It was a time when John Elway occasionally went to the no-huddle offense in the first quarter and rarely ran with the football, content to leave the scrambling to the defensive backs.
These were the late 1970s, and Elway was establishing himself as the premier high school quarterback in the country at Granada Hills. More significant, perhaps, Elway was becoming adept at winning football--as taught by Jack Neumeier.
Neumeier, who coached at Granada Hills from 1960-1978 and in San Diego County from 1979-88 (at Fallbrook, Escondido and Torrey Pines), devised for the 1970 season at Granada Hills a high-tech passing scheme that produced instant results and a City Section title. His concept of spreading the defense from sideline to sideline was basic, but its application was more difficult. What Neumeier needed was a strong-armed quarterback who believed in his passing philosophy.
John Elway believed.
Elway understood the wisdom of operating the shotgun on first down when the defense wasn't prepared to stop the pass. And he understood the reasoning behind sending two receivers to each sideline on goal-line situations so the concentration of defenders attempting to stop the run was reduced.
Elway not only believed, he achieved. He passed for 5,701 yards and 49 touchdowns in his three-year career, which ended suddenly with a knee injury midway through his senior season in 1978. Playing in only six games his final season, Elway threw for 1,837 yards and 19 touchdowns, completing 129 of 198 passes.
"I guarantee it, he could have thrown for over 4,000 yards if he hadn't got hurt," said Neumeier, now 71 and living in Vista. "I knew we were going to break the national record. . . . I never thought I'd lose John, because I protected John."
Elway, then 6-feet-2, 170 pounds, was hurt while scrambling. Oddly, he showed few signs in high school of his later running ability for Stanford and the Denver Broncos, who will meet the San Francisco 49ers in Sunday's Super Bowl.
"When he played for me," Neumeier said, "he wasn't allowed to (run downfield). I told him, 'If you take off, you got to get out of bounds. It's amazing he hasn't got killed (in the National Football League)."
Neumeier's short passing game, in which Elway dropped back only one or two steps before firing, also kept Elway away from the pass rush. This was one of the keys in Granada Hills' 24-14 regular-season victory over Banning in Elway's senior year. Elway completed 12 of 17 passes for 169 yards and one touchdown.
"Granada Hills had the best passing attack we ever faced," said Chris Ferragamo, who coached Los Angeles Banning at the time and is now a Long Beach City College assistant. "Elway would look to the left on a slant pass and then throw to the right on a slant, and it was unheard of.
"Jack Neumeier was one of the innovators in the City. He was using four wide receivers and a single back, and that was the thing of the future."
Neumeier turned to the passing game and abandoned his ball-control, run-oriented offense after his team finished 6-2 in 1969 but failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Explaining his passing philosophy, Neumeier said: "Basically, my offense spreads the defense across the field. A lot of teams spread the defense the depth of the field, like the Raiders, but my idea is to spread them sideline to sideline so you never get two defensive backs to cover one receiver.
"And when you catch the defense in a one-on-one, the receiver would go to an open spot and should get there before the defender because he knows where he's going."
Neumeier's offense, which became known as "Happy Jack's Flying Circus," continued to fly even after Elway's injury in 1978. Using 5-foot-9, 150-pound Walter Seymour as Elway's replacement, Neumeier maintained his pass-happy philosophy, and Granada Hills won four of its last five games.
After recovering, Elway got one final chance to operate under Neumeier's system. Playing in the 1979 Shrine All-Star Game at the Rose Bowl, Elway completed 23 of 37 passes for 363 yards and four touchdowns in three quarters as his North team overwhelmed the South, 35-15.
Elway's biggest season came in his junior year when he passed for 3,039 yards and the team advanced to the semifinals.
Jack Elway, former coach at Stanford and John's father, said "probably John's greatest break came from going to Granada Hills and being tutored by Jack Neumeier. John was his real protege. He was planning on retiring when John was a sophomore but he coached two more years until John graduated, and we're thankful for that."
After moving to Fallbrook following the 1978-79 school year, Neumeier wound up serving as an offensive assistant for the trio of San Diego County schools, whose coaches solicited his assistance. Neumeier coached his third 3,000-yard passer in 1986 when Fallbrook's Scott Barrick threw for 3,503 yards in leading his school to the section 3-A title. Barrick spent two years (one as a red-shirt) at San Diego State before moving to Palomar College, where he passed for 3,624 yards last year. He has committed to Stephen F. Austin for next season.
Neumeier coached at Fallbrook for six years in the '80s under Tom Pack.
"One of the main changes that took place in the 1980s in North County," Pack said, "was throwing the football."
Neumeier coached his last season in 1988 for Torrey Pines.
"I think I got more recognition here than in L.A.," said Neumeier, laughing. "They weren't used to that stuff here. I think they got mad at me for bringing it here."
Neumeier gives the Super Bowl edge to San Francisco because of its short-passing game.
"I've never seen John throw a quick pass," said Neumeier, "and that's a disadvantage to John because they can put a rush on him."
But things are going much better for Elway at this stage of his NFL career than Neumeier thought they might be.
"At the beginning, I was really discouraged," Neumeier said. "But they've changed. They weren't going to the shotgun much then. All they were doing was throwing deep and getting a lot of interceptions."
But Neumeier now has no complaints.
"I'm afraid at the end of his career, they'll say, 'There's one of the greatest athletes with the greatest potential,' and they'll look at his numbers and say he didn't have the highest passing efficiency," Neumeier said. "But I'm sure he's going to be a Hall of Famer because they'll look at how many games he led the team to wins, and that's the important thing."