QB finally gets free pass; Elway: A year after he conquered his Super Bowl hex, John Elway no longer faces the tough questions he heard before he won the big one.; SUPER BOWL XXXIII


MIAMI -- The national media finally are giving John Elway a break.

No more beating up the Denver Broncos' quarterback over his tepid Super Bowl performances. No more questions about a Hall of Fame career that rings hollow for want of a Super Bowl ring.

Heck, yesterday no one even bothered to quiz Elway about The Feud, so easily has he dismissed his stormy relationship with former Broncos coach Dan Reeves.

This is the difference a year makes. It is the difference a Super Bowl championship makes. And last January's 31-24 victory over the heavily favored Green Bay Packers made all the difference in the world to Elway.

"Last year was the ultimate," he said in the countdown to Super Bowl XXXIII against the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. "We hadn't won a Super Bowl. We'd lost four. We got over the hump and won one. There will never be, in my mind, more pressure than was on us last year because of what had happened in the previous years."

If that win validated Elway's Hall of Fame credentials, it also lessened the pain of three Super Bowl blowouts in the 1980s. Each loss was worse than the previous. Each added to the burden Elway carried.

Then, just like that, he was out from under it. The nagging question that wouldn't go away -- John, will your career be complete without a Super Bowl victory? -- went away.

"I answered that question 10 years straight," Elway said. "To finally get over the hump, it's a lot more positive atmosphere."

The question of the week, in Elway's fifth Super Bowl, is whether this is also the sign-off game to a 16-year career that started ever so briefly as a Baltimore Colt. A hip fake here, a head fake there and no one really knows. Elway isn't saying.

Not even to his closest friends.

"He really hasn't said anything to me," said Broncos offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. "I think everybody has his opinion on what he's going to do, whether it's going to be his last game or not. But I'm as close to him as anyone and we really haven't talked about it."

Through the AFC championship game, Elway complained about the beating his 38-year-old body has taken. (He has missed all or parts of six games this season to a variety of injuries.)

This week, though, he admitted he might be intrigued by the prospect of trying to win a third straight Super Bowl title, assuming, of course, the Broncos get past the Falcons.

Was yesterday's observation of a training camp battle between would-be replacements Brian Griese and Jeff Lewis an unintended tip of his plans? Or a long-range forecast? Elway sounded like a man who knew it was time to go, but hadn't convinced his heart it was the right decision.

"All football players physically run out of gas eventually," he said. "I don't think you ever want to stop playing, and I think that's the biggest thing. Ever since I've been alive, Saturdays or Sundays in the fall have always been circled around a football game.

"The question of the unknown and how I'm going to react is definitely a scary thing, and I'm sure there are a lot of things I'm going to miss."

Elway's performance this season suggests he could continue to play at a high level. His passer rating of 93.0 is the best of his career, but his 22 touchdown passes are the fewest since he threw 16 in 1994. Only three times in 16 seasons has he completed better than 59 percent of his passes, as he did this season.

With Terrell Davis in the backfield and coach Mike Shanahan on the headset, this is the ideal offense for Elway to run.

"When I was younger, I relied so much on my physical abilities to make plays," he said. "I would have loved to have been in this offense that I'm in now for the last 16 years. I think this offense fits me well."

Splitting time among Reeves (10 years), Wade Phillips (two) and Shanahan (four), Elway is second in career passing yards (51,475) to the Miami Dolphins' Dan Marino (58,913). He is third in career touchdown passes (300) behind Marino (408) and Fran Tarkenton (342).

But he is first in all-time wins with 148 in the regular season, six more than Marino. Asked yesterday to identify his top three quarterbacks of all time, he placed an emphasis on victories, not Super Bowls.

"I say this all the time because I think comparing quarterbacks is like comparing apples and oranges because the circumstances each quarterback has are so different," Elway said. "But I think the bottom line is the guys who can figure out ways to win no matter what the circumstances or what position they're in."

He then named, in order, Marino, John Unitas of the Baltimore Colts and Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys.

Elway, with an NFL-record 47 fourth-quarter, game-saving drives, fits nicely in that group.

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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