CLEVELAND — The morning paper rang out the cold, stark depression Monday all across this gray city. The Browns' season was over. "37 Seconds Too Long," read the boldface, front-page headline in The Plain Dealer. And that was the plain fact.
Hanford Dixon, the Cleveland Browns' cocky cornerback-columnist, finished his last Dawg Diary with this note to readers: "I'm real depressed and so are you. Bye-bye, until next year."
The Browns' magical mystery tour has ended. A monthlong citywide gush that began in earnest after the division-clinching victory over the Cincinnati Bengals has ended with a gasp. It happened this way because Denver Bronco quarterback John Elway tossed a little pixie dust of his own Sunday--even converting a third-and-18 play as Denver's season was about to expire--to lead the Broncos to a 23-20 overtime victory in Cleveland Stadium in the American Football Conference title game.
Surely this will be remembered as The Day John Elway Became Everything We Always Knew He'd Be.
Just imagine what Elway might have accomplished if he hadn't had a sprained ankle. Denver receiver Steve Watson said after the comeback was completed: "John shut a lot of people up this season. First the Pro Bowl, now the Super Bowl."
The Broncos (13-5), who tied the game with 37 seconds left in regulation on Elway's five-yard touchdown pass to wideout Mark Jackson, will try to put a pin to the New York Giants (16-2) and their ballooning legend in Super Bowl XXI on Jan. 25 in Pasadena, Calif.
It was early October, just five weeks and five victories into this Broncos season, when club owner Pat Bowlen sat back in his office chair and finished a lengthy diatribe about his team by saying, "Let's face it, John Elway is the franchise."
Now, who could doubt him? Yes, Denver has a defense of renown. But Elway is the Broncos' heart.
Four years ago, he told Colt owner Robert Irsay not to draft him, that he didn't want to play for his team, then in Baltimore, and that he preferred to play somewhere in the West. Neither did Elway want to play for then-coach Frank Kush. Irsay drafted Elway with the No. 1 pick anyway, then worked a trade with Denver. Now the Colts are a pitiful wreckage in Indianapolis, Kush is out of coaching and living in Arizona, and Elway is in the Super Bowl.
Elway now becomes the third member of that esteemed quarterback Class of '83 to appear in the Super Bowl: Miami's Dan Marino made it two years ago, followed by New England's Tony Eason last year. Will Elway be the first to win it?
After Elway had spread 22 completions among 10 different receivers Sunday, Cleveland Coach Marty Schottenheimer was left to say: "We worked on containing Elway all week. It was kind of ironic because last week the Jets did a great job on (Brown quarterback Bernie) Kosar until the very end, and that's what we did with Elway today."
Mostly, Elway will be remembered for the way he drove the Broncos to the game-tying touchdown in the final five minutes of regulation. "They hadn't done much all day before that," said Browns linebacker Eddie Johnson.
This is when Elway directed a 98-yard, 15-play bonanza. He was equal parts stunning and cool. Each pass he threw seemed to gain velocity over the previous one. Elway finished this masterpiece with the five-yard touchdown pass to Jackson, who had run an inside route right by defensive back Mark Harper. Rich Karlis' extra point tied the game.
That Elway nimble-footed out of the pocket to complete two passes for a combined 50 yards in setting up Karlis' 33-yard field goal, just inside the left upright, on Denver's first drive in overtime merely served as the cherry atop his Super Bowl float.
Rest assured, the Browns' insides will burn throughout the offseason when they think of how Elway converted a third-and-18 play from the Cleveland 48 with 1:47 to play to spur the 98-yard drive. He hit Jackson inside the seam of a zone for a 20-yard gain to the 28.
"Dan (Reeves, the Denver coach) said, 'Just try to get half of it.' We were kind of picking them apart underneath all day," Elway said. "I wanted to take a shot downfield. Their safeties were playing real deep and Mark did a great job of finding the hole for me."
And it worked. Denver guard Keith Bishop said: "Right before the third and 18, John comes into the huddle and says, 'Do whatever it takes and something good will happen.' He hit Mark Jackson and from then on it was go."
Several of the Brown defenders said they were displeased when Schottenheimer deployed predominantly a three-man rush during the Broncos' game-tying drive rather than the four-man rush the unit had used for much of the game. The Browns added a fifth defensive back (nickel alignment) to prevent Elway from any deep strikes for much of the drive.
Jackson, the rookie receiver who didn't catch a pass in the playoff game against New England one week earlier, said of the 98-yard advance: "I saw no pressure on John at all. I thought, 'This is six for sure.' "
Cleveland safety Chris Rockins said: "When you've got a quarterback like Elway who can scramble, three guys are not going to be able to rush him. . . . I'm pretty sure we would have stopped them if we had rushed four men."
But Schottenheimer said, "We definitely did not change our defense (near game's end). We were mixing our coverages just as we had through the entire game. There was man-to-man, some zone and a four-man line part of the time."
So now Elway has achieved something in four years as a pro that he was unable to achieve in four years at Stanford: a trip to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
"I knew if anyone could do it when we were on the (Broncos') two-yard line," Karlis said, "it was us because we have John Elway."