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."

In the meantime, he added, he will feel quite comfortable answering the barrage of questions he's sure to face in Miami concerning the reignited Reeves-Shanahan feud.

For their part, the Falcons (and their head coach) seem delighted with their underdog role--a part the Broncos played last year before facing the defending champion Green Bay Packers. One typical Atlanta press release chronicles the 16-2 exploits of "The Guys That Nobody Wanted"--running back Jamal Anderson, transformed from the 201st player picked in the 1994 draft into the NFC rushing leader; quarterback Chris Chandler, a two-time pro-bowl pick who was released by five other teams; wide receiver Terance Mathis, who started only one game in four years for the New York Jets but who now has 44 touchdown catches for the Falcons; cornerbacks Randy Fuller and Ronnie Bradford, both cut by the--ahem--Broncos.

The Falcons also crow about Reeves--fired by Denver and the New York Giants but now headed to his fourth Super Bowl.

Can this sort of poor-mouthing, woe-is-us act lull a champion to sleep? Not if the champion is Broncos running back and league MVP Terrell Davis. "We're playing a team, if you ask me, that's a pretty even matchup," Davis said warily. "They have similar numbers and skills with a similar style of play. They are the team we were last year, and their winning in Minnesota speaks volumes to me. I'm sincere about that. No kind of comment is going to lull us to sleep."

And the war between the coaches? Is the relationship between Reeves and Shanahan irrevocably broken? Shanahan paused, then answered: "I would say...yes." And was Reeves's attack a calculation to get under his old antagonist's skin? "I don't know," the Broncos coach answered, "and I'm not trying to figure it out...But I can say this: This game is much bigger than Mike Shanahan and Dan Reeves, and hopefully, we can leave it at that."

The smoke was still pouring from his ears. You even got the feeling that, come Sunday night, good ol' Dan might be wishing he'd passed on that heart thing and gotten a vocal cord bypass instead.

If Gary Barnett's such a miracle worker, how come his 3-9 Northwestern Wildcats failed, in eight tries, to beat a Big Ten opponent last season?

That's one of the questions skeptics are asking in the wake of Barnett's hiring last week as the University of Colorado's 22nd head football coach. There are others, of course:

Why couldn't Barnett come to terms with CU when first approached by athletic director Dick Tharp? Why didn't he acknowledge any blame for the football gambling scandal that rocked Northwestern last year? Why did Barnett apparently spend so much time job-shopping after declaring his deathless loyalty to the Wildcats? At one time or another, his name was linked with openings at UCLA, Georgia, Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Washington and with the Detroit Lions.

Is a guy who went 8-16 (3-13 in the Big Ten) in his last two seasons in Evanston really the right man for the job here?

On the bright side, Barnett did momentarily resurrect long-downtrodden Northwestern in 1995, winning the Big Ten championship with a 10-2 mark and catapulting the 'Cats to their first Rose Bowl appearance since 1949. He did go 9-3 in 1996 and played Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl.

And in the end, he did take the CU job after Purdue's Joe Tiller, Texas Christian's Dennis Franchione, Air Force's Fisher DeBerry, Oklahoma State's Bob Simmons, the Denver Broncos' Gary Kubiak and, for all we know, Springfield's Homer Simpson all said no to an ever more desperate CU search committee.

Barnett, who served as a CU assistant for eight seasons under Bill MCartney, is, for better or worse, in the fold. Presumably, he has unpacked his suitcases. Presumably, he won't be taking calls from the Nebraska Cornhuskers or the Cleveland Browns. Presumably, he'll prove his worth in Boulder.

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