Why is it that the more you watch the Denver Broncos, the more you become convinced that the AFC champions are the closest thing in professional sports to a successful one-man team?
Two days before Denver beat the Cleveland Browns to win the AFC title, Cleveland's Al (Bubba) Baker had a few words to say about John Elway and the Broncos. "I'll take the 45-man team concept any day over the one-man show . . . Denver talks about Elway as if he doesn't go to the bathroom. He's a good player, but not God. At least he's not the God I pray to, anyway. Nothing against him, I'm sure he's a nice guy, well worth the money. But I'm sick of hearing about John Elway. John Elway must be sick of hearing about John Elway."
In truth, Elway says he is sick of hearing about himself. On the other hand, Baker might want to rethink that 45-man team concept, because 45 Cleveland Browns -- clearly, the better team on Sunday, in my opinion -- have gone home for winter vacation, while the one-man show is resting up its cannon and preparing for Super Bowl XXII against the Redskins.
John Elway may be more valuable to the Denver Broncos than any one player is to any team in sports. As great as Larry Bird is, the Celtics would make the playoffs without him, probably even win the Atlantic Division. The Edmonton Oilers already have proven they're a decent team without the incomparable Wayne Gretzky in the lineup. The Bulls, without Michael Jordan, would be a CBA team. But Jordan hasn't taken the Bulls to the NBA finals. Elway is in the Super Bowl for a second straight year.
Remember last week's Redskins-Vikings game when Joe Gibbs was down on both knees, praying at the end of the game? Well, Denver Coach Dan Reeves should clear the locker room and do that before Elway at the end of every pregame speech.
The Broncos are 12-4-1, with no running game to speak of, with five of the franchise's best players having retired before the season, with 10 players having missed 70 games during the regular season. The Broncos are AFC champions because of John Elway.
Reeves and the Broncos did such a good job during the second half of the season and into the playoffs that it's become fashionable to say the running backs aren't really that bad, that they're actually a flexible bunch of players who are underrated. Nonsense.
The Denver running backs -- Steve Sewell, Gene Lang, and Sammy Winder -- are the nicest guys you could meet outside of the Three Amigos. But there's a good reason Reeves almost gagged when Gerald Wilhite fractured his leg in midseason; Elway was left without much of a running game. Winder, Sewell and Lang finished the season with 10 rushing touchdowns together, about half of what John Riggins had by himself a few years ago.
Winder, a 28-year-old running back from Southern Mississippi, led the team with 741 yards rushing, a respectable enough figure for a union man who played 12 games. But he averaged only 3.8 yards a carry. The second leading rusher? Elway himself, 304 yards and a 4.6 average. Lang, the No. 3 man, averaged 3.4 yards a carry. Believe it or not, Denver's fourth-leading rusher was Joe Dudek, a replacement player. After reading those stats and looking at film of the Denver running backs, Cleveland cornerback Hanford Dixon said, "Don't have much of a running game, do they? But they keep on winning."
Nobody is more aware of the perception of the Denver running game than the Denver running backs. "If you asked people to rank our running game on a scale from one to 10," Winder said earlier this week, "no one would rank us higher than three. But I think we'd be above a five."
The Three Amigos -- the catchy moniker for the receiving corps -- certainly rank higher than that. Perhaps an eight. So perhaps the Broncos aren't a one-man team; all three amigos -- Mark Jackson, Vance Johnson and Ricky Nattiel -- count for a half. Nothing against the Amigos, either. But they're completely dependent on Elway.
Rewind back to Sunday's AFC championship game against Cleveland. The Browns had just scored a touchdown to get within 21-10. The Broncos found themselves backed up to their own 19 after a holding penalty, facing third and 11. Without a big play there, Denver would have been forced to punt.
All Elway did on third down was avoid a sack by stepping away from defensive end Sam Clancy, and away from blitzing cornerback D.D. Hoggard. Elway bumped into one of his own linemen, kept his balance and had wits enough to fire a spiral to Jackson, which turned out to be a 70-yard touchdown for a 28-10 Denver lead. If Earnest Byner's heart-breaking fumble in the final minutes was the game's most important play, then Elway's third-and-11 play was the second biggest.
Reeves, the coaching staff, Elway and the rest of the Broncos would shudder at the suggestion that Denver is a one-man team. But why else would the club sign Elway to a six-year contract for $12.85 million. Including the $3 million deferred bonus, Elway will receive an annual average payout of $2.14 million, tops in the league. The second highest-paid player will be Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly, who will get $1.6 million.
Even Cleveland's Bubba Baker admitted Elway was well worth the money. In the famous Drive, the 98-yard series that helped Denver beat Cleveland in the 1986 AFC championship game, the Broncos actually had to move the ball 106 yards because Elway was sacked once. Of those 106, Elway ran for 20 and passed for 78. Against the Giants, in last year's Super Bowl, Elway led the Broncos in rushing with 27 yards on six carries, and accounted for 331 of Denver's 372 net yards.
This year, the Broncos have been playing with Stefan Humphries at right guard, a smart and capable player but one who also was traded by the Bears in preseason for a punter Chicago has since gotten rid of. The best player on the defense, according to the players around the league who vote for the Pro Bowl, is Karl Mecklenburg, who might be the seventh or eighth best linebacker in the conference.
The proponents of the 45-man team concept would probably shoot my arguments down, and ask how in the world anybody can call the Broncos a one-man team when they survived so many injuries throughout the season. My answer is that the Broncos are made up of a bunch of interchangeable parts, and that it really doesn't matter who the starters or backups are, as long as they revolve around the super nova.