Out with the old: No, we're not talking about John Elway (though this is the perfect time for him to retire). We're talking about the way the NFL operates. The success of the Broncos and Falcons proves one thing: In today's game, free agency rules.

 

Two (rings) and out for Elway
January 31, 1999

If John Elway walks away, as he should; if he decides, as he should, that he'd rather enjoy healthy romps with his children than risk further injuries; if he decides, as he should, that his legacy is complete now after two straight Super Bowl wins; if he decides, as he should, that 16 years is enough, he'll leave an NFL that is vastly different from the one he entered, a league blessed with extraordinary riches and labor peace, a league on the verge of functioning under a new set of invigorating rules regarding the influence of coaches, free agency and the draft.

This is a league that will miss the magic and verve of Elway, yet also is so strong and so balanced and so full of intriguing potential that it can easily absorb even the departure of one of its greatest players. The dynamics of what will soon evolve in the new NFL, where the influence of Czar Coaches and the quick fix of free agency will combine to keep any stay atop the standings precarious at best, make it uncertain that even an Elway-led Bronco team can win three titles in a row.

As the NFL steamrolls toward the next millennium, the matchup in Super Bowl 33 symbolized so much of what the league will be about in the next century. More than anything, the opportunity exists--indeed, it practically is screaming out for attention--for franchises daring to be bold in their thinking to become not only contenders but champions in quick fashion. Never has the league seen this kind of parity; never has the league presented this kind of opportunity for even the downtrodden to vault among the elite in such short order.

Both the Broncos and Falcons serve as poster children for this new NFL order. The formula is enticingly simple. Identify and hire what Atlanta owner Taylor Smith calls a "rock," the Czar Coach who will seize control of the organization and run it as a dictatorship, without interference from the folks who pay the bills. Then recognize the magic power of free agency instead of being mesmerized by the myth of the draft. Though building through the draft still can work, the quickest and most convincing way to succeed now relies more on the ability to manipulate free agency, plugging glaring personnel holes and upgrading particularly weak positions through the astute identification and signing of NFL veterans.

That will be the method to achieve maddening triumphs in the new NFL.

Yet, because no team in the new NFL will be able to separate itself from its peers for long, the retirement of an Elway also won't necessarily lead to the demise of the Broncos, as might have been the case a decade ago. Now, Czar Coach Mike Shanahan can plug in Bubby Brister at quarterback, add some younger free agents to replace other aging parts of his squad and very much expect to contend.

Still, the Broncos without Elway will seem strange indeed. From the brash rookie to the Architect of The Drive to the sufferings associated with three Super Bowl losses to the euphoria produced by the wins in the last two league championship games, Elway has been the pulse that has kept the franchise beating on such a high level for so many years. Even as his skills have diminished with age, he has remained capable of producing quality efforts under pressure. But few are as satisfying as what could prove to be his last, this 34-19 victory over the Falcons in which he won his first Super Bowl MVP award.

Atlanta, the former league pushover hoping to finish off a surreal season with one final inexplicable triumph, managed to control Terrell Davis well enough (102 yards) to force Elway to either play splendidly or see his Broncos lose. Little did the Falcons know they were falling into Elway's trap. "They were talking all week about stopping our running game and they didn't mention anything about the passing game," a giddy Elway said afterward. "I really went into the game knowing we would have an opportunity to throw the ball and that if we were to win the game, it would probably be through the air."

If nothing else, Elway is an incredible competitor, and he took the Falcons' defensive thinking as a personal slight, a knock on his current passing talents. He also knew that his past Super Bowl performances, even last year's against Green Bay, have been dismal (two touchdowns, seven interceptions, 47 percent completion percentage) and didn't command much respect.

"John was as anxious and as excited about this game as I can remember," says tight end Shannon Sharpe, who hurt a knee in the first quarter that ultimately forced him to the sideline. This time, Elway produced a super Super Bowl: 18-of-29 for 336 yards, one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. He clearly outplayed Chris Chandler, whose uneven performance (19-of-35, 219 yards, three interceptions) showed neither he nor his team was ready yet for this kind of prime-time showcase.

Elway resisted the temptation, at least in public, to flaunt his numbers at Dan Reeves, who was his coach the three times he lost in the Super Bowl. While in Denver, Reeves feuded with Elway and Shanahan, and the lingering bitterness from those days surfaced in the days before this game. Both Shanahan and Elway thirsted to defeat Reeves, and they achieved their goal in a most convincing fashion, with Shanahan's multiple looks and various personnel packages disrupting the rhythm of the Falcons' defense and Elway applying the hammer with an 80-yard scoring pass to Rod Smith in the second quarter and a bunch of key third-down passes to keep drives alive.

"Every Super Bowl loss hurts," says Reeves, who became the sentimental favorite with his wondrous recovery from heart surgery in mid-December. "It's a huge disappointment." He just as well could have been referring to the arrest of safety Eugene Robinson last Saturday night for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover policewoman. The loss snapped an 11-game winning streak, and the defeat came because the Falcons couldn't run effectively (Jamal Anderson was held below 100 yards), couldn't score enough touchdowns after entering the red zone (one in four trips) and couldn't absorb a subpar performance from Chandler, who had been special in prior playoff games but made too many mistakes--three straight interceptions to begin the second half--to win a ring.

Still, even with this loss, the rebuilding job done by Reeves can't be underestimated. His success further solidifies the fact that the era of the coach/general manager partnership that has dominated the league for the past two decades is over. Previously, the NFL has gone through cycles where authoritarian figures (Paul Brown, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula) have ruled, followed by periods where sharing of power in the front office proved most successful. But free agency, and the prevailing impatient win-now attitude it has created, has changed the norm and disrupted this cyclical dynamic. Ultimately, any team with dreams of winning a Super Bowl will be forced to join the mounting trend in the new NFL.

"There appears to be a confidence in ownership that if you can find the right guy, knowing full well that he has to hire good people to work under him, that investing authority into one person is the way to go," says Mike Holmgren, who has parlayed his Super Bowl coaching success with the Packers into total control of the Seahawks' football operation. "I think Mike Shanahan and Dan Reeves and Bill Parcells and Jimmy Johnson and Tom Coughlin have proven that and owners are taking notice.

"If the coach has no say in personnel or not the final say, that is not very fair. I think if you have the chance to do both, you want to do it. You want the final say and responsibility over everything. That way, you have no one to point the finger at. You are in charge and everyone knows who to blame or credit."

This will no longer be your father's NFL. Not much that characterized the past will portend the future, so toss out every bromide we've been fed over the years about the sanctity of the draft and how a roster must be built slowly and carefully to preserve long-term success. If Generation X demands instant gratification, then the NFL will be its sports nirvana. If time and patience were still key ingredients to produce league bullies, then both the Broncos and Falcons would have been spectators in this Super Bowl.

Bring in the new: Three of the four conference finalists this January were constructed into wunderkinds in quick fashion through meticulous coaching and pinpoint free-agent choices, augmented in some cases by deft trades. The Broncos, Falcons and Jets didn't linger long enough to be improved through the draft; they jumped all over free agency and leapfrogged over the pretenders. And all three are controlled by Czar Coaches. The only exception in the Final Four, the Vikings, has a committee-like system. A near clean sweep for the new NFL. You can hear the door shutting, closing out the old way.

"The owner has to make the decision that is best for his franchise," says Ernie Accorsi, the Giants' incisive general manager. "If you have a chance to get a great coach, you certainly will give him the authority he wants because he will win. But just to give a coach who wants it the authority to run a franchise without proving he can be a successful coach, that hasn't always worked. In all this, somebody better have the overall long-range survival of the organization in mind, and the perpetuation of the franchise in mind. When you lose the general manager, you lose the checks and balances."

But what the Shanahans and Parcells of the NFL see is a new playing field where it is possible to stay strong through constant roster shakeups and maneuvers built on a foundation of sound free-agency judgments. The draft still supplies both quantity and quality to the roster but all the old theories regarding roster construction are becoming passe. What the Czar Coaches realize is that because of their friend, the salary cap, teams can't possibly keep all their best players, no matter how hard they try. So every season, sure as Paul Tagliabue snarls at the media, there will be quality players reflecting every ability level available to the highest, and most intelligent, bidder. That is how you make an old team younger quickly; that is how you make a good team better quickly.

Which makes shifting to Czar Coaches the key. Coaches seem more comfortable mining the free-agency field than maneuvering the draft, which takes months of scouting and studying to master. Personnel men/G.M.s have an edge over Czar Coaches when it comes to the draft. But it is a more level playing field when it comes to free agency, which will be the dominant building tool in the new NFL.

"Because they have seen and played against (free agents), coaches have more knowledge and can make better judgments as compared to when they deal with the draft," Redskins G.M. Charley Casserly says. "The draft is more of projecting the future."

Consider the Falcons' stunning emergence. Just two years after a 3-13 season, they played for the NFL title, a turnaround virtually impossible in the old NFL. Their miraculous turnaround began when Smith and his father, the late Rankin Smith Sr., hired Reeves after the 1996 season and turned over football operations to him. Reeves jump-started the team's improvement with trades and free-agent signings and blended in a proven system, and suddenly the Falcons were no longer the laughingstocks who had let Deion Sanders and Brett Favre slip away.

"In the past, we just didn't make real good decisions about our front office," says Smith, who had been sharing authority with a coach and general manager. "We needed a real strong leader and that is what Dan is. We never had a problem giving up this much authority to one person. It is hard to do unless you have a lot of faith in the person you hire, and unless he has done it before. You hire an assistant or someone who hasn't been in pro football before and I don't know. There is a lot more to the job than just coaching, that becomes the hard part. Now there's not a personnel area or a coaching area; there is just one boss who can answer to one person."

The Jets were 1-15 before hiring Parcells two years ago. By adding 12 free-agent starters, they advanced to the AFC title game for the first time since the 1982 season. The Broncos were 7-9 in 1994, the year before Shanahan was hired, and then were 13-3 within two years, league champions within three. On Sunday, they became only the seventh franchise to win consecutive Super Bowls. Jimmy Johnson had the Dolphins within one game of playing for the AFC title this season, his third in Miami.

The quest by coaches for more power is exaggerated by the increasing fragility of their positions within the league. The coaching turnover continues to be so dynamic--remarkably, Bill Cowher and Dennis Green now are the longest-tenured with seven years of service--that coaches are convinced the only way they can fulfill their owner's desire to win quickly is to control every facet of the organization that could determine their success. Likewise, with constantly evolving rosters and less time to refine systems and let players develop, excellent coaching becomes more of a difference maker than ever before.

"There isn't any patience in the league anymore," Shanahan says. "As a coach, you need to recognize that. When I came to Denver, I just thought I had to give myself the best chance of succeeding, and that meant having the ability to make decisions about anything that would dictate my future. I have been in situations where the general manager doesn't look at film of players but was saying whether they stay or go, or that a draft choice couldn't be cut. You have none of that when the buck stops here. The bottom line is: You made the decision. If you pick a guy in the first round, you get rid of him. I will be judged on winning or losing, not if I kept a first-round choice or not, so it makes roster decisions less contentious. You don't have personnel guys pitted against coaches."

The league now will undergo a transition period in which current elite general managers such as Ron Wolf of the Packers, Bill Polian of the Colts, John Butler of the Bills, Casserly, Carl Peterson of the Chiefs, Tom Donahoe of the Steelers, Bobby Beathard of the Chargers and the newly appointed Bill Walsh of the 49ers will be pitted against the Czar Coaches. But once these G.M.s leave the league, their positions will be downgraded in authority to more of a supportive role. The Czar Coaches need strong personnel men, but in the new NFL very few teams eventually will have G.M.s with power.

Wolf, however, is not ready to concede the future downgrading of general managers. "We aren't dinosaurs," he says with vigor. "You are talking about some coaches now who are succeeding and they happen to be exceptional people. But for everyone who has made it, you can point to another that hasn't: Chicago, Carolina, Philadelphia."

Two factors will temper eventual wholesale changeover to the Czar Coach. One is the lack of qualified coaches who also are intelligent enough to run the salary cap, free agency, the draft and contracts. Dave Wannstedt, for example, proved inadequate as a personnel judge with the Bears, and that void never gave him a chance to prove his head-coaching skills. The other is the willingness of ownership to turn over the future of a multimillion-dollar franchise to one man. It's hard to foresee the Bengals, for one, going this route.

Yet even Art Modell, as hands-on as any NFL owner, was tempted this offseason by the Czar Coach concept. Modell, frustrated in his quest to get to a Super Bowl--much less win one--was prepared to invest in Holmgren unprecedented power. The Ravens were next on Holmgren's visit list but the hiring tour never advanced beyond Seattle.

"There is a price to pay for the product available," says David Modell, Art's son and the team's executive vice president. "In the case of a Mike Holmgren, who arrived at the party with a multiple Super Bowl head-coaching resume, perhaps as the candidate of all candidates--were you willing to pay the price? When you move away from him, the price goes down." The Ravens eventually hired Brian Billick, the Vikings' offensive coordinator, to replace Ted Marchibroda. Billick will not have Czar Coach powers; instead, he will be part of what Modell calls "our collegial" way of decision-making that will involve Billick, the Modells and player personnel guru Ozzie Newsome.

But for Reeves, and especially for Shanahan, the Czar Coach is a better method. That may be the only reason Shanahan can remain optimistic if Elway retires. Shanahan sees the future, and he has shown he's smart enough to keep the post-Elway Broncos in contention. Now it's up to the rest of the NFL to catch up to him.