Here Comes The Grudge
It began as a blessing for both men at a 10 p.m. news conference in late April 1983, announcing the Denver Broncos’ acquisition of John Elway from the Baltimore Colts, and now it has come full circle, a bitter collision of festering contempt, culminating Sunday in the first meeting competitively between Elway and his former coach, Atlanta’s Dan Reeves.
Elway doesn’t like the coach, has never really liked the coach. He blames Reeves’ archaic run-oriented offensive system for preventing him from surpassing the statistics compiled by Miami quarterback Dan Marino.
“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the drafting of Tommy Maddox [in 1992]; Reeves was setting it up to get rid of me,” Elway says. “I was in the ninth year of my career--in the prime of my career--we needed wideouts so bad I could just taste it and he takes Maddox. That was the coup de grace. At that point I was going to move on. I bought a car dealership, gave myself some options and I wasn’t going to play for him anymore.”
Reeves runs a dictatorship. He picks the players, draws up the plays and calls them. His temper, on display along the sideline, is an effective disguise for almost unparalleled sensitivity in the NFL coaching ranks. He cried years ago when informed by cornerback Louis Wright that he was not a players’ coach, cried when his contract was not renewed in Denver, and cried again last season after hearing of John and Janet Elway’s stinging remarks about his coaching techniques.
“If I was still coaching in Denver and he was still the quarterback, I wouldn’t have lost as many games as I have the past five years,” Reeves said. “Because of having to leave Denver, my family and I have gone through a lot of trials and tribulations.
“I saw in an article the other day that [Bronco owner] Pat Bowlen couldn’t stand to go to work anymore when I was there. Damn, I had never heard that before, and now every year it’s something new.”
Rigid in his approach, Reeves always has been oblivious to the opinions of everyone else, which explains why he was unaware of the depth of Elway’s disenchantment until the end of the 1992 season, when the owner was put in the position of choosing between the franchise quarterback and one of the NFL’s most effective coaches.
“I had no idea how [Elway] felt,” Reeves said. “He never came to me, never said he wanted to throw the ball more, never said he had a problem with me. But knowing what I do now, there’s no question that if I’d stayed there, he wouldn’t be playing. He needed something to drive him.”
A few months after Reeves’ departure, Elway unloaded on him.
“The last three years have been hell,” Elway said in 1993. “I know that I would not have been back here if Dan Reeves had been here. It wasn’t worth it to me. I didn’t enjoy it. It wasn’t any fun and I got tired of working with him.”
And Reeves’ reply from New York: “Just tell him it wasn’t exactly heaven for me, either. One of these days I hope he grows up. Maybe he’ll mature sometime.”
Elway found new reason for enthusiasm with the hiring of Mike Shanahan, his friend and mentor in earlier years in Denver. And in Shanahan’s system, Elway, for the first time in his professional career, has had the chance to show everyone he can be just as prolific as Marino.
“He needed that,” Reeves said. “He looks like he plays with that desire now. I saw the same thing happen to Roger Staubach--he lost the desire to go to training camp and do the things he had to do. He lost his desire. This has definitely prolonged John’s career. I don’t think there’s any question about it.”
Elway remained in Denver, king of the Rocky Mountains and, in an odd twist of fate, one of the region’s biggest car dealers. Reeves moved on, begging the Giants to let him be their coach after others had rejected the job. And then, in the midst of problems with his wife, Pam, he left friends and family, beginning life anew.
“People talk about what I did to John Elway, but the things that have happened to my family . . . that hurt a bunch, because [Pam] loved it there,” Reeves said.
“It was at a tough time. She turned 50 right after we got [to New York] and it was just a bad time in our life. I put her through a lot of things and I wish I hadn’t, but it was not like my choice, and she understands that. We’re probably closer now than we have ever been because adversity does bring you closer together. But if I had my choice, I’d never put her through that again.
“I’m a human being like anyone else. . . . It changed my life, and I don’t know that I’ve ever fully recovered from that. I don’t know that you ever recover from rejection of any kind. You move on with your life, but I don’t know where you feel like you’re accepting of it. You don’t ever feel good about it. It changes your life. Your whole life is turned upside down.”
The Broncos are 4-0, the Falcons 0-4, and if that weren’t enough of a disadvantage for Reeves, his players in Atlanta have no vested interest in Denver days gone by, whereas Shanahan and players like Elway, Shannon Sharpe, Steve Atwater and Tyrone Braxton are interested in paybacks.
The Denver media, an extension of Bronco fans who never really embraced Reeves, the former Cowboy--and oh, how folks in Colorado dislike Texans--have continued to pound the former Bronco coach since his departure. This week, an angry Bronco wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who was released by Reeves in New York, was quoted. An angry Tim McKyer, released by Reeves in Atlanta, after having been released by five other teams, was quoted.
The newspapers have shown charts detailing Elway’s workmanlike statistics with Reeves and his sizzling numbers with Shanahan. They talked to Jim Fassel, former Bronco assistant and the man who replaced Reeves in New York, and he said, “Oh boy, John could own all the records,” if he had been playing under Shanahan through his career.
Elway says, “Dan [Marino] and I would be neck and neck, there’s no question. I wouldn’t be 5,000 yards and 100 touchdowns behind him. I think we would be nip and tuck at this point.”
Said a bewildered Reeves, “I never thought that was important to John. I never saw that side of him.”
Added Elway, “I hate to sound like I’m all worried about stats because I’m not. Did Dan put me in some tough spots? Yeah. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have this label and 41 comeback wins. It was his philosophy--keep everything tight--that put us in the position of having so many comeback wins.”
This week, the Denver newspapers have pointed out that Reeves’ teams have gone 39-45 since his departure and that Shanahan has compiled a 65-19 record--including his three-year stint as offensive coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers.
There has been, however, no mention of Reeves’ playoff record since leaving Denver, 1-1, or the Broncos’ playoff record in that time, 0-2.
For whatever reason, Denver cannot move on without punishing Reeves, who took the Bronco franchise to three Super Bowls and compiled an overall record of 108-80-1. As one local columnist wrote this week, “This can be no grudge match. With an 0-4 Atlanta team, Reeves is too pitiful to hate.”
Elway will be going to the Hall of Fame when his career is over, on the strength of his marvelous athletic ability and, oddly enough, because Reeves took three teams lacking overall talent to the Super Bowl and at the same time gave Elway the chance to become one of the game’s great comeback quarterbacks.
Reeves, the winningest active coach with 141 regular-season victories--he ranks 10th overall--will not be going to the Hall of Fame unless he can win a Super Bowl in Atlanta. He was blessed by Elway’s presence in Denver, but now must prove it was not only Elway who was winning all those games.
“I’m glad he came along and he definitely enhanced my chances of winning,” Reeves said. “I wouldn’t have had the career I had without John Elway. Is it really important to me that people think I’m not as good a coach? No. Does it bother me? Yeah.
“I think some people look at it and say, ‘He did a hell of a job in Denver,’ and some might preface it by saying, ‘He had John Elway.’ But George Seifert had Steve Young, Bill Walsh had Joe Montana, Coach Landry had Roger Staubach. Chuck Noll had Terry Bradshaw. So that asterisk beside it doesn’t bother me.
“But what irritates you the most is that every year you seem to become worse at what you did. It’s like you didn’t have anything to do with it.
“My wife’s in San Francisco last week at the game and she overhears people saying, ‘I can tell you this, Archie Manning does not want his son to go to Atlanta and play for Dan Reeves, because look what he did, he ruined John Elway and he ruined Dave Brown.’ So that’s the perception out there, and I don’t understand it.”
Does Elway have any sympathy for Reeves, and some of what he has endured since leaving?
“No,” he said. “Everybody makes their own bed and he does things his own way. He’s entitled to do things his own way, and he has been successful.
“I had my battles with Dan, but time cures a lot of different things. We also had a lot of good times, and I deserved a lot of his criticism at times. This perception that our relationship was just horrible every day, that’s not right. Doing what he did to Mike [Shanahan] had a lot to do with our problems too. He didn’t like us being tight, and when he left at the end, it wasn’t good between us.”
Reeves has been hurt by Elway’s criticisms over the years, but more than that, he still harbors disappointment and resentment toward Shanahan.
Reeves gave Shanahan his first job, hired him again after the Raiders had fired him as head coach, and then fired him for driving a wider wedge between Elway and himself and for insubordination after Shanahan had drawn plays for Elway’s benefit without Reeves’ approval.
“Dan Reeves was probably one of my closest friends at one time,” Shanahan said. “Any time you end the way we did, there’s always a little bit on the inside of you that rubs each of us the wrong way. But we’re both mature enough to handle it.”
Said Reeves, “I didn’t want to do that to Shanahan. I hired him twice. I wasn’t the only one uncomfortable with Mike on my staff. There again, my wife has great intuition and she begged me not to bring Shanahan back after the Raider deal and I just felt like he had a done a great job. But that’s all in hindsight. . . . “
All gone, but not forgotten, and now, Sunday, it looks as if Reeves will have to stand there and just take the expected beating.
“I’m not going to walk over and punch him,” Elway said.
No, they probably will shake hands.
“I certainly don’t have a problem with John,” Reeves said. “But he’s probably not someone I would go out to dinner with, and he probably wouldn’t want to go with me.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
ELWAY UNDER REEVES (Avg.)
Years Att. Cmp. Pct. Yds. TD Int. Rat. 10 434 238 .548 3,023 16 16 72.9
ELWAY SINCE REEVES (Avg.)
Years Att. Cmp. Pct. Yds. TD Int. Rat. 5 432 265 .613 3,134 20 89.3
SUPER BOWL APPEARANCES
1986: Lost to New York Giants, 39-20
1987: Lost to Washington, 42-10
1989: Lost to San Francisco, 55-10