Pro Football / Bob Oates : Can the One-Man Gang Handle the Gang From Washington?

To many who work and play in the National Football League, the Super Bowl on Jan. 31 will be a man against a team.

And many also believe that the man will beat the team when quarterback John Elway lines up against the Washington Redskins.

Bill Polian, general manager of the Buffalo Bills, said: "Elway is the Denver Broncos. Not to take anything away from the other Bronco players, but he makes you defense him running the ball as well as passing, and that's a load for a pro defense.

"We have a lot of respect for the Redskins, too. The week before we beat Denver this year (21-14 at Buffalo) on a cold, windy day--a terrible football day--the Redskins beat us (27-7 at Buffalo).

"The Redskins are a solid football team--but Elway scares you because pro defenses aren't set up to handle a passer who runs the way he does. Any pro offense gives you too much else to worry about.

"When you play Elway, you have to change everything you've been doing all year, and that's the hard way to get ready for a big game."

Nevertheless, it's in the record that although Elway is a lion in Denver's Mile High Stadium, he is more of a kitten on other fields. And Super Bowl XXII is scheduled for San Diego.

In Elway's most recent 50 games as Denver's quarterback, he is 21-4 at home and 13-11-1 on the road. What's more, he batted an even .500 in his last two big road games, the two last year that Denver won in overtime at Cleveland, 23-20, and lost to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, 39-20, at Pasadena.

In the strangest of recent NFL seasons, the best team didn't get to the Super Bowl this winter. That would be the San Francisco 49ers, who have depth at quarterback and first-rate coaching, plus the player of the year, Jerry Rice, and probably the strongest defense in either conference.

The best American Football Conference team didn't make it, either. If the Cleveland Browns were playing Denver again this week, probably most of those who saw last Sunday's game would take Cleveland.

And, chances are, most would take Anthony Carter and the Minnesota Vikings in a Minnesota-Washington rematch--provided the coaches of the Vikings would promise to think up a smarter goal-line offense.

Denver and Washington are probably no better than the fourth- and fifth-best clubs in the league this season, if that.

The strangeness of this season has been evident throughout the playoffs, most clearly in the wild-card round, when the 8-7 Vikings horse-whipped a 12-3 team, the New Orleans Saints.

So the Redskins have all that going for them. If there's to be an upset, they're the only ones that can do it now.

Two theories favored by some NFL coaches and scouts were blown away this season when Denver and Washington played their way into the Super Bowl.

One is that the home-field edge is decisive in the playoffs. The 49ers are calling this an old wives' tale after losing to Minnesota at home. The Saints and Chicago Bears also lost to the Vikings and Redskins, respectively, at home.

The second is that the team with the fewest injuries always wins the championship. But not this year. Denver led the NFL in injuries, and still has some stars out, 10 days before the final game.

Running backs Gerald Willhite and Steve Sewell, not to mention safeties Mike Harden and Dennis Smith, were among many Broncos out at times, and Harden, among others, is still out.

Washington won the National Football Conference championship despite an injury roster that included Art Monk, its best receiver.

The 1987 team that had the fewest injuries and most home-field chances was San Francisco.

One coincidence of the Super Bowl in San Diego is that the coaches, Dan Reeves of Denver and Joe Gibbs of Washington, will function as their own offensive coordinators while paying almost no attention to their defensive teams.

In both instances, indeed, their defensive coordinators were hired before they were.

At Denver, defensive coach Joe Collier joined in 1969, Reeves in 1981.

At Washington, defensive coach Richie Petitbon came aboard in 1978, Gibbs in 1981.

In the regular-season and postseason games of the seven years of their tenure, Gibbs and Petitbon are 73-29 and Reeves and Collier are 60-36.

It is often said in football that to guarantee himself a successful start, a new coach should fire the old staff and compete with his own assistants, who are less likely to bicker and backbite.

Remarkably, after walking into Denver and Washington, respectively, Reeves and Gibbs perceived the value of Collier and Petitbon, and left them in place and alone. The winning records both have had since then are to some extent testimonials to the Reeves-Gibbs judgment.

At Chicago a few years ago, by contrast, Mike Ditka accepted Buddy Ryan as his defensive coordinator only because the late George Halas had hired Ryan first and insisted on it.

Ditka and Ryan were antagonists almost from the start and parted after winning one Super Bowl together, Ryan moving to Philadelphia. The Bears haven't been the same since.

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