Monday, January 31, 2011

Elway's Redemption

Since the Packers are going to play in this weekend's Super Bowl, it seems only fitting to reflect a little on the career of the only quarterback to defeat Green Bay in one — John Elway.

I was never really sure how I felt about Elway the football player, but I know I didn't care much for him as a person through most of his playing career.

In a way, I guess, I felt that he was an elitist, a pretty boy, that he had always had things handed to him — and, when it wasn't handed to him, he pitched a fit until he got his way.

Put it all together, I suppose my conclusion was that he was overrated.

That wasn't fair, but consider my reasoning:
  • He played his college ball for Stanford, one of the most prestigious private research universities in the nation.

  • He was the #1 draft pick in 1983, but he didn't want to play for the team that picked him — the Baltimore Colts — so he was traded to Denver.

    He had lobbied for that trade, and the Colts capitulated.

  • Many players have to toil for years in the NFL before they make it to a Super Bowl. Some never make it at all.

    Others are far more fortunate. They get that far early and often in their careers, and Elway was one of them. He played in three Super Bowls before he was 30.
But he lost all three, and each loss was more spectacular than the one before.

Elway's first Super Bowl was against the New York Giants after he had led the Broncos in "The Drive," an epic 98–yard, game–tying drive in the fourth quarter of the AFC Championship game.

The margin of that Super Bowl was crushing (19 points), but the truth was that, of the two starting quarterbacks who played in that game, Phil Simms of New York was much better than Elway. How could anyone conclude otherwise? Simms completed nearly 90% of his passes.

You could debate which one had the better career — but, on that day, it was no contest.

But that was nothing compared to what awaited Elway and the Broncos the following year.

Denver actually jumped to a 10–0 lead in the first quarter, but the wheels came off in the second quarter as the Washington Redskins scored five unanswered touchdowns and went on to win the game by 32 points.

Once again, it was another quarterback who had the better day by far — Doug Williams of the Redskins.

Denver didn't return to the Super Bowl the next year, but the Broncos were back the year after that. I remember thinking during those playoffs that, if Elway did return to the Super Bowl, it couldn't possibly be any worse for him on that day than it had been against the Giants and the Redskins.

But I was wrong — because waiting for Elway and the Broncos was none other than the juggernaut of the 1980s, the San Francisco 49ers and their all–everything quarterback, Joe Montana.

Montana surgically took apart the Broncos and handed them the worst Super Bowl setback ever.

I remember watching that game and actually admiring Elway's gumption.

Have you ever noticed how some players cease to become factors in the game when something goes wrong? On that day, I saw several Broncos who seemed to check out mentally as the avalanche began.

Many of them had been through those losses to the Giants and Redskins, and they were conditioned for defeat on the big stage. When signs of it seemed to be popping up, they accepted their fate.

That isn't how Elway was wired.

Long after it was clear to just about anyone who had eyes to see that the game was done, he was giving everything he had — as if the Broncos still had a chance to win.

By that time, I had mostly given up on the game and I remember watching the commercials with a lot more interest. An ongoing commercial theme that day centered on a small town in Alaska. The residents of the town, as I recall, had been divided into 49ers supporters and Broncos supporters by McDonald's, which had promised special prices on its hamburgers to the winners.

It was all a gimmick, of course, intended to promote temporary hamburger prices. But there was nothing temporary about the wandering in the wilderness that Elway and the Broncos did for the next eight years.

I am not a Broncos fan, and, I must admit, I seldom gave Elway much thought in those years. But, when I did, I tended to wonder if he would ever return to a Super Bowl.

He came close a few times. But he didn't return until Jan. 25, 1998, when he was 37 years old and everyone watching the game knew he was nearing the end of his career.

Elway had quite a challenge facing him that day — the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, who were led by one of the younger breed of quarterbacks in the NFL.

Elway was part of the old guard, and this, many people felt, might be his last chance. He was determined not to waste it, and he showed his desire on a scamper near the end zone late in the game. He didn't score on the play, but he got the first down, and the Broncos went on to score shortly thereafter — and won the game.

(Ain't it funny how things turn out? That wasn't Elway's last Super Bowl after all. But it did turn out to be the last one for that young gunslinger for the Packers, Brett Favre.)

Elway returned to the Super Bowl the following year, leading Denver to another triumph, securing his only Super Bowl MVP Award and capping a memorable career. He retired a few months later, leaving behind a considerable legacy.

In addition to his many single–season and career achievements:
  • He is the only quarterback to start in five Super Bowls.

  • He is one of only two men to score rushing touchdowns in four different Super Bowls.

  • And Elway, who was 38 years old when he played in the 1999 Super Bowl, holds the record for being the oldest quarterback to win one.
I probably wouldn't have said this when he was still playing, but he showed me a lot during his career.

He showed me that he was more than a pretty boy. He was a talented quarterback who wanted to win but didn't always have all the weapons he needed.

I don't think Elway was the greatest quarterback ever to play the game. There are a few others I would pick before I would pick him.

But he deserves to be mentioned in the conversation.

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