He is the real John Denver, living his life on a Colorado Rocky
Mountain high. John Elway has seven car dealerships in the Mile
High City, leading-man features ("Brad Pitt with bigger teeth,"
says one female journalist) and days like this: On April 16
Elway was on the 17th hole at the Cherry Hills Country Club in
Englewood, Colo., when he stopped play to make a call on his
cellular phone. He checked in with Broncos headquarters, where
the final touches on his new contract were being put in place.
The team wondered if its quarterback could swing by to sign the
five-year, $29.5 million deal, which would make him,
temporarily, the NFL's highest-paid player.
"Let me just finish my round," replied Elway. He then proceeded
to eagle the 491-yard par-5 18th. Talk about hitting the green.
Elway, 36, has long been the franchise in Denver, and not just
because owner Pat Bowlen has spent nearly as much on his
quarterback ($65.2 million) as he did to buy the Broncos ($70
million). Last year Elway directed the AFC's top-rated offense
while leading the conference in passing yardage (3,970). He also
threw a career-high 26 TD passes, including one fourth-quarter
strike in a 31-28 Christmas Eve win over the Raiders, knocking
archenemy Oakland out of the playoff race. It was a career year
for the man who Bowlen says is "by far the greatest player ever
to play here and probably will be for a long, long time." So how
come Denver finished in a three-way tie for last place in the
AFC West with Oakland and Seattle?
The Broncos' 8-8 season is difficult to fathom. With boyish
first-year coach Mike Shanahan, Bowlen obtained a whiz-kid
offensive mind. With tailback Terrell Davis, the 196th pick in
the draft, Shanahan quarried perhaps the most sparkling rookie
gem of '95. Davis, who attended the same high school as Kansas
City's Marcus Allen (Lincoln Prep in San Diego), rushed for
1,117 yards and caught 49 passes, both better first-year numbers
than Allen put up with the Raiders in '82. With wide receiver
Anthony Miller the Broncos got 14 TD catches, which tied the
team record. And with new offensive line coach Alex Gibbs--who,
by the way, never played offensive line in his life--Denver
forged a blocking bunch that cut its sacks-allowed total from 55
in '94 to 26. Notice that all those people play or coach on
July 31, 1996
"We lacked depth on the defensive side of the ball last year,"
says Shanahan, "and we've taken steps to address that."
Depth? Talent was also lacking. So when Denver starts the
season, expect three new starters on a defensive unit that
ranked 15th in the league last year. From the state of
Pennsylvania the Broncos recruited two linebackers: first-round
draft pick John Mobley from Division II Kutztown and former
Eagle Bill Romanowski, who made the pivotal stop on last year's
most thoroughly debated fourth-and-one call. Both will start
alongside third-year man Allen Aldridge. Defensive end Simon
Fletcher, who led the team in sacks in seven of the last eight
years, has retired. Shanahan had pined for free agent Leslie
O'Neal, even going so far as having Elway take the former
Chargers end out to lunch. That must have been an odd date:
Funny, Leslie, I've been in your arms many times before, but
we've never really talked. Denver could not afford the nine-year
veteran--who ultimately signed a $9.5 million deal with the
Rams--so the team opted for the younger, cheaper Alfred
Williams, a journeyman lineman who played his college ball in
Pro Bowl return man Glyn Milburn wanted to play on artificial
turf (the Broncos worked out a deal with Detroit for a pair of
draft choices), so Denver picked up Baltimore Stallions scatback
Mike Pringle, the CFL Most Outstanding Player last season. By
the way, Mobley, an agile 6'1", 230-pound hunk, ran back punts
at minicamp and may see return action on special teams this
fall. "I call him Big Slash," says Shanahan.
All the same, the most breathtaking return took place in Denver
this year when Elway, fresh off the 18th green and still wearing
his Foot-Joy cleats and a dea baseball cap, announced that he
would be coming back as the team's QB. Only a year ago local
pundits, many of whom were advocating an Elway trade to
jump-start a new era of Broncos football, might have suggested
that those letters stood for "Dump Elway Already." Not anymore.
How about "Denver's Elway's Always"?
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 124.7 (5) 252.8 (7) 377.5 (3)
DEFENSE 118.4 (23) 206.1 (9) 324.6 (15)
A Great First Impression
Terrell Davis was the 21st of 25 running backs selected in the
'95 draft. But by season's end, only Davis, Chicago's Rashaan
Salaam and New England's Curtis Martin had gained 1,000 rushing
yards. Davis became only the second player drafted as low as the
sixth round to run for 1,000 yards as a rookie. In fact, only
four players drafted that low have gained as many as 900 rushing
yards in their first year.
Best Rushing Seasons by Players Drafted in Sixth Round or Lower
Draft Year Round Rush Yds.
Don Woods, Chargers 1974 6th* 1,162
Terrell Davis, Broncos 1995 6th 1,117
Boobie Clark, Bengals 1973 12th 988
Johnny Johnson, Cardinals 1990 7th 926
*drafted by Packers
PLAYER TO WATCH
Last year Detron Smith carried the ball 15 times for just 19
yards at Texas A&M. So why did the Broncos use their third-round
pick on the 5'10", 234-pound back? "Detron is the best blocking
fullback I've ever seen coming out of college," says coach Mike
Shanahan. Fullback Aaron Craver is actually better suited to
understudy Terrell Davis at tailback, so Smith will start
immediately. The 22-year-old runs a 4.59 40 and bench-presses
462.5 pounds. Says media relations director Jim Saccomano, "In
terms of forces, we expect Detron to be more of a proton than a
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Head coach: Mike Shanahan
QB John Elway 542 att. 316 comp. 58.3% 3,970 yds. 26TDs
14 int. 86.4 rtg.
RB Terrell Davis 237 att. 1,117 yds. 7 TDs
FB Detron Smith (R)[**] 15 att. 19 yds. 0 TDs
TE Shannon Sharpe 63 rec. 756 yds. 4 TDs
WR Anthony Miller 59 rec. 1,079 yds. 14 TDs
WR Mike Sherrard[**] 44 rec. 577 yds. 4 TDs
WR Ed McCaffrey 39 rec. 477 yds. 2 TDs
LT Gary Zimmerman 6'6" 294 lbs.
LG Mark Schlereth 6'3" 278 lbs.
C Tom Nalen 6'3" 280 lbs.
RG Brian Habib 6'7" 299 lbs.
RT Broderick Thompson 6'5" 295 lbs.
PK Jason Elam 39/39 XPs 31/38 FGs
LE Dan Williams 2 sacks 0 fum. rec.
LT James Jones 1 sack 2 fum. rec.
RT Michael Dean Perry 6 sacks 0 fum. rec.
RE Alfred Williams[**] 4 1/2 sacks 1 fum. rec.
OLB Bill Romanowski[**] 1 sack 2 int.
MLB Allen Aldridge 1 1/2 sacks 1 fum. rec
OLB John Mobley (R)[**] 4 sacks 5 int.
CB Ray Crockett 0 int. 3 sacks
SS Tyrone Braxton 2 int. 0 sacks
FS Steve Atwater 3 int. 0 sacks
CB Lionel Washington 0 int. 0 sacks
P Brian Gragert (R)[**] 40 punts 45.2 avg.
PR Mike Pringle*[**] 0 ret. N.A.
KR Mike Pringle*[**] 13 ret. 24.6 avg.
* CFL statistics
[**] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)