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Elway Isn’t Broncos’ Only Way : ‘Three Amigos’ Catching On as Big Men in Denver

John Elway a one-man team? No way. He isn’t even the only Denver Bronco who has his own poster.

Just three days ago, Elway’s three favorite receivers joined the poster parade with a photo session in Denver. Their names are Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson and Ricky Nattiel, and Elway has dubbed them “the Three Amigos.”

None of the three has reached Elway’s status as a player, but how many will? Still, although Elway’s talents have helped make the Three Amigos marketable, they have contributed to what ranks as Elway’s finest NFL season.

As Elway said the other day, “Those three guys are my insurance policy. Without them, I wouldn’t be having my best year.”

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So why not put the Three Amigos on a poster? The nickname is a natural, and the three subjects have the charisma to go with it.

Especially Johnson, who, as the consummate extrovert, serves as the trio’s unofficial spokesman. He talked about the poster, and other matters, in a telephone interview before the Broncos flew here for Sunday’s game against the Chargers at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

“The poster is shot in a desert setting,” Johnson said. “There’s a skull and crossbones in the background, and a couple of defensive backs lying around in the end zone. We’re wearing ponchos and sombreros.

“We’re not sure of one thing, though. We were set on the title of ‘Three Amigos,’ but we may switch to ‘Adios, Amigos.’ It has a ring to it that ties in with the message we’re trying to convey.

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“The big thing is that we’re amigos , good friends. I think the name fits us perfectly, especially since we’re so much alike in size and everything. There’s a rivalry between us to see who’s going to catch the most balls, but we’re still good friends--like those three guys in the movie.”

The Broncos’ roster says Johnson is two inches taller than his running mates. It lists him at 5-11 and 185, Jackson at 5-9 and 174 and Nattiel at 5-9 and 180.

“But that’s not right,” Johnson said. “Mark and Ricky are closer to 5-10. We look like three brothers.”

Other vital statistics: Both Johnson and Jackson are 24--they were born four months apart--and Nattiel is 21. Johnson came to the Broncos from the University of Arizona and is in his third National Football League season. Jackson, from Purdue, is in his second. And Nattiel, a 1987 first-round draft choice from Florida, is in his first.

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And their football statistics?

Johnson caught 51 passes in 1985 and 31 last year, when he missed four games with a knee injury. He already has caught 32 this season. Jackson had 38 catches last year and has 16 this year. Nattiel has 17 in his rookie season.

With three men sharing two positions, Johnson has logged the most playing time. In the process, Johnson has managed to catch at least one touchdown pass in each of his past five games. If he catches one Sunday, he will tie the club record shared by Lionel Taylor and Al Denson.

“I want that record badly,” Johnson said. “I want to go to the Pro Bowl, and it means a lot if you can pile up some stats. I’ve been looking at the stats every week to see where I’m ranked. The voting is a personality thing, so mostly the same guys get in every year. But if I break the record, maybe I’ll open their eyes.

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“Besides, it’s always been my goal to catch a touchdown pass in every game I play. That, and catching five passes and gaining 100 yards. I finally did it last week, and before that, I had 98 yards, 96, 89 and 93. That’s consistency.”

Johnson’s outlook wasn’t that rosy when the NFL players went on strike after the second game of the season. Despite his past achievements, he hadn’t been playing full time.

“I think the strike was good for me,” he said. “They wanted to see what Ricky (Nattiel) could do, and I lost confidence in myself. It was almost like my Super Bowl game (five catches for 121 yards) was forgotten.

“But when we got back from the strike, everybody was even.”

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At least everybody started even. Within two weeks, Johnson had emerged as Elway’s main man.

“We came to the conclusion that he was the best receiver we had,” said Bronco Coach Dan Reeves.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Reeves and Elway have lost confidence in Jackson and Nattiel.

“Having all three of them to throw to puts my mind at ease,” said Elway. “I know that if one or two can’t get open, at least one will. And all three of them are very fast.”

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Reeves analyzed them this way:

“Vance was a running back in college, but he has adjusted beautifully. He runs great routes, and he’s doing everything a wide receiver is supposed to do. John has great confidence in him.

“Mark has had to pick up the slack caused when we lost Steve Watson with broken ribs. He blocks and does a lot of the little things that go into the passing game.

“Ricky had a great preseason, and then the strike hurt him. He’s just coming back to where he was at the start of the year. He will only get better.”

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Although the Three Amigos run disciplined patterns, none of them feels uncomfortable when Elway goes into one of his characteristic scrambles.

“Sometimes we look forward to it,” Johnson said. “When we see John running away from the pass rush, we try to find openings, so we put the defensive backs in position where they can’t make interceptions. It’s an extra challenge.

“Myself, I light up when John scrambles, because I know he can get to any place on the field.”

Who is the fastest of the Three Amigos?

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“I am,” Johnson said. “I was timed in 4.1 in the 40 my senior year in college. It was during practice for the Olympic trials in ’84. I finished fourth in the trials in the long jump at 26-9. Missed the Olympic team by a quarter of an inch. When I was a freshman, I won the NCAA long jump at 26-11 1/2. I was second as a senior.

“I never ran the sprints, though, and the three of us have never raced. We’ll have to do that sometime. It could be close.”

Johnson had this to say about Elway:

“He’s one of the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen in any sport. On top of that, he has an air of confidence and competitiveness that sets him apart. He has a John Wayne walk, kind of pigeon-toed, and when he strides into the huddle and you look into his eyes, you know something good is going to happen.

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“He throws the ball harder than any other quarterback I’ve ever seen. We use a ball machine to practice receiving, and to simulate his velocity, we crank it up to 70 mph. That’s the only way we can get used to catching his passes.

“John is the best player in the NFL.”

The Three Amigos complement each other in personality as well as in football ability. Johnson is talkative, Nattiel is quiet and Jackson is somewhere in between.

“Ricky isn’t quite so bashful anymore, though,” Johnson said. “He’s opening up now. After he scored his first pro touchdown in the Monday night game against the Bears, he bowed to the crowd. He still doesn’t talk, but he’s not scared to show he’s happy about making a touchdown.”

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Charger Coach Al Saunders compared the Three Amigos to the Miami Dolphins’ swift threesome of Mark Duper, Mark Clayton and James Pruitt.

“They don’t have as much experience, but they have the same type speed,” Saunders said.

“Actually, the injury to Steve Watson might have helped the Broncos. With Watson not being in the offense as a possession receiver, their passing game has opened up because of greater speed. With Watson, there was a tendency to go to him. Now Elway can put it up at will.”

Charger Notes

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The Chargers activated inside linebacker Gary Plummer from injured reserve Friday and released defensive back Darrel Hopper. They also put injured defensive end Les Miller on the inactive list and transferred defensive ends Terry Unrein and Dee Hardeson from the inactive list to the 45-man active roster. The changes left the team at 49 players, including four inactive, one under the limit. Plummer had been out four weeks with wrist and finger injuries. Hopper, a rookie from USC, was a replacement player who was cut after the strike and re-signed last week. He played on special teams against Seattle . . . Charger Coach Al Saunders said Joe Phillips would start at right defensive end in place of Miller, who has a bone chip in his left ankle, and that Broderick Thompson probably would replace Gary Kowalski at right offensive tackle. Saunders delayed a decision at nose tackle, where Chuck Ehin is pushing Mike Charles for the starting job. “They will probably get equal time, but we haven’t decided who will start,” Saunders said . . . Ehin, looking ahead to chasing Bronco quarterback John Elway, said: “The incredible thing about Elway is that he can pass off the wrong foot going the wrong way and get as much on the ball as most quarterbacks do in ideal situations Added Ron Lynn, the Chargers’ defensive coordinator: “If there ever was one guy who carried a team, it’s Elway.” . . . The Broncos lost two key men, running back Steve Sewell and strong safety Dennis Smith, for the season with injuries suffered last week, and Saunders figures they will miss Sewell more than Smith. Said Saunders: “Sewell is their fastest running back, and with speed like he has, you always have a chance to make a big play. Smith is a very good football player, but they have an excellent replacement in Randy Robbins.”


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