. "Not Club Med," adds Dave Widell, a tackle, who had worked on the quote all day. The idea that Greeley, Colo., the Broncos' training site 60 miles northeast of Denver, has become some kind of Mile High Esalen, a touchy-feely retreat where players' emotions are explored and nurtured, just naturally rubs them wrong. "Practice is practice," says veteran linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. "It's hard."
And yet...it's different. Dan Reeves, who coached the Broncos to three Super Bowls in his 12 seasons in Denver, is gone. The notoriously autocratic Reeves, the kind of guy who would send a player to bed without supper, was let go in December after the Broncos finished 8-8. He then signed on to coach the New York Giants. In his place, sort of, is Wade Phillips, a longtime assistant with Denver and three other teams before that, whose idea of discipline is to toss a rubber chicken into a locker room and whose only pre-game speech—occasioned when Reeves underwent heart surgery two years ago—began, "I guess I could tell you to go out and win so I can drive a nice German car."
"Is it different?" asks quarterback John Elway. "Well, for one thing, it wasn't much of a day at camp last year if there weren't at least five or six fights. There's not all that tension out there this year, the fear for jobs. There's none of that intimidation."
There is no Dan Reeves. It is almost impossible to overstate the players' relief as the season begins. Reeves certainly left Denver with their respect; the players all preface their comments about him with variations on the "He did win 100-some games" theme. But he didn't leave them with many regrets over his departure. In Reeves's absence the Bronco camp is now like the summer sky over the Colorado plains: calm and sunny, with only an occasional gathering cloud or a rare thunderbolt of recrimination.
Elway, extraordinarily calm and sunny this summer, unleashed one of those bolts last week. Asked why his smile was especially toothy (besides the fact that he had signed a four-year, $20 million contract in the off-season), Elway said it was a matter of his emancipation. "The last three years have been hell," he said. "I know that I would not have been back here if Dan Reeves had been here. It wasn't worth it to me. I didn't enjoy it. It wasn't any fun, and I got tired of working with him."
With very little news being produced in the first week of NFL training camps, Elway's remarks passed for a bombshell. Even the normally taciturn Reeves seemed to want a part in the feudin' fun. "Just tell him," Reeves said from the Giants' camp in Madison, N.J., "it wasn't exactly heaven for me, either. One of these days I hope he grows up. Maybe he'll mature sometime."
Like all of the past feuds between the two men, this one was left to simmer. Elway later said he stood by his comments but that he regretted them—somewhat. "Every year I say something stupid," he said. "This year I've gotten it out of the way early."
But most of his teammates were saying much the same thing about Reeves, without creating the same sensation. Even players who liked Reeves admitted that the camp atmosphere was refreshingly relaxed now. With Reeves gone, they seemed shocked to realize that they had been working in a state of hysteria during his tenure. There was a certain look of surprise on their faces: You mean our jobs weren't really day to day?
Center Keith Kartz, who says he got along great with Reeves, was initially skeptical about the coaching change. "I mean," he said, "he did win 100-some games." Yet now that he's allowed to look back, Kartz recognizes the Reeves era as being comically uptight. "Everybody was scared to death, especially the coaches, all last year," he says. "It just got old, them jumping your ass over nothing. We'd be in a meeting, and Dan would say, 'I don't have this film,' and four coaches would jump up."
Smith, who had only been with Reeves for 12 seasons, was so worn down by insecurity that he wondered if he could make it to a 13th. "There were times I thought I was week to week," says Smith, who has been to the Pro Bowl live times. "You didn't need to be humiliated. Nobody wanted to come to work, there was so much fear. That's how Dan worked you, out of fear. You could lose one game and be made to feel you'd lost six in a row and your job was on the line. It's just so much better that he's gone."