Our long national NFL soap opera has begun.
The question of whether John Elway will return to help the Denver Broncos' bid for a three-peat will be debated until he finally makes an announcement.
The best guess is that he won't be able to resist the lure of trying to become the first quarterback to win three straight Super Bowls.
If history is any judge, though, the odds are stacked against the Broncos regardless of whether Elway returns.
Winning three straight NFL titles is one of the toughest feats in sports. Only Curly Lambeau's 1929-30-31 Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi's 1965-66-67 Packers have done it.
And Lombardi's Packers did it only because an official, Jim Tunney, blew the call on Don Chand-ler's field-goal try in the 1965 Packer-Colts playoff game when Tom Matte played quarterback with the plays taped to his wrist.
The bad call enabled the Packers to tie the game and win it in overtime.
It's difficult for everything to go right for a team for three straight years. In fact, Denver might have already won three straight if Jacksonville hadn't squeezed into the playoffs in 1996 after Atlanta's Morten Andersen missed a chip-shot field goal in the season finale. The Broncos then took the Jaguars lightly in the playoffs and were upset.
Looking at the fate that has befallen some other two-time champions illustrates what a surprise it would be if the Broncos do it.
To start with, as Baltimore fans know, injuries are always a factor. The Colts' bid in 1960 was ruined by Alan Ameche's torn Achilles' tendon. Sixteen years later, the Pittsburgh Steelers lost running backs Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier with injuries in their 40-14 playoff victory in Baltimore in 1976. They lost in Oakland the next week.
San Francisco was running out the clock in the 1990 NFC title game when Roger Craig fumbled, enabling the New York Giants to rally for a victory.
Then there are the really unusual things that have happened to two-time champions.
Dallas' shot in 1994 was wrecked by the Jerry Jones-Jimmy Johnson split that led Johnson to quit in a huff.
Green Bay's bid for a three-peat was ruined in 1963 by Paul Horning's suspension for gambling. Philadelphia had a shot in 1950 until the All America Football Conference folded and the Cleveland Browns came into the league and beat them twice.
During the famous "Sneakers" game in 1934, the Giants switched to sneakers at halftime to beat the Bears on a frozen field. That ended the Bears' bid for three straight.
Eight years later, the Bears had a chance to do it again when they were unbeaten in the 1942 regular season. They then lost the title game to Washington, 14-6, a team they had beaten two years earlier in the title game, 73-0
If the Bears had won that one, we wouldn't have to put up with the Dolphins drinking champagne every time the last unbeaten team loses.
If you want to go back into the mists of history, the Canton Bulldogs were the first team to repeat in 1922-23. The Cleveland owner then bought the franchise, closed it down and took the best players for Cleveland.
At least the Broncos won't go out of business. If history's any judge, though, the time for Elway to quit is now when he's on top.
It didn't get much notice when Broncos guard Mark Schlereth and Tennessee tight end Frank Wycheck were added to the Pro Bowl squad because of injuries to Bruce Matthews and Shannon Sharpe.
They have one thing in common, though. Both were waived by embattled Washington coach Norv Turner, who has yet to take a team to the playoffs in five years. Turner may survive for a sixth season, though, because of the team's unsettled ownership situation.
When Cornelius Bennett, who was destined to lose his fifth Super Bowl on Sunday, ran into Eric Dickerson on Saturday, he congratulated the running back on making the Hall of Fame.
"He said, 'Yeah, but you've been to a bunch of Super Bowls.' I said, 'Yeah, but I haven't won one.' He said, 'Yeah, dog, but you've been there.'
"That shows how much it means to players just to get to that situation," Bennett said.
For most players, getting there and losing is better than not making it.
For Atlanta safety Eugene Robinson, though, making it turned out to be a nightmare.
If Randy Moss had out-jumped him for that Randall Cunningham rainbow in overtime of the NFC title game and the Vikings had won, Robinson's season still would have been an overall success and he would have faded into obscurity.
But in the wake of his Saturday night arrest before the Super Bowl, he's become football's version of Hugh Grant and the butt of Jay Leno jokes.
The word in Cleveland is that the new Browns probably will pass on the idea of bringing back Michael Jackson and his $3.7 million cap number in the expansion draft Tuesday.
That's not good news for the Ravens. If they cut him, they'll be charged for $1 million against this year's salary cap because that's the rest of his pro-rated signing bonus.
That won't help. There's going to be a tight squeeze for all teams this year because the cap is expected to go up only slightly to about $57.5 million and the minimums are going up. Rookies will earn $175,000, second-year players $250,000 and third-year players $325,000.
Just two years ago, the figures were $131,000, $164,000 and $196,000.
The Browns will be the big player when the free-agency signing period starts Friday, but they're likely to find the cupboard picked over.
Not only did many of the top players get contract extensions last year, but several teams will slap the franchise tag on top leading players. For example, two top receivers, Carl Pickens of Cincinnati and Antonio Freeman of Green Bay, are likely to get the tag.
Pickens already is complaining about it and says he'll sit out -- as Sean Gilbert and Dan Williams did the last two years -- rather than play for the Bengals again.
"That's a tough kick for anybody, even me."
-- Denver kicker Jason Elam on the 40-yard field-goal attempt that a fan, William Simmons, 57, will try for $1 million at the Pro Bowl tonight. The fans have made it the last two years.
Pub Date: 2/07/99