Elway Gilds Legend With Repeat Super Bowl Title
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 1, 1999, Page A1
MIAMI, Jan. 31 Until tonight, John Elway had never played particularly well in a Super Bowl. But in his fifth try, at the age of 38 and hinting at retirement, Elway displayed the breadth of his talents, and the depth of his heart, in leading the Denver Broncos to a 34-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Before a rollicking crowd of 74,803 at Pro Player Stadium, Elway threw one touchdown pass and ran for another, while piling up 336 yards passing (the third-highest total in Super Bowl history, behind San Francisco's Joe Montana and the Redskins' Doug Williams). The performance made Elway the oldest quarterback selected as the game's most valuable player, one of the few credentials to have eluded him during a 16-year career.
His place in National Football League history now assured, Elway will take a well-deserved rest before deciding whether this season will be his last. After presenting Broncos owner Pat Bowlen with the coveted Vince Lombardi Trophy, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue spoke for football fans across the country when he turned to Elway and said: "If and I underline if this is your last game, on behalf of millions of fans around the world, I want to say, 'Thank you for so many memories.' "
Elway had seemed certain to retire after this game, but in the postgame glow admitted: "I don't know. This definitely throws a kink into it. This is what I came back for, to enjoy the Super Bowl. I'm going to savor this."
Elway could follow the example of National Basketball Association star Michael Jordan and choose to retire at the top of his game. But no NFL team has won three consecutive Super Bowls. And for Elway, a fierce competitor with a throwing arm that has lost none of its accuracy, the temptation to return for a 17th season and try to set that mark simply may prove too enticing.
"I'm going to take some time, relish this year," he said. "You've got to love those challenges. We got the team; we got the nucleus here to do it. It definitely throws a kink into my thinking."
The Broncos always have been Elway's team. He carried them almost single-handedly through much of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, when Denver's roster was lean on talent. The years and the poundings have slowed his legs. But tonight, he made the plays that counted. And he shared the stage with running back Terrell Davis, who rushed for 102 yards, and a ferocious defense that forced four Atlanta turnovers in the second half.
But no smile was as broad as Elway's when he put the game out of reach early in the fourth quarter, barreling three yards over a line of Atlanta defenders for a touchdown that increased Denver's lead to 31-6 with less than 12 minutes to play.
He pumped his right arm in celebration, and his toothy grin was visible from the top row of the stadium.
As glorious as the night proved for Elway, however, it brought a disappointing end to what had been the Cinderella story of the 1998 NFL season.
No one dreamed the Atlanta Falcons would vie for a Super Bowl championship when the season began. The franchise joined the NFL in 1965 for a fee of $8.5 million (roughly 1/100th of the recent sale price of the Washington Redskins and Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.)
The Falcons never had been to a Super Bowl in a 33-year history that was marked mainly by mediocre records and indifferent fans. The arrival of Coach Dan Reeves turned that around. Reeves, fired in 1992 after 12 seasons as Denver's head coach, took a 3-13 squad and produced a 14-2 regular season record in just two years.
The Falcons evolved from upstart to what seemed like a team of destiny after Reeves was forced to undergo quadruple bypass surgery Dec. 14. Four weeks later, he was back on the sidelines.
Tonight's game, then, had two sentimental favorites: Reeves and Elway. It had a bit of controversy, with Atlanta free safety Eugene Robinson arrested Saturday night on a charge of soliciting sex from a prostitute on Miami's Biscayne Boulevard. Robinson played nonetheless. And the game had a subtext of revenge, with Reeves having fired Denver Coach Mike Shanahan in 1991, when he served as Reeves's offensive coordinator.
Reunited four years ago, Shanahan and Elway have produced sterling results since.
Should tonight's game be his last, Elway will be remembered as one of the NFL's greatest, though statistics have never made the case. A Stanford graduate and one of the smartest players in the game, Elway's true genius on the field was instinctive. He could improvise under pressure when the script went awry. And he was at his best when things looked most bleak, rendering the perfect pass, more often than not, when time was running short and his Broncos were behind.
It was a balmy 72 degrees at kickoff, but the 12 mph wind swirled so much it knocked the ball off the tee. A holder was brought in, and flashbulbs erupted like jewels all over the stadium.
It was hard to gauge the crowd's allegiance. Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe predicted earlier in the week that one-third would root for the Broncos, one-third would root for the Falcons and the rest would be too drunk to care.
Sobriety aside, at $325 a ticket, the fans seemed to care a great deal, jumping to their feet to cheer each score.
Atlanta was first to put up points, with a 32-yard field goal on its opening drive. But the game had all the earmarks of a Denver rout by halftime, when it led 17-6. Denver then snuffed out Atlanta's hopes for a comeback by scoring 14 straight points.
Elway's final pass was an incompletion that fell into the end zone.
And when he jogged off the field the last time, with 50 seconds left on the clock, a line of teammates took turns patting his helmet and slapping high-fives.
"I got emotional a couple of times," Elway said, "but I think that ended up helping me in the long run."
Said Shanahan: "If you're going to go out, what a way to go out."
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