SAN DIEGO — How do you cope with a quarterback who not only is an outstanding passer but is equally dangerous as a runner?
Such is the Chargers' dilemma as they prepare for their pivotal game against the Denver Broncos Sunday at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. They must devise a defense for multitalented John Elway, and that's a challenge second to none in the National Football League these days.
In his fifth season as a professional after a spectacular career at Stanford, Elway has honed his skills to the point where he is considered by many to be the best in the business.
For example, Elway's coach, Dan Reeves, said after the Broncos' 23-17 victory over the Raiders last Sunday: "If he isn't the most valuable player in the league, I don't know who is. He's the greatest I've ever seen."
And Raider defensive end Howie Long, who can find the words to fit any situation, said: "Having him back there is kind of like organized mayhem. A blitz might work, but you'd better have a great secondary."
Actually, even blitzes don't often work. The Chicago Bears are the most blitz-minded team in the NFL--they lead the league in sacks with 48--yet they couldn't collar Elway once in last week's Monday night thriller won by the Broncos, 31-29.
Against the Bears and Raiders, Elway passed and ran for a combined total of 699 yards. He had several mind-boggling escapes against the Bears, somehow eluding half the Chicago team and winding up with either a long pass completion or a scramble for a first down.
Elway talked about these performances in a telephone interview Wednesday.
"I think the Chicago game was the best of my career," he said. "And the last two games were my best back-to-back. I've never been that consistent before."
Of his emergence as a superstar, Elway said: "I had a tendency early in my career to try to do too much. Now I just do what I know I can do. I can throw out of the pocket or on the run. At times, I have to get out and make something happen.
"But I'm just a guy who has the ability to pass, run and buy extra time. I never look at myself as the cornerstone of the franchise, only the quarterback."
Asked if he had the green light to scramble, Elway said: "It's all a reaction thing, but we'd prefer to stay in the pocket, and if I get time, my receivers will get open. If my protection breaks down, I'll take off, but it's not something that's ever planned."
Charger Coach Al Saunders said of Elway: "I don't know how he keeps getting away from people, but he does. On top of that, his arm is so strong that he can throw off balance without losing any velocity."
So what plans do the Chargers have for what looms as a "must" game in their quest for the AFC West championship?
"The important thing is to change your approach with each down," Saunders said. "You have to make him adjust to what defense you're playing."
This is easier said than done, and nobody knows it better than Ron Lynn, the Chargers' defensive coordinator.
"When you talk about defensing him, there are probably as many theories as there are coaches. Some coaches don't want him to go wide, but if you don't go wide enough with him, you might give him too much additional time.
"Our big worry is opening a lane down the middle. We would like to keep him guessing, if possible."
How can this be done?
"Not easily," Lynn said. "We're not a talented defensive team like the New York Giants. They can line up in a basic 3-4 and a two-deep zone, and say, 'Lawrence Taylor is coming . . . now.'
"With us, it's a matter of doing different things to try to keep the offense off balance. We'll put a couple of new things in this week. We always do, and as you noticed, they were horrendously successful against Seattle."
As the 34-3 score suggests, the Chargers' defense was easy prey for the Seahawks on Sunday.
"I can tell you this," Lynn said. "You can see inside linebackers coming, safeties coming and cornerbacks coming. That has been our M.O. We'll bring as many men at Elway as we can. We'd like to bring 12 or 13, but the officials count too well.
"The adjustments he (Elway) makes are more improvised than planned. He has such great natural ability and such great football intelligence that he invariably finds a way.
"When I was coaching at Cal, I saw more of him than I wanted to. He killed us. You watch him on film, and the speed of his arm is so great that even when you go to slow motion, his arm looks as fast as a normal guy's arm. And he never takes a big hit because he won't let you get it."
Mike Charles and Chuck Ehin share the nose tackle duties for the Chargers, and it will be up to them to apply enough inside pressure to keep Elway from darting out of the pocket.
Charles doesn't look at Elway as a scrambler in the Fran Tarkenton mold.
"His runs are designed," Charles said. "You take that, along with his strong arm, and you've got a dual challenge. You have to contain him from going outside, and no matter how badly he seems to be hemmed in, you can never take him lightly.