It's another homecoming for John Elway of Granada Hills, Stanford and Denver, and another step closer to the greatness forecast for him, which will be his albatross until he has his first string of 600-yard games or enters the Hall of Fame.
How large a step has he taken? How far off is the greatness?
Ah, those are the questions.
"We're getting ready for Goose Gooden," said--who else?--Lester Hayes, the Raider in charge of hyperbole. A year ago, Hayes called him Goose Gossage, claiming that Elway threw 95-m.p.h. heat. An artist can update a metaphor without sacrificing alliteration.
Elway, however, is the NFL's 16th-rated passer, a mere 7.6 points above Marc Wilson. Elway has completed 52.8% of his passes, which is on the low side, and has thrown 14 interceptions, which isn't.
The Broncos say he's more a winner than a picture quarterback, pointing to his 22 victories in his last 29 starts. When he played hurt against the Steelers in last season's playoff loss, several teammates said that he'd won their respect, suggesting that he hadn't, until then.
Elway's defenders are still legion. They think he's doing fine.
Said Cowboy personnel director Gil Brandt, who, like the Raiders, tried to trade for Elway three springs ago: "What's missing? I don't know if anything's missing. I don't know how he'd do with those wide receivers (Mark Clayton, Mark Duper) Dan Marino had last year.
"I think Elway continues to get better every year. I don't have any doubt that one day Elway will take the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl."
Added Joel Buchsbaum, a free-lance writer who is good enough that NFL personnel people believe that someone is sneaking him inside reports: "The kid showed you, bringing the club back against San Diego and San Francisco, he's got that little extra that all the great ones possess. At the same time, he's not a great quarterback, yet.
"I think he's grown up a lot but he's got more growing up to do. You've got to remember, this is a spoiled kid. It's always been the great John Elway, with everyone tagging after him.
"There are other things he's better at but he still needs to improve. He tries to make up when he does something wrong. He can't forget when he makes a bad play. At times, he tries too hard to make a good one.
"The thing people fail to recognize is that he's running a very, very, very sophisticated offense. You look at the Dallas quarterbacks (the Bronco offense is patterned after the Cowboys'). None of their quarterbacks came right in. Danny White, whom Tom Landry calls the smartest quarterback he's ever seen, had a five-year apprenticeship.
"If you gave Dan Marino that offense, he couldn't run it. Period, no question. In that offense, you've got to be constantly reading. It's not like the Don Coryell system where you look, here, there, then there, period. There are more keys here, reading receivers, acting in unison with receivers.
"Before Sandy Koufax started on his string of Cy Young Awards, in 1961, he was 18-13. He was dominating in some games but he was erratic. That's the way I look at Elway now."
A year ago, there were people who thought that the Broncos' 13-3 record was misleading, blown up the same way the as the Seahawks' 12-4, with turnovers.
The Bronco defense scored eight touchdowns last season. This year, it has one.
This year, Dan Reeves got his secondary banged up in an exhibition--the one in which the 49ers' Bill Walsh complained that Denver kept its regulars in--and it wasn't intact until the seventh game. Allie Sherman, the former Giant coach, went so far as to label the Bronco defense soft, on his ESPN show.
It's not that soft. The Broncos have given up fewer points than the Raiders. They've won two overtime games without a single first down. They ran an interception of a pass by Seattle's Dave Krieg back into chip-shot range. They blocked two straight tries for the winning field goal by the Chargers' Bob Thomas after signaling for a timeout on the first one, but not in time to stop the play, which was blown dead by the officials. Given a reprieve, Thomas had his kick blocked again, and Louis Wright picked it up and ran for the winning touchdown.
What they've suffered from may be just the loss of the surprise factor. One of the questions asked of an L.A. reporter on the Tom Jackson-Butch Johnson TV show last week was, "Do the Raiders respect the Broncos?"
Are they kidding? They must not have been following the Raider season.