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It wasn't much of a play. Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway looked for wide receiver Mike Young down the left side, saw nothing there and threw the ball away. Then Elway did see something: Kevin Ross, the Kansas City Chiefs' right cornerback, was limping back upheld. As Elway walked to the huddle, his mental computer went to work.
In the previous series, Elway had thought he had a completion to wideout Ricky Nattiel in the flat, but Ross had jumped on Nattiel quickly and made a good play on the ball. Ross usually comes up fast, but now there was something wrong with him and it might be tough for him to change direction. Then there was free safety Deron Cherry, who was backing up Ross. In a spot like this, third-and-two at the K.C. 22-yard line with time running out in the first half, Cherry is used to seeing crossing routes from the Broncos. "He hadn't seen a deep corner route from us," Elway said after the game.
In the huddle he called that play, on his own, because, you see, Elway is one of the few NFL quarterbacks today who is allowed the luxury of calling his own game—most of it, anyway. He called for rookie Derek Russell, Denver's third wideout, to run a deep corner route down the left side, and the pass was perfect. Russell was wide open, and the Broncos had the game's first touchdown in what had been a 6-6 slugfest. Ross and Cherry were left looking at each other. What the hell had happened?
When it was over on Sunday, after the Broncos beat the Chiefs 19-16 at Mile High Stadium to move atop the AFC West, Elway was asked if the scenario surrounding the touchdown play would have worked under the old system: coordinator in the booth phoning plays to a coach on the sideline, and the coach signaling it to the quarterback on the field. "No way," said Elway. "They wouldn't have picked up all the stuff that I saw soon enough."
In the fourth quarter, Denver packed a lot of people close to the line and did a good job of stopping the bull-like rushes of 260-pound Christian Okoye. But the Chiefs came back with high-stepping rookie Harvey Williams, their first-round draft choice. And when Williams wasn't slicing through the Broncos, 37-year-old Steve DeBerg, who was courageously hanging in the pocket until the last possible second and taking some ferocious hits, kept K.C.'s drives alive with passes underneath the coverage.
After Kansas City tied the game 16—all on a 14-yard touchdown run by Williams with 5:40 remaining, the Denver defense was nearly exhausted. The Chiefs had run 35 second-half plays to the Broncos' 15. Denver, with Elway subjected to a merciless rush, had managed only three points since intermission, and when linebacker Derrick Thomas and defensive end Bill Maas sacked him, the Broncos were facing third-and-17 on their own 13.
"I had called 'scramble right wing-7,' " said Elway later. " Mark Jackson starts across the field from the left side and then breaks back outside. Ross was out of the game [sprained ankle], and the guy who was in for him, number 40 [free-agent cornerback Billy Bell], was overplaying Mark on the cross. I'm sure he hadn't seen that wing-7 before. But Mark didn't hear the call, and I wound up getting sacked. So I called it again. It's a long throw. I'm throwing from sideline to sideline and about 40 yards downfield. I mean I really had to hump it. It's probably been a couple of years since I threw that pass. I know I didn't throw it last year."
The play was vintage Elway—scramble right, plant, set the feet, turn the shoulders and wing it deep, deep. My god, how can he throw it that far? Elway was on his own eight when he unloaded. Jackson caught the ball on the other side of the field, at the K.C. 49, and made it down to the 16. The play covered 71 yards and set up the winning field goal, a 27-yarder by David Treadwell with 2:37 left.
In the press box one chap with a flair for figures reached for his calculator and figured out how far the pass had traveled—43 yards downfield, 43 yards across the field. Square each of them, add the figures, take the square root and you've got a 61-yard pass. "How many quarterbacks in the NFL could be accurate that deep?" Denver linebacker Karl Mecklenburg was asked afterward.
"You mean, counting Elway?" said Mecklenburg.