Reeves, Shanahan meet again

ESPN analysis: Super Bowl breakdown

Reams of Reeves questions

Falcons embrace underdog role

Broncos favored over Birds? You bet

Murphy: Super letdown

Falcons in Super Bowl? You read right

Broncos leave nowhere to run

  Wednesday, Jan. 20 10:10pm ET
Checking the checkered past of Elway and Reeves
By Clay Latimer, Scripps Howard News Service

It certainly won't be a circle of friends, but when Dan Reeves, John Elway, Mike Shanahan and Pat Bowlen convene in Miami, their -- shall we say -- unique relationship will have come full circle.

  John Elway
 John Elway clashed often with Dan Reeves during their 10 seasons together.

Sixteen years ago, Reeves brought Elway into the NFL. Fifteen years ago, Reeves brought Shanahan into the NFL, and Bowlen bought the Denver Broncos.

Eight years ago, Reeves fired Shanahan. Seven years ago, with Elway's prodding, Bowlen fired Reeves. Four years ago, Bowlen hired Shanahan as head coach.

Two years ago, Reeves took over the Atlanta Falcons, one of the league's longtime laughingstocks. And, 11 days from now, Reeves' Falcons will play the Elway-Shanahan-Bowlen Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII.

"What a strange irony," said Broncos safety Tyrone Braxton, who played during the Reeves regime.

And what a strange history.

In 1983, Elway and Reeves were each other's meal ticket. Yet they were on a collision course from the start.

"They were both very accomplished, very talented, very confident about what they're doing and the way they're doing it," former Broncos fullback Reggie Rivers said. "I'm sure that contributed to the fact they clashed heads.

"They both believed so strongly that the way they were doing things was the right way."

Not that their differences weren't real.

Elway was the California Golden Boy in 1983, blessed with peerless brilliance and an epic future. Reeves, from a small, Southern town, battled an early illness, battled to get a college scholarship, battled to survive in the NFL as an undrafted free agent, battled to get a foothold as a football coach.

  " "I told him we're bad for each other. We're both impatient. We made a pact after that game. I told him I'd remind him to be patient if he'd remind me."  "
Dan Reeves

Then he battled with Elway, although for a few weeks in 1983 it appeared everything would go smoothly. In his NFL debut, Elway took over for Steve DeBerg during the fourth quarter of a preseason game against Seattle and rallied Denver to a comeback victory. It rocked the city and transformed Elway into a starter.

But Reeves benched the rookie in Week 5, made him the starter again in Week 10 -- when DeBerg injured a shoulder -- and then reached the limit of his patience during a Nov. 27 game in San Diego.

Late in the first half, Elway and Reeves selected a play during a timeout, then talked it over at length. But Elway forgot to put the receiver in proper position when he set the formation, and his pass was intercepted. Reeves and Elway raged at each other on the sideline.

"He got mad. I got mad," Elway said. "When you're struggling, you don't want to hear how bad you're doing."

A few days later, Elway and Reeves met in the coach's office.

"I told him we're bad for each other," Reeves said. "We're both impatient. We made a pact after that game. I told him I'd remind him to be patient if he'd remind me."

Elway finished his first NFL season with a flourish, rallying his team to a fourth-quarter comeback victory over the Baltimore Colts. But he was stunned when he learned DeBerg would be the starting quarterback in the Broncos' AFC divisional playoff game at Seattle.

After a 31-7 loss to the Seahawks, Elway checked out of his worst nightmare and hurried home to California.

"At one point," said his wife, Janet, "he talked to me about forgetting pro football and becoming an assistant for his father (Jack). I don't think deep down he was serious. But I knew he thought about it."

It was different in Elway's second training camp. DeBerg was gone, having been traded to Tampa Bay to become Steve Young's backup. And Shanahan had arrived, with a blueprint for Elway's future.

In 1984, Shanahan served as Denver's receivers' coach and, in 1985, as its offensive coordinator. In reality, he was Elway's guru.

In fact, it's no coincidence that when Shanahan was an assistant coach, Elway won the AFC Championship Game three times, played in three Super Bowls and compiled all but 13 of his 41 comebacks.

"Mike knew how to get the best out of him," Reeves conceded. "There was just a respect there that's obviously still there. When John was at a critical moment in his career, along came Mike at the right time."

Despite his differences with Elway, Reeves was quick to defend his quarterback. After the Super Bowl XXIV flameout against San Francisco in January 1990, both Terry Bradshaw and 49ers defensive back Tim McKyer said Elway couldn't read defenses.

"One of these days," Reeves said, "the weight that's on his shoulders will be lifted off him."

Of course, that day came last January, after Reeves was long gone.

In the '70s, Reeves had been regarded as the creative mind behind the Cowboys' sleek offense. But by the '90s, to Elway he seemed rigid, unimaginative and staid.

Only once during the Reeves regime had Elway thrown as many as 20 touchdown passes in a season. Average quarterbacks routinely did that. He hadn't surpassed 4,000 yards nor averaged more than two 300-yard games a season. A Hall of Fame official told a Broncos official it would be "a shame for posterity's sake if John Elway never had the chance to play for a team that emphasized passing."

Added Elway: "If I hadn't stepped up to a better system, who knows what my numbers would've been."

After eight years of worn-out arguments, Elway detonated a bomb in 1990 when he told a columnist players considered Reeves aloof, autocratic and inflexible. And that he and Reeves rarely spoke.

"I was totally blind-sided," Reeves countered. "I didn't see anything wrong."

After Elway's Big Vent, Reeves gave his quarterback the input he craved.

The following season, Elway expanded his control, even participating in Tuesday strategy sessions. But as the season progressed, Elway's role diminished.

Eventually, Reeves regained almost total control of the play-calling. By season's end, he was sending in plays almost exclusively, much as before. The Broncos advanced to the 1991 AFC Championship Game, where they lost 10-7 to the Buffalo Bills.

During the offseason, Elway presented Reeves with a wish list: offensive linemen and big-play receivers. That angered Denver's offensive linemen, and perhaps Reeves, who proceeded to draft UCLA quarterback Tommy Maddox instead of Tennessee wide receiver Carl Pickens with a first-round pick.

The troubles didn't end there. In another move that hurt and humiliated Elway, Reeves fired Shanahan, who was not only Elway's confidante but his connection with the passing game.

Reeves even discussed a trade with Washington coach Joe Gibbs that would have sent Elway to the Redskins in 1991. Reeves insisted Gibbs had broached the idea, but Bowlen quickly squashed the idea.

In 1992, in an ironic twist, Reeves went down when Elway went down. On what seemed like a routine hit, on a 9-yard run during a 27-13 victory over the New York Giants, Elway bruised a tendon in his right shoulder. At the time, the Broncos had a 7-3 record and appeared on track for another playoff run. But Elway missed the next four games, and neither Maddox nor Shawn Moore could salvage a single victory. In fact, their poor play made it clear the Broncos, who finished 8-8, were a one-man band.

"It became obvious to me that we had a situation where if we lost our quarterback, our franchise player, we would have trouble beating anybody," said Bowlen, who also believed Reeves had excessive control. "Probably somewhere in the back of my head was the idea that John has maybe four or five more seasons left, and we had to give him the opportunity to win the big one."

Elway insisted he had no input on decision-making. Later, Bowlen said, "Certainly (Reeves') relationship with John wasn't the greatest, and I think it's fair to say John's future was in question if Dan had stayed."

What would have happened if Elway had stayed healthy in 1992 and the Broncos had made another Super Bowl run? Bowlen later admitted he probably would have given Reeves a new contract, one that probably would've extended for the remainder of the Elway years.

Clay Latimer writes for Rocky Mountain News in Denver.

Copyright 1995-98 ESPN/Starwave Partners d/b/a ESPN Internet Ventures. All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or redistribute in any form. Privacy Policy (Updated 01/08/98). Use of this site signifies your agreement to the Terms of Service (Updated 01/12/98).