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Pro Football : Broncos Look Like Single-Wing Team--and What a Wing It Is

December 02, 1987|Bob Oates

With quarterback John Elway standing in the backfield as a tailback, the shotgun formation has lately been the Denver Broncos' primary formation.

The Broncos have used shotgun passes and runs on first and second downs, as well as third, in moving ahead of the Seattle Seahawks in the AFC West--leading to this question:

In the T-formation era, can you get to the Super Bowl with a single-wing team?

"You sure can when you have Elway back there," former National Football League Coach Red Hickey said this week. "Denver is an ideal shotgun team--great receivers, not much running game."

Hickey is the coach who, as the 1959-63 leader of the San Francisco 49ers, brought back the shotgun.

"People worry about quarterback injuries in this formation," he said. "But it isn't that dangerous if the quarterback doesn't try to be a fullback.

"Elway is an experienced NFL runner now. He knows when to slide out of trouble.

"Philadelphia and San Francisco could also win in the shotgun with Randall Cunningham and Steve Young."

The San Diego scoreboard fired up Elway Sunday, he told reporters after leading the Broncos to an easy 31-17 win.

"When they showed I only had 2 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions against the Chargers (in recent games), that added gas to the fire," he said.

Denver looked unbeatable against San Diego. But two weeks ago, Seattle had also looked unbeatable, crushing San Diego, 34-3.

In the AFC West this season, what's happened is that after years of losing, San Diego has suddenly played well enough to command respect.

But that has only alerted the division's best teams, Seattle and Denver, to bear down and blow the Chargers out.

When they get more speed--and if, down the road, they can successfully replace Dan Fouts at quarterback--the Chargers will be a factor.

But this year, look for the division title to be settled at Seattle a week from Sunday when the Broncos (7-3-1) play the Seahawks (7-4).

Elway, the only man in the league who can run out the clock with pass plays, has become a triple-threat this year--perhaps the NFL's most effective combination passer, runner and leader.

"One edge he gives you is that he can get those long-distance third downs," Denver Coach Dan Reeves said after Elway had converted third and 11, third and 14, and, twice, third and 10 in San Diego.

That's one thing. Another Elway edge is that he usually gets the most out of his teammates.

Team-wide leadership is, indeed, the Broncos' hidden weapon. No NFL organization has more of it than they get from the four key people, Reeves, Elway, defensive coach Joe Collier and owner Pat Bowlen.

Collier has lost most of his best players to injury and retirement this year and still his team defends with distinction.

For better or worse, the nation still sees pro athletes as role models.

Despite the trouble that some sports figures have had with drugs and in other negative scenes, they are still looked up to, a Travelers Companies survey shows.

The firm's recent random poll of 1,015 adults found that pro athletes are preferred as role models by more than 2 to 1 over business executives, the second-most popular class.

Linebacker Reggie Williams of the Cincinnati Bengals doesn't take the honor lightly.

Speaking of NFL players and other pro athletes at a New York press conference, Williams, the league's 1986 man of the year, said: "Our expectations for young people must be exemplified by our actions. If we're asking our youth to be outstanding citizens, our actions must speak louder than our words."

Instant replay officials have reversed an average of four calls a week this season, NFL spokesman Joe Browne said Tuesday.

The broadcast medium doesn't talk about it much any more, and the print medium doesn't write about it. Moving on to livelier issues, most reporters seem to be waiting for the next glaring error.

Quietly, however, the upstairs officials have corrected 43 officiating errors this year--at least two each week, five last week.

And, said Browne, that's more action than there was last year, when in a comparable period only 30 calls were reversed.

"Last year, it took a while for the replay officials to get used to the equipment," he said.

The equipment and the extra salaries are costly. The league barely voted in replay officiating this season, 21-7, and the economizers are still against it.

But in an era of exploding parity in pro football, it's clearly worthwhile. One bad call can mean the Super Bowl.

In Joe Montana's best game of the season, the San Francisco 49ers were the NFL's most impressive team last weekend.

They manhandled a first class defensive power, the Cleveland Browns, who, going in, led the NFL in overall defense as well as pass defense and point defense.

"Everybody on our team played well," Montana said this week. "It would be nice if we could stay at this level."

Nice, and not impossible, but tough. The 49ers will play the Bears and, among others, the Rams in December.

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