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The Difference: Shanahan's Planning, Elway's Execution

SUPER BOWL XXXIII / Denver 34, Atlanta 19 | ANALYSIS

February 01, 1999|BOB OATES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — The Denver Broncos won another Super Bowl game Sunday because they had a coach and quarterback who knew what they were doing. Although the quarterback, John Elway, consistently, expertly and often spectacularly executed Coach Mike Shanahan's plays, it was Shanahan's game-planning and play-calling that made the difference in a 34-19 rout.

The Atlanta Falcons lost the game in the first half when, for a familiar reason, they got only two field goals out of two long drives and an interception. The reason: In scoring position, their coach, Dan Reeves, kept trying to run the ball on third and one and even fourth and one.

When on those plays the Denver defense stuffed Atlanta's Jamal Anderson, Elway took over and put the Falcons away with one of his finest big-game performances.

To take a 17-6 halftime lead, Elway first drove the Broncos 80 yards to their first touchdown, then on one big play added an 80-yard touchdown with a long first-down pass to wide receiver Rod Smith.

The two other Denver touchdowns were scored in the second half on a surprise one-yard run by the fullback who seldom runs, Howard Griffith, and by Elway on a surprise three-yard quarterback draw.

Those were both Shanahan plays. Seldom has a Super Bowl coach so obviously dominated a good team. The win was a textbook example of how a brilliant coach and great quarterback can work together to destroy an opponent who is about as talented as the winning team.

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Why retire? During the notorious Reeves-Elway feuding in Denver several years ago, Bronco owner Pat Bowlen had two choices. He could trade Elway and keep Reeves, who kept coaching the Broncos into the Super Bowl, where they kept losing. Or he could fire Reeves and keep Elway. Super Bowl XXXIII verified the soundness of Bowlen's decision.

Next, he should persuade Elway to cease talking about retiring. For this was a game that showed, first, that Elway isn't through and, second, what he could have accomplished in the old Denver days with Shanahan-type coaching.

Take the Broncos' first 80-yard drive. That might not have ended in a touchdown but for Shanahan's call on the setup play, Elway's pass to tight end Shannon Sharpe for 14 yards to the Atlanta one-yard line.

The pass to Sharpe was a quick slant pass on second and 11--the very down on which, a moment earlier, the Denver defense had ruined a long Atlanta drive with a blitz. To forestall the expected Atlanta blitz, Shanahan put Elway in a fast, three-step drop and had him throw it quickly, before the Falcon defenders could arrive. It was a splendid pass and catch, but most of all it was a splendid call.

Then, capitalizing on a brief sag in Atlanta morale after a long Falcon drive to a blown field goal, Shanahan, on the next play, sent in the right play, the long pass to Rod Smith that made it a 17-3 game 80 yards later.

Elway's execution continually matched the superb design of these plays and the superb timing of Shanahan's calls. For example, the 80-yard pass play was an Elway courage play. While waiting for Smith to get away, Elway first faced down a charging Atlanta rusher and then threw a strike.

Later, the quarterback-draw touchdown was another example of Shanahan planning and Elway execution. Shanahan put his quarterback in a five-receiver, empty-backfield set that took all of Atlanta's linebackers out of Elway's way as he hit the line with the fire of a rookie.

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Old habits: This was a game in which the only statistic that had any meaning was first-half passing: Denver 199 yards, Atlanta 80 yards.

Reeves didn't have to play it that way. In his last game, he upset Minnesota by having his quarterback, Chris Chandler, throw the ball from the outset.

But against Denver, Reeves reverted to the habits of a lifetime and tried to beat the champions with Anderson's runs. It was a terrible miscalculation.

For when Chandler was finally unsheathed in the second half, he was playing catch-up, which can easily lead to some interceptions. The ones Chandler threw weren't his fault. If in the first half Chandler had been asked to mix in some of those passes with Anderson's runs, Atlanta could have won the game.

Instead, the Falcons ran their way through the first half and passed through the second--which is not the way to win 1990s football.

That strategy simply gave Shanahan and Elway a free hand to plow the Falcons under.

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