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Anger Bowl

For a good ol' red-dirt Georgia boy, that Dan Reeves sure has got one pow'ful sense of theater.

First he ups and coaxes a 44-year-old back-up quarterback out of retirement because they go back to the leather-helmet days together, and then, when things get rough for his fragile starter, Dan actually plays the guy: Ancient Steve DeBerg, serving with his seventh NFL team, throws three touchdown passes en route to saving two wins for the Atlanta Falcons. Last week they put the 45th candle on his birthday cake.

Next ol' Dan goes in and gets himself a quadruple heart bypass just before the playoffs are about to begin. He vanishes from the sideline for about fifteen minutes, then reappears like the risen Christ. This dramatic gesture apparently helps inspire his Falcons, who have been doormats in the NFC West since Sherman burned Atlanta, to whump up on their old nemeses, the San Francisco 49ers. Then the Falcons go on up to Minneapolis and, to everyone's shock, outlast the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings in an overtime thriller, 30-27. They win the NFC title and move on to the Super Bowl.

But a geezer quarterback and death-defying heart surgery ain't enough. Ten days before the big game, foxy ol' Dan reaches down into his tattered back pages and pulls out a dusty grievance. He's not provoked by the press or anyone else. He just does it. For gamesmanship purposes. He was unjustly fired as head coach of the Denver Broncos way back when, Dan claims. Not only that, but there was a dark conspiracy against him second only to Kenneth Starr's plot against Clinton--or the Kennedy assassination. His then-offensive coordinator, Dan charges, turned his quarterback against him, and together the coordinator and the quarterback fomented a regular Sunday-afternoon mutiny, scripting their own game plan and leaving the head coach gape-jawed on the sideline.

There's more: The offensive coordinator was reporting to his pal the quarterback on the comments made in private coaches' meetings. And that's why Reeves fired him.

Did you know that all of this supposedly happened seven years ago? And that the alleged conspirators just happen to be ol' Dan's upcoming opponents in the Super Bowl? And that the Falcons are seven-point underdogs in the big game and likely need any edge they can find?

Sure you did. Unless you've been living in Madagascar or in the back of the pickup where there's no radio, you know all about the pre-game verbal battle between Reeves and Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and, by extension, between Reeves and Broncos quarterback John Elway. It has become the underlying theme of this Super Bowl, the gate-builder, perhaps even the prime motivation to win the thing. The principals, who worked together here for eight years and lost three previous Super Bowls together, both say they'll shake hands after the game. But it wouldn't hurt to stick a cop the size of a beer truck between them when they do it.

Football coaches love to play it cool, love to have us think they're thinking only of X's and O's and the efficiency of their running game. But if you were out at the Broncos' Dove Valley practice facility last Thursday afternoon when Shanahan met the press, you saw different: He tried to contain it, but there was hot steam blowing from the man's head.

"If he [Reeves] would have said to me, man-to-man, and looked me in the eye and told me how he felt," Shanahan said, "I could have respected that. But when he looked me in the eye, he said, 'Mike, I want to call the offense, and the reason why I've got to let you go is because I enjoy calling the plays and so do you--so therefore, I've got to make a change.'"

Three days after that conversation, though, Reeves was charging Shanahan with "insubordination," a word more often employed by brigadier generals and nuns with rulers than by football coaches. In 1993 Reeves himself was fired, and he promptly blamed Elway. Since then, the three men have been guardedly cordial--until Reeves threw down the gauntlet last week.

What more could any red-blooded football fan ask for than the first-ever Anger Bowl? Half of this is surely hype, the other half psychological warfare. But with charges of high crimes and misdemeanors flying around like footballs, it should be a great time to be sitting in the cheap--make that the $325--seats.

The 38-year-old Elway, who is likely playing the last game of his sparkling sixteen-year career Sunday, said he was "flabbergasted" by Reeves's play-scripting charges, and he vehemently denied ever having been privy to confidential information from Broncos' coaches meetings. He thought bygones were bygones, and he still relishes most of the ten years he and Reeves spent together. "I'm just sorry it had to end the way it did," he said.

Still, will Elway be especially motivated to put up big numbers against his old coach Sunday? The ultimate professional gave the ultimate professional answer: "I've gone into every football game I've ever played trying to put up big numbers. This one will be no different."

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