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Elway Is Being Thrown to the Denver Wolves : Criticism Mounts During Hard Times

Times Staff Writer

Back in Denver, Bronco fans are starting to alphabetize the reasons why quarterback John Elway has lost his golden touch, which just goes to show that you can’t have your halo and wear it too.

Elway tried and look what has happened to him: Two years a hero with consecutive Super Bowl appearances; this year, another guy with an overbite.

Life has become a tiny bit nasty for No. 7. His Broncos are 6-6 and tied for first place in the AFC West, but you wouldn’t know it by talking to him. His once-glorious passing statistics have taken a dive. And for the first time in years, Denver-- his Denver--has turned on him.

“A lot of times, especially during football season, the attitude of the town is determined on how we’re playing as a football team,” he said. “No one’s really too excited about the way we’re playing.

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“I think it’s as fun a town to play football in when things are going well as it is bad when things are going bad. Heck, we’re tied for the division at 6-6 and they’re ready to lynch us. I’d hate to see if we were 2-8 or 2-10 or something like that.”

The discontent has a lot to do with the shapes and sizes of those six losses. The Broncos have lost heartbreakers (the Raiders beat them, 30-27, in overtime). They’ve lost games as favorites (the Pittsburgh Steelers beat them, 39-21). They’ve lost big (the Indianapolis Colts beat them, 55-23; the New Orleans Saints beat them, 42-0). They’ve lost in domes, on artificial turf, on the road. They’re not choosy, these Broncos.

But the most disturbing news of all is Elway. As Elway goes, so do the Broncos, who play host to the Rams at 1 p.m. (PST) Sunday at Mile High Stadium. It isn’t the fairest of arrangements, but it’s the truth.

Without Elway, the Broncos would have never found their way to Super Bowls XXI and XXII. And they certainly wouldn’t have 60 regular-season victories since 1983, Elway’s rookie year.

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Which is what makes this season so hard for Bronco followers, so difficult to understand. With Elway, the team is struggling. Never mind that the defense couldn’t stop Crespi High School, Denver fans and media want to know what’s happened to Elway.

For starters, you need a search committee to find Elway’s name on the conference’s list of leading passers. There he is, ranked eighth, right between the legendary Chris Chandler of the Colts and the since-benched Kelly Stouffer of the Seattle Seahawks.

How bad is it? Elway has thrown more interceptions than touchdown passes. He gets booed. A lot. He hasn’t thrown three touchdown passes in a game yet this season. Remember The Three Amigos--the Broncos’ corps of wide receivers? They’ve all but said, adios .

With each loss, with each Elway incompletion, come the theories.

Elway lifted too many weights during the off-season.

Elway misses former quarterbacks coach Mike Shanahan, now the Raiders’ coach.

Elway has been nagged by injuries.

Elway doesn’t scramble enough.

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Elway scrambles too much.

Elway tries to do everything.

Take a number, because there are plenty more from where that came.

Elway understands how this sort of thing begins. Expectations beget expectations. Failed expectations beget speculation.

“I’ve been in the situation before,” he said. “Since I’ve been here it’s been that way. . . . I guess all you can really do is try to forget about it and continue to play football.”

Elway is bigger and stronger. But is his inconsistent performance related to weightlifting? Doubtful.

As for Shanahan’s absence, Elway conceded that the offense wishes he were still there. But it also would have helped if Bronco assistants Alex Gibb and Nick Nicolau hadn’t followed Shanahan to the Raiders.

“Not to point the finger (at the new Bronco coaches), but it just takes awhile to learn this offense,” Elway said. “There are so many different things that we do, so many little ins and outs that you only learn with experience. It hurts to lose all three (coaches) at once, but we’re definitely a lot better now than we were early in the season.”

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And Elway will agree that if he has one glaring fault, it is habit of purposely trying win games by himself on occasion.

“I’ve had problems with that in the past,” he said. “You get guys getting hurt . . . so you try to make up for it because you’ve got to pick up the slack. Sometimes, I have a tendency to pick up too much of it and do too many things.”

The rest of it--the injuries, the scrambling--Elway shrugs off. Instead, he offers a theory of his own.

According to Elway--and this didn’t go over real big with some of his teammates when he first said it--the Broncos lack the desire to win. It has, at times, affected everyone on the team, including himself.

“There was really a dropoff after the first Super Bowl (1987) to last year,” he said. “For some reason, this year we just haven’t had that fire burning. For some reason, why, I don’t know. I’d like to get the fire burning every week. We just haven’t got that done.

“I think that after two long seasons, it’s tough to get it going. I think once we got in the season and those type of things, I didn’t have a problem getting ready to play on Sunday.”

Tell that to the people of Denver. On second thought, better not. These days, they might not believe him.


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