ALBUQUERQUE, JAN. 12 -- It is one of those rare events in professional football that will not diminish with time. In fact, time only sweetens what John Elway and the Denver Broncos offense did on Jan. 11, 1987 in the chill of Cleveland Stadium.
Every time Denver gets the ball on its 2-yard line, it will come up. Every time the Broncos and Cleveland Browns play each other, as they will Sunday in Denver in an AFC championship game rematch, The Drive will come up.
Every good offensive team that has stayed together for two or three seasons has probably driven 95, maybe even 98, yards for a touchdown. But considering it occurred late in the fourth quarter of an AFC championship game, the number of dramatic plays it contained and all the things that could have gone wrong, The Drive probably deserves a spot in NFL history. The 14-play, 98-yard march culminated in a tying touchdown with 37 seconds to play. In overtime, the Broncos won, 23-20.
A year later, players and coaches on both teams remain amazed, even stupefied by the sequence. Denver Coach Dan Reeves, who played in the NFL for seven seasons and has coached for 16, said this week, "I'll remember that drive for as long as I live. And even though it means something different to the Browns, I bet they've been thinking about it through every weight they lifted in the offseason."
When asked about The Drive today at the team's temporary practice facility here, Cleveland cornerback Hanford Dixon just smiled and said, "That drive is over. It was a great drive, but if we go into the game on Sunday with that drive anywhere in our minds, even in the back, it could wind up happening again."
Mark Jackson, the Denver wide receiver who caught the drive-ending touchdown pass of five yards from Elway, has a tape of the drive stored in a special place where it can never be accidentally erased. Immediately after the game, Jackson was like a lot of players who couldn't quite understand what all the fuss was about.
"I don't know if any of us on that field appreciated what we were involved in," Jackson said. "Then I watched it on tape once and I thought, 'Hey, that's pretty good.' Then I watched it again. And again."
The drive started after Cleveland had taken a 20-13 lead with 5:32 to play in the fourth quarter on Bernie Kosar's pass to wide receiver Brian Brennan. The ensuing kickoff was a bouncing line drive, and the Browns leveled Denver's Ken Bell inside the 2.
Broncos left guard Keith Bishop tried to lighten the mood in the huddle by telling his teammates, "We've got 'em just where we want 'em." The Denver players were being pelted with dog biscuits being thrown from the end zone called The Dog Pound, "and it was a very scary thing," receiver Vance Johnson remembered.
Not for Elway. "When John walked into the huddle, you could just see that he felt we were going to score," Johnson said. "He had that John Wayne walk going and you had to start thinking it wouldn't be so bad."
Virtually every player on both teams talks about any of three plays being critical, without which The Drive would have turned into The Punt.
There was a third-and-18 pass from Elway to Jackson that was easily the most remarkable in The Drive. Not because of Elway's throw or Jackson's catch, but because of the snap.
The Broncos were lined up in the shotgun formation and Watson was running in motion. The timing of the play was goofed up to the point that Watson was running between the center and Elway when the ball was snapped. It bounced off his leg, but Elway fielded the snap cleanly.
"It was amazing enough for him to field it," Jackson reminisced. "But to then set up, throw it and complete it for 20 yards on third and 18 is ridiculous . . . There were so many impossibilities, it was like an Indiana Jones movie. Just when you thought it was safe to relax, something else would happen."
That 20-yard pass to Jackson carried the Broncos out of danger, to the Cleveland 28. And it stunned the Browns. Cleveland nose tackle Bob Golic recalled today, "We had sacked Elway on second down -- I think it was Dave Puzzuoli -- and we thought that was such a big play.
"They were in the hole, we were fired up. To come back from that, you have to give credit to Elway more than blame the defense."
Elway threw incomplete to Watson on the next play, then came back with a 14-yard pass to running back Steve Sewell, taking the Broncos to the 14. The Browns still don't second-guess their primarily man-to-man coverage.
"He was throwing the ball so hard," Dixon said, "it just doesn't give you much time to react and get back to your man if you're far off him. That's one of the things we have to guard against this time."
Only 57 seconds remained when Elway threw incomplete again to Watson with Cleveland's Frank Minnifield as close to a receiver as a defender can get without touching him. The Browns had all of Elway's receivers covered on second down, too, when Elway ran right for nine yards, getting down to the 5.
And on the next play -- third and one with 39 seconds left when the play began -- Elway unleashed what seemed like a 100-mph pass. It was low, but straight at Jackson. "On the replay, John looks like Sandy Koufax winding up for a fastball, that's how far back his arm was when he set up," Jackson said.
It was a route that Jackson had often run, but never caught a pass on. "That pass almost always go to the guy out of the backfield," Jackson said. "But I figured I'd better get open. It was a hard pass, but those are the easiest kind for me to catch. I was proud to be associated with the whole thing."
The Broncos hardly ever mention the overtime period. Rich Karlis kicked a 33-yard field goal to win it, after Elway had taken Denver from its 25 to the Cleveland 15.
It would be difficult to find a more anticlimatic game-winning field goal.