Well, that amalgamated convention of annual party poopers, the National Football League playoffs, has actually come and gone and left us with our standard quota of who-in-the-world-invited-thems. For instance:
--We still get John Elway and Karl Mecklenburg.
--We lose Walter Payton, Richard Dent, Jim McMahon and Mike Ditka.
--We lose Joe Montana, Jerry Rice and Bill Walsh.
--We lose Eric Dickerson, the floating football player from the floating franchise.
--We keep Bernie Kosar and the underhanded breaking-balls he keeps getting secondaries to go for and miss.
--We get the ever-popular Dave Butz, Joe Jacoby, Neal Olkewicz, and a quarterback to be named later, but I think Len Hauss and Chris Hanburger are gone.
--We get the Minnesota Vikings, whoever they are and in the unlikely event anyone wants them, but they do have Anthony Carter, although Fran Tarkenton and the Purple People Eaters are long gone.
--We lose Ground Chuck Knox and his cast of dirt-eaters, but Chuck never comes to these things or, if he does, never stays long.
So, the Chicago Bears send their regrets, we're not going to get Jim McMahon to kick around--or vice versa--anymore. The 49ers and Bill Walsh have another engagement, probably the opera. The New Orleans Saints? Newcomers to the neighborhood. No loss. Nobody knows them anyway.
What this could leave, of course, is a lunch-pail, hard-hat, nosebleed-and-black-eye Super Bowl--Cleveland vs. Minnesota. Or even, Cleveland vs. Washington. You won't need San Diego and Mission Bay for that one. Central Park will do. June in January is not necessary. These teams could play on an ice floe. Ernie The Rock Durando vs. The Fighting Brakeman. Or the Meriden Buzzsaw.
But you still have a chance to return the game to its traditional boxer-vs.-puncher format. John Elway and those lightweight left-jab artists from Denver could still save us from a parking-lot-fight Super Bowl.
In fact, if I were the rest of the league, or the teams still in the tournament, I might root for young Master Elway to get knocked out of the competition early.
The finesse teams don't usually win Super Bowl finals. The arm-breakers usually do. The Steel Curtains, the Doomsday Defenses, the Gold Rushers.
The golden arms, the one-man teams have a great deal of trouble with these arm-twisters. The New York Giants of 1986-87, guys who played the game like Mafia loan collectors, had no real trouble with Elway in Super XXI, even sacking him once for a safety in a 39-20 rout.
The trouble with Elway, though, is not only his utter indiscouragability, to coin a word, it's the fact that he doesn't seem to understand the situation.
Elway is more than a fighter-who-gets-up. Elway gets up laughing . Even when he gets sacked in the end zone.
Elway has this maddening habit of looking as if he's having the time of his life. I don't know whether it's a breathing disorder or a malfunction of the sinuses, but Elway manages to look as though he's having trouble not laughing at you.
It's unnerving. It doesn't matter whether he has thrown a 65-yard touchdown pass or a goal-line interception, Elway seems to grin.
Check the average NFL quarterback who comes to the sidelines after a monumental screw-up, a turnover, a pass a schoolyard quarterback wouldn't throw. Most of them try to hide at the end of the bench or pretend to get on the phone to see if they can find someone to blame.
Not Elway. Elway comes back as if he expected somebody to give him a lollipop. He thrusts his helmet back on his head, his teeth are showing, he's smiling. He looks amused , for cryin' out loud. As if what the leave-blank-name-of-opponent did to him were cute. Like a puppy talking.
Elway's attitude seems to be: "Son of a gun, how'd he ever get to that ball?"
In short, Elway seems to think the game's fun. Guys like that are hard to beat. The pitcher, Tom Seaver, was once asked if he didn't regret finding himself on the hill in the late innings of a tight game with the bases loaded and the cleanup hitter at bat with one out. Seaver looked at the questioner as if he hadn't heard him right. "Where would you rather be?" he demanded. "Watching it?! What would you rather be--bored?"
A lot of people were surprised Sunday in the playoff game at Denver. The game was well out of hand, Denver had it won in the fourth quarter, 27-3. On any other team, it was time for the backup quarterback, time to mothball a star.
John Elway was still in there. He looked as if he were trying his best not to laugh as he chivied defenders into one false move after another with head fakes, pump fakes, rollouts, dropbacks. He looked like a kid on a merry-go-round instead of a guy trying to put his team in a Super Bowl.
Someday, John Elway may get up slowly, may take the field biting his lip, may kick a water cooler, or avoid the coach's eyes after a bad throw. But, until he does, we may get a Super Bowl that's a matador vs. the bull, Tunney vs. Dempsey, Frank Merriwell vs. the bullies, Bugs Bunny against the world. We may get Bugs Elway out there chomping on a carrot and saying "Ah, what's up, Doc?" to some 300-pound tackle who just hit him too late to stop a 40-yard touchdown throw.
You have to wonder if maybe David was laughing to himself as he put stones in this slingshot and looked over at poor Goliath getting ready for his pass rush. There's a scene in the movie "The Virginian" in which the good guy says to the bad guy, "If you want to call me that, mister, smile!" Well, Elway already is smiling.