John Elway may be the quarterback of the future, but for the past two weeks, the biggest hero in Denver has been Steve DeBerg, the Broncos' other quarterback.
DeBerg, who set an NFL record for passes attempted and completed in a season while with San Francisco in 1979, could do nothing but stand idly by while Coach Dan Reeves handed his starting job to Elway during the exhibition season.
It's been Elway who's been standing by in the fourth quarter the past two weeks, though. DeBerg has come on in the fourth quarter to lead the Broncos to come-from-behind victories--first in Pittsburgh in the season opener, and again Sunday in a 17-10 decision at Baltimore.
DeBerg said he is still frustrated and disappointed at the way the situation has been handled, but will continue to do whatever Reeves asks.
"I think I was deceived," DeBerg said yesterday. "I was told I was the starter and that John had to perform better than me and beat me out to get my job. But he didn't. They just gave him the job. The question is, is he ready for it?"
If the first two games are an indication, the answer is no.
Elway completed one of eight passes, was sacked four times, threw an interception and fumbled the ball away against the Steelers before leaving with a sore elbow. DeBerg came on to throw the winning touchdown pass on a play he devised in the huddle.
In Baltimore, Elway started again and was ineffective, completing only nine of 21 passes for 106 yards.
DeBerg played the final 12 1/2 minutes and completed nine of 11 passes for 158 yards. He tied the score with a 24-yard touchdown pass to Steve Watson, then scored the game-winner on a two-yard run with 29 seconds left. The play was set up by a 54-yard pass to Watson.
Elway had trouble with the noisy crowd and was called for delay of game three times. He twice had to call time to avoid penalties.
"John's problems don't have anything to do with talent," said DeBerg. "It's handling the offense. Where he's having most of his problems are before he gets to the line of scrimmage, like in the huddle and calling the plays. Where it's hurting us is that we have a good team and because John is struggling, we've come close to losing both games.
"I want to start with all my heart, but it's not my place to decide that."
It's Reeves' place, and he said yesterday of Elway, "I'm not going to quit on him now."
"I think they feel John is so talented that they were going with him, no matter what," said DeBerg. "I guess they think the fastest way for him to learn is by being in the games. I just don't think that's the fairest thing, but as frustrated and as disappointed as I am, I accept it as what the coach thinks is best . . ."
DeBerg, 29, was faced with a similar situation when he was with the 49ers.
Drafted by Dallas on the 10th round in 1977, DeBerg was released and signed by the 49ers as a free agent. In 1978, he started 11 games and in 1979, passed for 3,652 yards and set what were then NFL records for attempts and completlions in a single season (347 of 578).
The 49ers had a rookie quarterback that year named Joe Montana.
"Joe didn't play at all as a rookie," said DeBerg. "They started working him in halfway through his rookie year and in his third year they made him a starter and he took them to the Super Bowl. He was prepared. They were grooming him and we all knew it, and when he was ready, they traded me. It worked out good for me and everyone.
"Elway's been handed everything, ready or not, and I'm just not sure if that's the best way to do it . . ."
Elsewhere around the NFL Sunday:
Rookie Curt Warner rushed for 128 yards and scored two touchdowns as the Seattle Seahawks beat the New York Jets for the seventh straight time, 17-10. The Jets have never beaten the Seahawks.
At Cincinnati, Kay Stephenson got his first victory as coach of the Buffalo Bills when his team stopped the winless Bengals on four plays inside the five in the final three minutes and held on for a 10-6 decision.
Cincinnati quarterback Ken Anderson left the game with a neck injury, but expects to play against Cleveland Thursday.
Brian Sipe set a team record with four touchdown passes against Detroit in a 31-26 Cleveland victory.
Rookie Eric Dickerson scored three touchdowns and rushed for 88 yards to lead Los Angeles to a 30-27 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
In Atlanta, rookie Ali Haji-Sheikh kicked a 30-yard field goal in overtime to get the New York Giants by the Falcons, 16-13.
The Saints lost running back George Rogers for up to four weeks with strained ligaments in his right knee; running back Gerald Riggs of the Falcons incurred broken ribs and will be out three to four weeks.
The Dallas Cowboys spotted the St. Louis Cardinals a 10-0 lead and then came back for a 34-17 victory.
The Cowboys and Rams became the only undefeated teams in the National Conference.
In another Cowboys' development yesterday, cornerback Everson Walls agreed to a five-year contract worth an estimated $1.25 million.