A year later, not much had changed in John Elway's personal universe. The Denver Broncos were braving the late-summer heat of training camp, the first steps in defense of their Super Bowl championship, and their living legend of a quarterback was right where he had been exactly 12 months earlier.
In Sturgis, S.D.
At the annual gathering of Harley-Davidson aficionados.
This time, however, Elway was not there on a mission from Broncos Coach Mike Shanahan. This time was nothing like last time--an ill-fated, last-ditch effort to coax tackle Gary Zimmerman out of retirement.
This time, Elway was there because he wanted to be, just as his wife and four children were there with him because they wanted to be, the family having traveled from its Denver home to Sturgis in a motor home. This time, it was Elway who stayed retired.
And this time, the Broncos did their best to carry on, despite the unshakable feeling that something in the two-time defending NFL champions' camp was horribly amiss.
"It's weird," defensive end Alfred Williams said. "It's really weird. One of the main reasons I came to Denver was the history and the legacy of number seven. I knew we would always have a chance to win ballgames and even some championships. But I also knew that this was going to happen sometime."
It isn't that the Broncos are without a capable replacement. Veteran Bubby Brister was 4-0 as the starter last season while the aging Elway nursed a variety of injuries, and Brister has been handed the job on a more permanent basis this season. That should give eventual heir apparent Brian Griese, last year's third-round draft pick out of Michigan, at least one more year to grow into the job.
But reality is still reality. And Brister, who has found the Broncos' offensive system perfectly suited to his talents over the past two seasons, is still Brister.
This is the Brister who never got the job done in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia or with the New York Jets. The Brister who, unable to find a job, had to sit out the entire 1996 season. The Brister who started the Broncos' first preseason game against the San Diego Chargers in Sydney last week and completed two passes--not counting the one to San Diego's Michael Dumas--for all of 13 yards.
But in the one-for-all-and-all-for-one world of the Broncos, there was no shortage of Brister apologists.
"I think Bubby actually will give us a better opportunity to move around than John did," fullback Howard Griffith said. "John was hurt a lot the last two years. Bubby, he can move around in the pocket a little more. . . . Bubby is coming in, and he's feeling the pressure because he still feels like he has to go out and prove himself to his teammates. We've always believed in him, but he feels that way anyway. It's a tough situation for him. Obviously, he's not going to step in and do what John did, and nobody expects him to.
"You always put pressure on yourself when you're replacing one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time."
Compounding Brister's less-than-stellar preseason debut were the performances of Griese--who directed an 82-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter and finished with 109 yards passing--and veteran Chris Miller. Miller, who sat out the past three seasons on advice of doctors because of numerous concussions and who signed with Denver as a free agent, completed 11 of 13 passes for 136 yards.
That may have sounded like the perfect recipe for a quarterback controversy. But on that subject, Shanahan, perhaps the all-time master of the art of conservative coachspeak, was downright emphatic.
"Ridiculous," he said.
And sure enough, in the Broncos' second preseason game, last weekend against the Arizona Cardinals, Brister was 8-of-10 passing for 93 yards in little more than one quarter--although Griese was 18 of 21 for 192 yards and two touchdowns. In addition, Miller has developed tendinitis in his right elbow, prompting the club to re-sign quarterback Chuck Clements.
Clearly, there is folly in judging Brister on a couple of preseason performances, particularly in light of his crucial play last season. But while he may be the man to guide Denver to an unprecedented third consecutive championship, there is one thing Brister most certainly is not.
"I think I can safely say that there will never be another John Elway," said Fred Fleming, the Broncos' director of special services and the man who for the past six seasons was in charge of escorting Elway through hordes of autograph seekers at training camp, across parking lots and into hotel lobbies. "There will be comparisons, and there may be comparisons with his arm or comparisons with his body or comparisons with his legs. But we will never see the same total package again."
There also will not be anything close to the level of celebrity Elway achieved, a level that gave him certain privileges around camp that Brister, much to his teammates' chagrin, may never be able to earn.
"One thing that is different is when we all start to get a little tired and we really need a day off, we don't have John to go talk to Coach Shanahan about it," Griffith said.
While the offense for many years was anchored by, and built around Elway, that responsibility now falls not on Brister, but on running back Terrell Davis, who last year became only the fourth player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. With the running game becoming more important than ever for the Broncos, a whole host of implications are aroused.
Shannon Sharpe is just 133 career receptions shy of Ozzie Newsome's all-time career record for a tight end. But Sharpe also is entering the final year of his contract, a year in which he will need to put up big statistics if the Broncos do not give him an extension. And there have been times over the years when Sharpe's outspokenness with the media and gamesmanship on the field have left Shanahan less than pleased, although Sharpe last week said through a team spokesman that he has decided not to speak to the media anymore.
It may be, of course, that all these questions will resolve themselves. Things have a way of falling into place for the Broncos, or at least they have over the past two seasons.
With Elway gone, "the whole team has to step it up to make up the difference," safety Tyrone Braxton said. "That means not just the offense, but the defense and the special teams, as well. There is always pressure when you have to overcome the loss of a Hall of Fame player like that, but we'll have to step up our game and make up the difference."