The NFC's 13-year stranglehold was broken by a Broncos running game that turned the Packers' defense into Swiss cheese and gave John Elway his long-awaited ring.
January 25, 1998
By Paul Attner, The Sporting News
Originally printed in The Sporting News, Feburary 2, 1998
Maybe if Mike Shanahan didn't have
such a special relationship with John
Elway, the Broncos still would be pursuing their first Super Bowl victory.
Maybe if Shanahan didn't feel the urgency to win before Elway became too
old, he would not have gambled so much with veteran free agents, risking the
long-term future of the franchise for an extraordinary short-term goal.
Maybe if Shanahan hadn't felt the humiliation of three earlier Broncos
losses in the Super Bowl -- defeats brought about in large part because of
the team's inability to run efficiently, losses that ripped into his
quarterback's gut -- he wouldn't have concentrated so diligently on building
an offensive line that could run-block far better than any in the team's
Maybe. But it would be foolish to
dismiss the role the past misery felt by
Shanahan and Elway in those Super Bowls contributed to the Broncos'
exhilarating 31-24 Super Bowl triumph over the Packers on Sunday in San
Diego. Now the misery has been turned into the delight that only can be felt
by a franchise and a city that have lived so long with the nightmare of four
searing defeats in this game. Now they can savor the results of one of the
greatest Super Bowls.
"To win this means more to
Elway than anyone I have ever seen," Hall of Fame
quarterback Sonny Jurgensen says. "I just hope he doesn't do backflips when
he gets home."
Elway understands. "It feels
two times better than anything I could have
imagined," he gushed afterward.
More than anyone, Shanahan -- who
was on the offensive staff during Elway's
previous title-game failures and was fired by then-coach Dan Reeves after
the 1991 season because of a too-close relationship with Elway -- knew how
little time he had to surround his quarterback with the proper cast before
his star retired. More than anyone, Shanahan knew it was essential to
sprinkle his offensive and defensive units with veteran players who could
provide stability as well as a talent boost so the Broncos would never again
wilt under playoff pressure. More than anyone, Shanahan understood how he
had to accelerate the growth of gifted running back Terrell Davis in order
to give Elway the one more chance he needed to grab a ring.
This is an old Broncos team, a
team made possible by free agency, a team
that, because of its age and salary-cap problems, could be looking at a
one-year run as champions. It is a team that could be without Elway next
season, because when he sits down in separate meetings with Shanahan and his
family this offseason, they all should conclude that he should leave while
he is healthy and on top. But none of that really matters right now to
Shanahan or Elway, who played this season with a ruptured biceps tendon in
his throwing arm.
The coach desperately wanted to
erase the stigma of losing from his
quarterback's otherwise-sensational accomplishments -- and the victory in
Super Bowl XXXII does just that. Elway already had won more regular-season
games than any quarterback in NFL history, but it took this one to give his
career its true significance.
"I have wiped the slate
clean," says Elway -- and he has. He has for
himself, for the AFC, which no longer is burdened by a 13-game championship
losing streak, and for the quarterback class of 1983, which was 0-9 in the
Super Bowl before Sunday.
But the irony in the triumph is
this: In finally winning a Super Bowl, the
Broncos also showed this is no longer John Elway's team. It now belongs to
It is a change that Elway welcomes. Only with that transition from a
quarterback trying to win games on his wiles to a running back who could
combine with an offensive line to wear out defenses and make opponents play
honest defensive schemes could this victory have become possible.
"If John ever got in trouble
doing things (in games), it was because
everything was always written that the Broncos will go as John Elway goes,"
says Giants coach Jim Fassel, once Elway's offensive coordinator in Denver.
"I don't care who you are or how great a player you are, if you carry that
burden into the game, sometimes you are going to take unnecessary risks that
might blow up. As long as he just plays within the framework and allows
other players to do their jobs, he can raise the whole team's level of play.
And that's what they have done, because they have a good overall team and
he's just a part of it."
Elway played a role in the
triumph, but it was minor compared with Davis and
the line. Indeed, Elway's statistics are incredibly modest: 12-of-22 passes
for 123 yards, no touchdown passes, one touchdown run, one interception. He
only flashed his signature flair. A couple of key scrambles, a 36-yard pass
to Ed McCaffrey during an essential scoring drive, a few decent audible
calls. But otherwise, this was nothing like those three previous Super
Bowls, in which he threw a total of 101 passes to try to bail out a rushing
game that could gain only 213 yards. Yet, he also did not lose it for the
Broncos; he made only one bad play, a pass intercepted in the Green Bay end
zone after a Packers turnover late in the third quarter, cutting short a
great opportunity for Denver to all but ensure the victory.
He spent most of his time watching
as Davis, blessed with stunning cutback
instincts and instant acceleration, sprinted through holes opened by his
quick line. Davis shrugged off the onset of a migraine headache to
accumulate 157 yards on 30 carries as the Broncos outrushed the Packers,
179-95, only the second time the AFC has outrushed the NFC in the last 14
Winning a Super Bowl does not take some magic formula. Teams must be able to
run, can't turn it over frequently and must be able to score in the 20s, but
the AFC could not match those standards in its Super Bowl failures. The
Broncos, especially, had never been able to rush well enough to establish
balance or score enough points to be competitive. But in this game, relying
on a veteran offensive unit featuring eight starters 29 or older, Shanahan
was able to carve out the precise scheme needed to beat the Packers. It was
NFC power ball being employed, finally, by an AFC team.
It is no accident that Davis ran
30 times, or that he set a league record
for most carries in a season, including four postseason games. Maybe all
this work will eventually shorten Davis' career and prevent him from
achieving the accomplishments that seem so much within his grasp. But this
is not a team or a coach concerned about future seasons. Shanahan knew he
had the runner and the line this season to not only dominate defenses but
also relieve Elway of the vast pressure he had felt for so many years as the
standard-bearer of the franchise. At 37, Elway is no longer capable of
winning this kind of contest without considerable help. That was shown
vividly in the second quarter, when Davis was sucking in oxygen on the
sideline and the Broncos couldn't gain a yard on the ground and the Packers
closed a 17-7 deficit to 17-14. Elway seemed helpless in that period,
stripped of Davis' run support.
"They didn't do anything
really that we hadn't seen on tape," Packers
defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur says. "But in the last three games,
their offensive line was playing as well as I had seen anyone play all year.
They push you to one direction or another and then he reads and cuts into a
hole. If your guys are not up the field enough, he gets by you. We had been
playing very well against the rush in the playoffs, and I thought we would
do better against them."
The Packers thought they could do
better, period. They had the Super Bowl
experience, the hot quarterback, the NFC prestige, a defense that hadn't
given up a touchdown pass in 31 quarters and a defensive front that was
bigger and supposedly stronger than the Broncos' offensive line. But Brett
Favre did not play particularly well, forcing passes and being unable to
consistently burn the Broncos when they blitzed him and left their
cornerbacks in man coverage. He threw for three touchdowns but was never
consistent enough to wrestle control of the game from the Broncos. He needed
to play exceptionally well so his defensive brethren could rest long enough
to combat Davis' forays. And he didn't.
"We threw a little bit of
everything at him," Broncos defensive coordinator
Greg Robinson said about his game plan against Favre. "We brought the
kitchen sink. We blitzed, we bulldogged, we covered them. They got hot for a
while, and late in the third quarter and the fourth quarter, I began to
wonder how we were going to be able to pull the thing off. But we had to
roll the dice by blitzing so much. We got burned a little, but for the most
part, we were able to keep them off-balance."
Of course, Favre didn't help
himself with his early turnovers. After
directing the Packers to a 76-yard scoring drive to open the game, which
Elway and Davis matched on the Broncos' opening possession, Favre threw an
interception against a blitz and then fumbled when hit by safety Steve
Atwater on another blitz. The Broncos turned those mistakes into 10 points
and although the Packers eventually tied it at 17 in the third (and then at
24 in the fourth), Green Bay was never able to regain the lead. This early
deficit stripped them of their bravado and kept them tentative. Coach Mike
Holmgren felt that the energy they expended coming back reduced their
ability to rally one last time after the Broncos had gone up, 31-24, with
Favre then drove the Packers to
the Denver 31. On fourth-and-6, the Broncos
went after him one last time. He unloaded a quick pass for tight end Mark
Chmura, but it was off-target. Elway gleefully joined his teammates in
celebration, waving his arms and jumping frantically. Favre said he wanted
to find his peer and congratulate him but couldn't get through the crowd.<
"I'm happy for him," says Favre, who does a terrific impression of Elway's
throwing style, so good in fact that even Elway laughs when watching it.
"He's had a great career and he's finally got the greatest thing that the
NFL has to offer. But this is very disappointing. You come a long way and
you want to win. You win one and you want the second one even worse."
This had been a Packers team
gushing with confidence built on last year's
Super Bowl victory and the seven straight triumphs it compiled entering the
Super Bowl. The Packers were 11-point favorites and it seemed a valid
indication of their superiority over the Broncos, who couldn't even win
But Denver, the preseason favorite
to capture the AFC title, regrouped after
late-season collapses at San Francisco and Pittsburgh and stabilized behind
the veteran leadership Shanahan had put in place. Experienced hands like
Atwater and Tyrone Braxton and Neil Smith, signed as a free agent to a
one-year contract, embraced Robinson's increasingly aggressive game plans.
Elway and tackle Gary Zimmerman, 36, who came out of retirement in Week 3 to
make a Super Bowl run, kept the offense on track. This is an incredibly
intelligent team, particularly along the offensive front, and the players
understood even as a wild-card entry they could still be champions.
They forged renewed confidence by
opening the playoffs with a triumph over
Jacksonville, the team that knocked them out of last year's postseason. Then
they went into Kansas City and Pittsburgh, two of the most difficult road
sites in the league, and ground out victories. They employed the same simple
methods they used against the Packers -- a solid running game, few mistakes
by Elway and enough defense to remain competitive. They knew they would only
win the Super Bowl if they could run for loads of yards, and they said so
repeatedly in the days preceding the game. So Green Bay had plenty of
warning about what the Broncos would do. And it still wasn't enough.
The Packers certainly didn't buy
all the pregame nonsense regarding the lack
of size in the Broncos offensive line. Although this unit was the league's
smallest, it still averaged nearly 300 pounds. "That is big enough to lay on
you and wear you down if the players on the line are good enough," Seahawks
defensive line coach Tommy Brasher says. The Broncos were too quick and
gritty for the Packers defensive front -- and they were too well-prepared to
"As soon as I saw our game
plan, I loved it," says Denver guard Mark
Schlereth, who has overcome 20 operations, including November surgery on his
back, to win his second ring (his first came with the 1991 Redskins). "We
felt like if we could sustain our blocks, we were going to be able to rip
off great chunks of yards in the third and fourth quarters. We are
intelligent and we put in a lot of preparation and we were able to confuse
them. We figured if we could consistently get yardage on runs, by the end of
the game, we would have them back on their heels and they would be
They handled massive defensive
tackle Gilbert Brown by chopping at his legs
and slanting into, and away, from him instead of trying to go straight at
him. They took care of middle linebacker Bernardo Harris by turning him over
to fullback Howard Griffith, who didn't allow Harris to negate Davis'
cutback runs. They reduced safety LeRoy Butler's role in run support by
frequently splitting out tight end Shannon Sharpe and forcing Butler to play
pass defense. "Great scheming," Butler says. "I wasn't a factor helping on
The rest was up to Davis, who got
stronger as the fourth quarter waned. With
3:27 left, the Broncos took over at the Packers 49 after a 39-yard punt. A
15-yard face-mask penalty on defensive lineman Darius Holland advanced the
ball to the 32. Then, Elway connected with Griffith on a short swing pass
that turned into a 23-yard gain against a defense too tired to tackle. At
that point, Shurmur switched to a three-man front. "They weren't in a
defense we thought they would be in," center Tom Nalen says. "Me and Mark
Schlereth ended up doubling, and we really had no one else to block. It was
that easy." Davis went to the strong side of the Broncos' offense for 17
yards to overcome a holding penalty against Sharpe. On first down at the 1,
he slammed up the middle and into the end zone.
Seventy-five seconds later, all of
Denver could join in that celebration.
"To finally come out and show the NFC and everyone, it's unbelievable,"
Elway says. Only he and Shanahan really know how unbelievable that feeling