Southland skies seemed friendly enough. No fewer than three blimps milled lazily overhead, dozens of skywriters traced curlicues in the flawless blue, and if one was lucky to look up at just the right time, he saw a happy face chalked above.
But the kids from the Mile High City were breathing none of it. They grew wary of such flawless air, an atmosphere that lacked the homey crispness of Denver. As if by some tragic design, in the game's turning point, they returned their offense to earth. And they lost a Super Bowl that, despite a 39-20 final score, was a game they could have won.
Leading, 10-9, in the second half, the Broncos failed to punch the ball over from the one-yard line, rushing each time. A failed field goal compounded their frustration.
"We get them, 17-10," speculated wide receiver Steve Watson, "and we could have blown it wide open. They'd have played conservatively." He let the thought lapse. "It sure lets some air out of your balloon when you don't score from the one."
You could hear the air escape throughout the next quarter as the New York Giants, in a Broadway does Hollywood move, surged by, scoring 17 points to take a 26-10 lead. The Broncos didn't exactly throw in their helmets, but they agreed that the happy face no longer applied to both teams. Keith Bishop: "The confidence factor, uh, shifted. But, hey, that's the fun of football."
But it was no fun at all, not for the Broncos or their fans. The decided Orange blush of the east stands seemed to visibly pale as the Giants rolled on.
But they were clearly out of their element, especially at a game that made "That's Entertainment" a larger premise than pro football. The Beach Boys played, their harmonies mysteriously like their albums (the cymbals, curiously, did not move), and young girls played volleyball in a pregame show. And the halftime show proceeded with a determination that meant to reduce the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies to the level of a lounge act.
This is show biz, Jack. Fireworks, pageantry, bevies of beautiful girls and the constant cathartic release of balloons, strands of which twisted in the sky like DNA, seemingly forever. What was Denver doing here? At least when Frank Sinatra crooned "New York, New York," the New York fans sang along. Denver people seemed lost, even when John Denver sang "Rocky Mountain High."
What to do with a team, famous for its gadget plays, that runs three times from the one-yard line? New York, on the other hand, unleased a fake punt (not very fake, to be sure) and a flea flicker that took Phil McConkey to the one-yard line, where he pounded the earth at his failure to go yet farther. McConkey got in the spirit of things and scored later in the game on a tipped pass.
That's entertainment, folks. You come to a Super Bowl where a card stunt spells "Hollywood," you should be prepared to do something with more pizazz than a "a whammo" play up the middle, as Denver quarterback John Elway describes it.
The Broncos, to their credit, recognized the gaffe. They refused to second guess, sensing that the task had already drawn volunteers. "It's definitely a bad feeling when you don't get that point," agreed Bishop, an offensive guard. "It's obvious they were doing it and we weren't."
Watson said: "It really hurt, when you're down on the one-yard line and you don't score. It hurts a lot, we should have come away with something."
Sammy Winder agreed that the New York defense had appeared "backed up," after Elway went 79 yards with a spectacular cross-field pass to Watson that surely traveled 50 yards in the air. "And then to be so conservative . . . We make first and goal, it's a different game."
Watson: "It left us shaking our heads. I thought we had some good plays, had backed them up. But that was the end of it. I really thought we had the passing game to beat them." Except they didn't use it when it mattered.
You can place a lot of weight on that failed series, and it is a weight the Broncos must shoulder an entire off-season. However, their gloom was not complete. Even in the quiet of the dressing room, the Broncos refused to weep. Poor Rich Karlis, so recently a hero, explained two missed field goals as "part of my business." Things were being taken in stride.
Said Vance Johnson, his Carl Lewis pompadour resuming shape after the helmet was removed: "I can't wait until next year."
Agreed Watson: "I'll be haunted enough, probably enough to make me want to come back."
Next time, if they've learned anything, they should show a little more confidence in these sunny skies. It's what got them here.