SAN DIEGO — The coronation began as expected: With quarterback John Elway arching a pass through the cool afternoon air and into the outstretched hands of wide receiver Ricky Nattiel on the team's first scrimmage play. It covered 56 yards, and the Denver Broncos owned a 7-0 lead, causing Elway watchers to immediately hyperbolize themselves into a lather.
One play--the Broncos' very first of Super Bowl XXII--one pass, one catch, one touchdown.
"Here we go," said Bronco receiver Mark Jackson as he watched Nattiel trot happily into the end zone.
Who could blame him? The Broncos had Elway--The Duke, architect of The Drive and Son of Drive. His swagger alone inspired teammates, to say nothing of his passes, which hissed like angry cats during flight.
This would be the game, said his subjects, that confirmed Elway's stature as the game's best. He would ascend to new heights which, depending on your source, was located near Zeus or The Holy Trinity.
Then came the coup d'etat . Overthrown and overthrows. Sacks galore. Interceptions--three of them. One lousy touchdown pass. Thirty-eight attempts and only 14 completions.
Elway, in an afternoon's time, was dethroned, de-legended, de-canonized. Responsible for all this were the Washington Redskins, who proved that one-man teams aren't what they're cracked up to be.
First Quarter--It began so easily, with Elway standing calmly in the pocket, glancing left and then unleashing that pass to Nattiel, who had swept by cornerback Barry Wilburn yards ago.
Elway raised his arms, as if to signal his own touchdown, and then jogged slowly to the end zone to meet Nattiel. Just like that, the Broncos had their lead. All seemed well.
This is what the Broncos had hoped for: A mismatch of sorts, the speedy Nattiel against the less-fleet Wilburn. Bronco Coach Dan Reeves had called the play, but it was Elway who noticed Wilburn, not cornerback Darrell Green, on Nattiel.
A possession later, Elway was at it again. First came a 32-yard pass to Jackson. Then came a handoff to running back Steve Sewell, who stopped near the line and threw back to Elway for a 23-yard gain. Elway became part of National Football League history on the play: The first quarterback in Super Bowl play to catch a pass.
On third and three from the Redskin six, Reeves sent in another play: Quarterback draw.
"They were waiting on it," Elway said.
"I didn't call a good play," Reeves said.
The Redskins smothered Elway, forcing the Broncos to settle for a field goal and a 10-0 lead. "I felt good," he said. "Being up 10 points makes you feel good."
But that would be that: Elway's finest hour had been reduced to about six minutes.
Second Quarter--An underthrow. A sack. An incompletion. A punt.
And so it went for Elway in the decisive second period.
As the Redskins gathered points with surprising ease, the Broncos--and Elway--stumbled and bumbled themselves out of a Super Bowl.
"I think it snowballed on us," Elway said later, standing on a wooden podium, wearing a white, terry-cloth bathrobe with a Super Bowl XXII insignia. "We didn't answer the bell in the second quarter. We were hurt by not getting some points and slowing them down."
Elway won't soon forget the second quarter, though he might want to try. Midway through the period, he was 5 for 16. Then 5 for 17 . . . 6 for 18 . . .
After the latest incompletion, Elway returned to the sideline and was handed a pair of headphones. Maybe a chat with the Denver coaches upstairs would help.
It didn't. On the Broncos' next possession, Elway completed one pass: To Wilburn.
Elway stood by himself on the sideline as the Redskins turned the interception into another score, giving Washington a 35-10 lead.
Before quarter's end, Elway threw another interception. He left the field 9 for 23.
Third Quarter--Elway had gone through cold stretches before. It was custom, almost expected. Elway would throw his incompletions, his interceptions and then, moments later, become a different quarterback. He would grow angry, combative, feisty.
Not Sunday. On Sunday, Elway stayed subdued.
"Sometimes he (gets angry) and tends to play better," Jackson said. "He tends to motivate everyone to play better. I was trying to encourage him to scream at us today.
"Usually, he'll start screaming and get emotional. But he didn't go off. You hate to tell a guy to act like a jerk, but maybe it works."
Elway returned for the third period hopeful, perhaps even optimistic.
"We had 30 minutes," Elway said.
Didn't matter. Elway still had difficulty finding an open receiver. The Redskins, it seemed, had assigned strong safety Alvin Walton to monitor Elway. If Elway ran, Walton was to be there.
Meanwhile, Bronco receivers couldn't free themselves of Redskin cornerbacks. "We had a tough time getting off the line of scrimmage," Elway said.
The incompletions continued to add up. Now it was 9 for 24, then 10 for 30, then 12 for 33.
There were tipped passes. Hurried passes. Frantic scrambles. Dropped passes. Elway could do little right, and his team followed his lead.
Fourth Quarter--Why bother?
Elway would complete only two more passes, giving him that grand total of 14. He would spend the final minutes of the game on the Bronco bench, viewing the proceedings with a mixture of disbelief and disgust.
"It's a loss, the ultimate loss," he said. "I didn't play well enough to win today."
As for blame, Elway said pile it on.
"I expect as a quarterback to get that," he said. "I went out and played the best football I could today. I don't care what you write. You write what you want."
How about: Coronation delayed.
Cmp Att Yds TD Lg Int 14 38 257 1 56 3