DENVER — Dan Reeves was reminded how he once seized the opportunity, an appearance on Monday night football, to make his mark as a head coach in the National Football League.
"That fourth-down gamble?" he asked. "I remember it very well. I did exactly what (Minnesota Coach) Bud Grant needed to have done. The only chance he had was if I'd gamble and lose."
It was midseason, 1981, and Reeves, the Denver Broncos' rookie coach, was holding a 19-10 lead. But he ordered his offense to go for the first down, right there on national TV before his startled coaching peers and a nation of critics. The Broncos didn't make it.
"There I was, saying: 'Well, if we don't score we'll eat up some clock and we'll still win the game,' " Reeves said. "But the first play, they run a reverse down to the one-foot line and score in about five seconds."
Luckily for Reeves, the Broncos hung on and won, 19-17.
Recently Reeves reflected: "It's great to have confidence that you can make it, but you also have to make decisions that are wise, and that wasn't a wise decision."
Bold, maybe, but not wise. Now, if you want just plain dumb, a week earlier the Broncos were playing at Buffalo and leading, 7-6, near the end of the game.
Said Reeves: "Buffalo's driving down. They're gonna try to kick a field goal and win, and I didn't use a timeout. I didn't give myself enough time that if they do make the field goal, to come back and have a chance to win. They ran it down to about 10 seconds--and we're sitting there with three timeouts."
The Bills kicked the field goal and won, 9-7.
Despite those mistakes, the Broncos went into their final game at Chicago with a 10-5 record and a chance for the playoffs. Then Reeves went back to coaching like a rookie again.
"(The Bears) are beating our butts bad (35-24). Fred Silva's the referee, and our quarterback gets trapped. Our receivers are 40 yards downfield, and he blows the whistle to start the 30-second clock. We had to use a timeout.
"I was screaming: 'Silva, what the hell are you doin'? You didn't wait for the receivers to get back!'
"He said: 'Coach, in the two-minute period (before time expires) when you get trapped, we're gonna give you five seconds.'
"I didn't even know the rule. I felt like an idiot."
Now it's 1985. Dan Reeves, projected as one of the NFL's next great coaches, sits in his second-floor office at the Broncos' practice complex on the outskirts of town and gears up for the opening game against the Rams at Anaheim Stadium Sept. 8.
He is coming off a 13-3 season during which the Broncos beat the Raiders twice and won the AFC West, and after which he was honored as NFL coach of the year by Sports Illustrated and Pro Football Weekly. He radiates control and confidence. What happened?
The four years have been a learning process--on-the-job training--prodded by a rude awakening. After his 10-6 debut, the Broncos collapsed to 2-7 in '82, the strike season.
Reeves said: "There's a doubt in your mind: Can you actually do it? Then to come in my first year and have a winning season and have a chance to win our division, I really felt good about myself. Then I got down to earth real quick the next year. For the first time in 17 years I was on a losing team. Some doubts creep back in: Gosh, what the hell happened?"
Part of Reeves' problem was that he served his entire coaching apprenticeship in Dallas under Tom Landry, first as a player, then as a player-coach, and for the last three years as offensive coordinator. Landry may be a master, but he was still just one coach doing things one way.
"I'd been in the same system for 16 years," Reeves said. "I didn't know any other way. I wish I'd have coached under Shula, Grant, Knox, Noll. But I was in a situation I thought was a good one.
"When I came here I noticed that coaches had different ideas. Every one of our staff had been a whole bunch of places. It was invigorating for me. One thing I've learned in four years is there's a lot of different ways to do things. You've gotta be flexible."
Being a head coach means more than coming up with ingenious game plans.
"The press is a great example," Reeves said. "There is no way anybody can work as an assistant coach and prepare himself to deal with the press."
And cutting players: "That's the toughest part, telling a guy for the first time in his life: 'You can't play for us.' You never had to tell every one of those guys."
Twelve years ago, Reeves wasn't even sure he wanted to be a coach all his life. He took a year off to sell real estate.
"I'd been in the league since '65, so 48 weeks of my life I'd spent in Thousand Oaks, Calif., (in the Cowboys' training camp)--almost an entire year of your family life.
"There also were the problems you have in football, like dealing with players. Then all of a sudden I was out and found that you've gotta deal with those things regardless of what kind of business you're in.