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Calling His Own Shots
Paul Zimmerman
October 28, 1991
The Broncos' John Elway chose the plays and threw deep to defeat the Chiefs
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October 28, 1991

Calling His Own Shots

The Broncos' John Elway chose the plays and threw deep to defeat the Chiefs

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Yeah, counting Elway.

"One."

When you have a 31-year-old quarterback who still has the rocket in his arm and who has the green light to call most anything he thinks will work, you've got some kind of weapon. It's a throwback to a simpler and happier era. It's Sonny Jurgensen scanning the defense, finding his pigeon and saying, "Yeah, we'll work on him." It's Don Maynard coming back to the huddle and telling Joe Namath, "The cornerback's slow getting out of his backpedal. I can get deep on him." It's the way football used to be played, and oddly enough, Denver coach Dan Reeves, who learned his X's and O's in the Dallas Cowboys' system of total control, was the one to turn his quarterback loose.

"First of all, I wasn't going to let him do it unless I knew he had the capability," says Reeves. "That was a given. We were in training camp, coming off a 5-11 year, and I had a conversation with him. He wasn't having any fun in football. He was dreading every day. I had to find something to get him motivated, to get him excited. So I suggested his calling his own plays. At first he wasn't too excited about it. He said he'd think it over."

Elway wasn't sure he could handle it, so he consulted with a former college coach whose opinion he respected, a man who knew him well—his father, Jack. "There were a lot of things I had to think through," says John. "I didn't want it to become a burden. I called my dad that night. He thought I should give it a shot."

John made his decision between preseason games, as the Broncos were heading into a midweek exhibition in San Francisco. In that game, Elway made his first attempts at calling the shots himself, but he didn't get the ball into the end zone once. "That 49er game wasn't a fair test because we didn't have a game plan," says Reeves. "But the Miami game [12 days later] was more meaningful because we had plenty of time to prepare. I don't think he made a bad call. There wasn't one 'God, why did he do that?' "

The 1990 season had been a bummer for Elway. In November, he publicly accused Reeves of being inflexible in his dealings with players. He said communication between the two of them was nil. "When that happened I started questioning myself," says Reeves. "I said, 'Am I strong-willed?' The answer was yes, but I don't think I was ever in a situation where I didn't listen. You have to be strong-willed to make decisions. But if he felt that way, then something was wrong."

Last year Elway threw fewer touchdown passes (15) than he had at any time since his rookie season of 1983, when he was a part-time starter. "We had pulled in our horns and run the ball and worked the clock when we had a lead," Elway says. "We were worried about not losing games. We didn't stay aggressive."

The difference between last season and this one? Well, after seven games in '90 Elway had only one touchdown pass longer than 29 yards. This year he has three, covering 70, 61 and 52 yards. And that's not counting the 71-yarder against the Chiefs, nor a 40-and a 39-yarder earlier in the game. His completion percentage is about the same (55.3 this year to 55.7 in '90), but his yardage per completion is better (14.1 to 12.8). What's more, his touchdown-to interception ratio is 7 to 2, up from 6 to 6 last year. Best of all, the Broncos are 5-2 instead of 3-4, as they were at this point in '90.

Elway's relationship will Reeves has improved as well. "Its as open now as it's ever been." says Elway. "It's like night and day, not only for me hut for everyone. I'm excited. Coach Reeves has given me total freedom to call the plays, hut he decides on what personnel will be out there. One thing he does call is short yardage, because sometimes it's hard for me to figure out exactly what we need."

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