40,000 YARDS--BUT MILES TO GO

What happened next is open to several interpretations. Given the ball Craver had just caught, Elway held it aloft in his big right hand, turned this way and that to the Mile High Stadium crowd (much diminished by this point in the afternoon), then stood still for some joyous mobbing by his teammates.

The former Stanford star--whose arm was so strong as a mere undergraduate that, in practice, Elway used to throw seventy-yard "punts" to guys on the kick-return teams--was smiling at his accomplishment. But the shadow of Fran Tarkenton seemed upon him. As all Denverites know (and know and know and know), the Broncos have also lost four Super Bowl games--three of them on Elway's watch--and the score has never been close.

"I've got a lot of football left," Elway said after the November 5 game.
But the shy smile on the sideline said something else. It said No. 7 would give back 20,000 of those yards to hold the halftime lead Denver had against the Giants on January 25, 1987. It said he'd pay out 10,000 yards to erase the 35-point, second-quarter avalanche Doug Williams and the Washington Redskins laid on the Broncos on January 31, 1988. It said he'd give up the final two miles' worth of pigskin, the nice house in Englewood and the Honda for another crack at Montana and the 49ers, who were 55-10 winners on January 28, 1990.

In three Super Bowls, the Elway-led Broncos were outscored 136-40 and the quarterback had just two touchdown passes. Under the gun, he threw six interceptions. And the Broncos, like the Vikings and the Buffalo Bills, have been branded as bridesmaids from New York to--excuse the expression--San Francisco.

Will John Elway get another chance?
If the gods of schoolboy fiction have their way, the answer is yes. A glance at the remaining schedule tells you that the 5-5 Broncos host San Diego this Sunday, then visit Houston before coming home again to face expansion Jacksonville and up-and-down Seattle.

If all goes reasonably well through that stretch--and that's no guarantee, after Elway, who came into the league the same year as Marino, was knocked silly by the Eagles--the Broncos may be in a position to stage some high drama around Christmastime.

On December 17 they visit Kansas City, where the 9-1 Chiefs have been sailing through a tough schedule as if they were, well, as if they were the Dallas Cowboys. Then, on Christmas Eve, the Broncos will return to the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum for the first time in fourteen years to face the hated Raiders--an 8-2 team they blasted 27-0 last month on Monday Night Football. That game could have a lot of everything--crucial playoff implications, the weight of an ugly history and the desire of an aging star quarterback burning for one more shot at destiny--40,000 yards or no 40,000 yards. If there's real justice out there, Elway's Broncos and Marino's Dolphins would then meet on the postseason trail.

Failing all this, there's always next year for John Elway--but in all likelihood, there's only next year. And that could be a long, long time in coming to pass.

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