Shortly after the Pittsburgh Steelers were knocked out of the American Football Conference semifinals, 24-23, by the Denver Broncos in Mile High Stadium, Steeler linebacker David Little gave the Cleveland Browns a bit of advice.
“This team is no longer just John Elway,” he said. “Granted, he is still going to make the big play, but now there are other players that you have to be concerned about.”
Rookie running back Bobby Humphrey and wide receiver Vance Johnson have joined Elway as the key ingredients in Denver’s new, ball-control offense. Denver (12-5) will meet the Browns today for the AFC championship.
It will be the third time in four years that the clubs have met for the AFC title, with Denver having won the first two.
In the 1987 playoff victory over the Browns, when Elway was a one-man show, he drove the Broncos 98 yards in the closing minutes to produce a tie, and Rich Karlis kicked a field goal in overtime as Denver prevailed, 23-20, to win the AFC championship.
It could happen again, but it is more likely that Humphrey will be doing a lot of the running instead of Elway, and Johnson will be on the end of most of the receptions instead of “The Three Amigos.”
That possibility was never more evident than in Sunday’s 10-play, 71 yard, game-winning drive against the Steelers in which Humphrey rushed four times for 24 yards.
Johnson had the big reception, 36 yards on a flea flicker, breaking off a fly pattern that had been shut off and streaking across the middle.
Elway threw only one other pass, 9 yards to wideout Mark Jackson.
“I think you take what the offense gives you, and Vance has definitely been the key receiver for us,” said Elway. “Over the years I think we have tried to gain more consistency in our offense with a running game, and it really didn’t happen this year until Bobby came along.”
Last year, Broncos running backs rushed a combined total of 464 times for 1,815 yards. This year during the regular season, Humphrey, who came to Denver from the University of Alabama via the supplemental draft, had 294 rushing attempts for 1,151 yards and seven touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Johnson led the team in receptions with 76 for 1,095 yards and seven touchdowns, partly because fellow wideouts Mark Jackson (hamstrings and ankles) and Ricky Nattiel (cracked knee cap) were bothered with injuries.
Back when Denver was a one-man team, seven receivers shared relatively equally in the receptions. This year, Jackson is the team’s second-leading receiver with 28 receptions for 446 yards and two touchdowns.
“Right now, I’m working my butt off for Bobby Humphrey,” said Johnson. “The better blocker I am, the longer I’m going to be here because Bobby is going to be here a long, long time. I admit to being a little selfish, though. I want to be the one John looks for in the clutch.”
But, while Johnson and Humphrey are enjoying fine years, Elway’s statistics have suffered.
He has completed 223 of 416 passes for 3,051 yards and 18 touchdowns this season, but 18 of his passes have been intercepted, most of them in the first half of the season, when he was learning the new system.
By contrast, Elway attempted 496 passes in 1988 and completed 274 for 3,309 yards.
“I have no problems with the system,” he said. “It’s not predicated on any one person, but on what the defense gives you. Overall, I think it has made us a better team, taking some of the pressure off our defense.”
Johnson feels it has made Elway a better quarterback.
“I think John likes it because it’s going to make his career longer,” Johnson said. “He’s better because of the reads he makes. He’s not so quick to try and scramble for a 45-yard run.”
The Broncos have scored 16 or fewer points in three of their last four regular-season games. They also struggled against Pittsburgh, scoring 14 points in the second half. Against an emotional opponent like Cleveland, a slow start could result in a loss.
“We sputtered and fluttered offensively in the first half,” said Jackson, “but that may have been good for us to have a tough game. People are saying that us playing Cleveland is like Ali and Frazier going at it. Maybe it is.”