Garber: Man with the plan

The kinder, gentler Dan Reeves

Focal Point: Reeves vs. Shanahan

Reeves now lovin' life

Backstage at the Super Bowl

Checking the checkered past

Reeves, Shanahan meet again

Sunday Conversation with Dan Reeves

Sunday Conversation with Mike Shanahan

  Wednesday, Jan. 27 10:06pm ET
Elway insists Reeves split did him well
By David Kull,

MIAMI -- If he's heading toward retirement -- as most expect after Super Bowl XXXIII -- John Elway is seeing his football life come full circle.

 John Elway
 Just as they were in 1988, John Elway and Dan Reeves are back on the Super Bowl stage together.

A matchup with former Broncos coach Dan Reeves, now leading the Atlanta Falcons, has forced Elway to confront the past while answering questions about a future that's either undecided or just unannounced.

Elway has flashed back to the beginning of his career, the part involving Reeves, his first NFL coach. He has remembered the conflicts the two had, and rehashed them over and over again this week. He has recalled countless moments in their testy 10-year working relationship that included "The Drive" and three Super Bowl appearances, but no NFL titles.

And now, there's Elway's final saga, the one with Mike Shanahan leading the Broncos. Elway has deemed Shanahan's four seasons as head coach the most fruitful of his career, highlighted by two consecutive trips to the Super Bowl and one career-defining triumph.

One era was "hell," as Elway once called the Reeves years, and the other something closer to heaven. While choosing his words more carefully now, Elway still managed to fuel the feud between Reeves and Shanahan. He has spoken openly about how he's flourished in Shanahan's offensive system.

"I think the numbers back that up rather convincingly," Elway said. "There's no question that I've been better off since Mike's been in (Denver). I've been playing much better the last six years (four under Shanahan, two under Wade Phillips) than I did the previous 10." The numbers do support Elway's claim. His offensive numbers have improved since Reeves' departure after the 1992 season, but not solely based on Shanahan's brilliant play-calling and penchant for exposing weaknesses in opposing defenses.

Other than Shanahan's coaching expertise, there are four primary reasons explaining Elway's elevated play during the Shanahan years:

  • Terrell Davis. Elway never played with a running back quite like Davis under Reeves. During the three Super Bowl appearances in the Reeves era, the leading rushers were Sammy Winder in 1986 (789 yards), Winder again in 1987 (741 yards), and Bobby Humphrey in 1989 (1,151 yards).

    Even Elway gives ample credit to Davis, who has posted the three best rushing seasons in Bronco history over the last three years, capped by his 2,008-yard performance this year. Davis, the NFL's Most Valuable Player, has balanced the offense and taken much of the burden off the shoulders of Denver's 16-year quarterback.

        Reeves Shanahan
      Years 10 4
      Pro Bowls 4 3
      TD passes/game 1.1 1.7
      Yds/game 210 227.8
      Comp/game 16.5 18.5
      Att/game 30.1 31.6
      Super Bowls 3 2
      Comebacks 31 13
      Note: Elway's numbers don't include two seasons he played under Wade Phillips.

    "He's the most complete player I've been around at the running back position," Shanahan said.

  • An improved offensive line. The Broncos' line lost All-Pro tackle Gary Zimmerman to retirement after last season, but the group allowed only 25 sacks in the 1998 regular season, the lowest mark in team history.

    In fact, during Shanahan's four seasons, the offensive line has allowed an average of 1.8 sacks per game. Under Reeves, the line was more porous. Elway was dropped an average of 2.6 times per game, and three times the line gave up more than 50 sacks.

  • A Sharpe tight end. Anyone remember Clarence Kay? What about Orson Mobley? Those were the two tight ends who went to the Super Bowl with Elway during the Broncos' three Super Bowl defeats in the Reeves era.

    Now there's Shannon Sharpe, an eight-time Pro Bowler who gives Elway a dangerous third receiver on every play. Sharpe led the Broncos in receptions for six consecutive years before finishing tied for second this season with Ed McCaffrey at 64. Neither Kay nor Mobley caught more than 31 passes in the Super Bowl years.

    And if you ask Sharpe, he's among the best tight ends of all-time.

    "I'd like to think I'm one of the best," Sharpe said. "I'll put my numbers up there with anyone."

  • Experience. At 38, Elway has not only mastered the intricacies of reading defenses and finding the open receiver on any given play. He also has learned that his deteriorating leg speed can no longer guarantee first downs when he's scrambling away from pressure like it once could during his younger, more nimble years.

    "When I was younger I relied so much on my physical abilities to make plays," Elway said.

    He picks and chooses his opportunities to run the ball more judiciously than ever before. Elway realizes he has a cast of players around him who can make plays. And as Falcons defensive coordinator Rich Brooks knows well from watching plenty of Bronco game film, Elway has the good judgment to deliver the ball to his playmakers.

    "He's just a lot smarter quarterback than he was with experience and reading coverages," Brooks said. "You're not going to give him something he hasn't seen. You might have been able to confuse him a little bit early in his career, as you do most young quarterbacks. But you don't any more.

    "The most dangerous thing he does right now is when they go to (an empty backfield). He gets back there in the shotgun, they snap him the ball, and they've got all those receivers running routes. We have to try to contain him He has the ability to try to contain him, because he'll pull it down and run it on you, especially in the big game."

    He did it to the Packers last year on a courageous run for a first down late in the third quarter to spark the Broncos' Super Bowl win. And he could do it again Sunday, punctuating his career with a Super Bowl repeat against the coach, Reeves, who was there when it all started.

    "He was great to coach, and I thought he was a great quarterback," Reeves said. "When you coach somebody as long as I coached John, you realize what a great quarterback he is and was."

    And always will be, regardless of his coach.

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