Pro Football : What Playoffs Lose in 49ers, They Gain in Balance of Quality

One thing is different now. The collapse of the San Francisco 49ers has made it a wide-open winter in the National Football League playoffs.

The teams that are still alive all have about the same chance to get to the Super Bowl and win it.

If, in fact, next Sunday's conference finals were being played on neutral fields, it is likely that both games would be listed as tossups.

The Denver Broncos, at home, may have a slight advantage over Bernie Kosar and the Cleveland Browns. And, at home, the Washington Redskins may have the edge over Anthony Carter and the Minnesota Vikings.

But all are quality teams. Indeed, the four finalists this season have shown a better balance of quality than the NFL has been able to provide in the final days of perhaps any other season.

There have been game-breaking runs by Carter and Washington's Darrell Green, among others, along with sure passing and a series of graceful catches by the operators of four effective passing games. And there has been just enough defense. For a change, there isn't a dominating defense this season to mess things up.

At this point in John Elway's career, watching him play football for the Broncos is the same as watching a legend.

But, he is only one of the league's big-play players. But there's a difference between him and the rest. Whereas Carter, Green and the others do it once in a while, Elway seems to do it every week, whether the Broncos are ahead or behind.

This isn't the same as saying that Elway is the game's best passer. The best, probably, is Dan Marino of the Miami Dolphins.

Moreover, Philadelphia's Randall Cunningham probably has a better arm.

But Elway is a distinguished passer, and he keeps getting better--on a team that seldom distinguishes itself otherwise, either on running plays or on defense.

One of the finest big-play players of all time, Elway simply carries the Broncos week after week, as he did Sunday, when he made the plays that eliminated the Houston Oilers, 34-10.

It should be stressed that he has been lucky to have Dan Reeves, who has brought him along patiently, as his coach. All Elway was, in the beginning, was a great athlete. Today, he looks off defensive backs when he should, handles himself ably in the pocket, and makes the subtle moves that all good quarterbacks make. This is Reeves' doing.

So was the decision to put the Broncos in their single-wing offense, the shotgun formation.

The question, however, is whether Elway will be on view twice more this winter or only once. There's so much quality in the playoffs that if Kosar doesn't get him, Wade Wilson or Doug Williams might.

The other legend on Sunday's program, Walter Payton, is remarkable for having been in pro football for 13 years, playing in 191 games and missing only one. This achievement is best contrasted with Bo Jackson's this season, when Bo lasted a few weeks.

In a sport as wearing as his, how could Jim Brown have played nine full seasons without injury? How could Payton play 13?

Their running styles helped both Brown and Payton ward off injury.

Payton ran with an unusual stride, swinging his legs from his hips, hardly bending his knees. Trainers have said that is why he never had a knee injury while playing with teammates who underwent knee surgery almost annually.

Payton delivered the first low to the defensive players who were assigned to attack him. He almost always got under the tackler and used his leverage there to make a bigger hit than he took.

By contrast, Brown, who ran in an upright stance, invited hits--then pried the tacklers off with his stiff-arm. He held the ball in one hand and preferred to carry the other arm at his side, where he could lift it and use it to club the opponents who ventured too close as he ran.

O.J. Simpson was probably a better running back, but Simpson couldn't similarly intimidate the larger tacklers of a later era. As a fast, powerful intimidator, Brown was unique. There has never been a second Jim Brown.

And, no doubt, there won't be another Walter Payton, who, had he chosen, could probably have had a career as an Olympic gymnast. He was the only player in pro football who could do a back flip into a handstand.

In his NFL career, there was never a year when Payton was, without question, the league's best running back. But he may have been the best football player in the league every year.

Every year, he was one of the two or three best runners, one of the four or five best blockers, an excellent receiver and an effective passer. He would have added 25% or more to his total career yardage if he had ever played for a coach who realized that Payton's best play was the run-pass option.

It's almost every back's best play. Maybe Payton will remember that when he's an NFL owner.

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