In the dead of winters to come, you can bet that John Elway's long-battered knees will ache and that Dan Marino's torn Achilles tendon--an injury some ironic classicist must have picked out for him--will start to act up. In winters to come, Warren Moon's shoulder will surely pain him again.
But nothing will hurt like failing to win the Super Bowl.
Just ask Fran Tarkenton, if you still have the stomach for it. Whenever some reporter would query the old pro again about the Minnesota Vikings' four losses in the Super Bowl, you could see him suck it up. Instead of scrambling away from the question, he would answer evenly and patiently, but there was always an ache in his eyes. As for retired Dan Fouts, late of the pass-happy San Diego Chargers, he never got to the big game, and that has to hurt just as much.
These are, of course, five of the seven National Football League quarterbacks who have thrown for more than 40,000 yards in their careers--two of them having reached that milestone only this month. The sixth is Baltimore Colts great Johnny Unitas, whose club beat Dallas in Super Bowl V, and the seventh is Joe Montana, who owns four Super Bowl rings and remains the glory-draped outsider in our story.
To wit: Apart from Montana, the members of the 40,000-Yard Club have won exactly one championship among them, and for the three who are still playing, time is running out fast.
First, Marino. On Sunday Miami's thirteen-year man surpassed Tarkenton's all-time NFL record of 47,003 with a 333-yard performance against the New England Patriots. Danny Franchise needed only 38 yards going into the game, and his feat was all the more amazing because he did it in just 154 games--60 fewer than Tarkenton.
Since 1984 Marino has averaged 300 receptions, 3,700 yards and 27 touchdowns per season. In the glory days, swift wideouts Mark Duper and Mark Clayton fit him like a pair of gloves, and with his lightning-fast release, the sky seemed the limit, Pasadena or New Orleans the proper venue. In just his second season, Marino and the Dolphins did get to Super Bowl XIX, but they were knocked off 38-16 by Montana and the San Francisco 49ers.
Marino has grown older and wiser since then. "I thought it was going to be so easy to do that," he said at the start of 1995. "I expected us to be in the Super Bowl just about every season." Instead, Marino's 1985 appearance has been his only one. He is now 33, Miami head coach Don Shula is 65, and if the Dolphins don't parlay their current 6-4 record into an AFC championship, it could be the end of Marino's dream. Last year, remember, Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich missed a 48-yard field-goal try in a divisional playoff game against San Diego, ending Marino's injury-plagued season in bitter disappointment.
Clearly, Marino can hear the clock ticking, and his annoyance with teammates who screw up has become even more pronounced this season. The Dolphins have a shot at going all the way, but local experts in Kansas City, Oakland and--yes--Buffalo have good reason to think otherwise. They're probably right.
Warren Moon's chances for a Super Bowl win are even more remote.
Moon, who is now 38 and in his seventeenth pro season, reached the 40,000-yard mark on November 5, while leading a new but equally snakebit edition of the Minnesota Vikings in battle against the Green Bay Packers. The Vikings won the game in overtime, 27-24, but their record is just 5-5 this year, and they look like also-rans in the NFC Central Division.
Clearly, Moon's best shots for a Super Bowl appearance came when the former Canadian Football League star was operating the Houston Oilers' explosive run-and-shoot offense in the late Eighties and early Nineties. But there's an irony in that, too: The trendy run-and-shoot, with its reliance on a relentless passing attack and small, fast receivers, has never gotten any team to the Super Bowl and has now been abandoned or drastically modified not only by Houston, but also by the Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions.
Balanced offenses with powerful rushing attacks as well as superb passing are the ones that win Super Bowls: Witness the Pittsburgh Steelers of the Seventies and the San Francisco, Washington and Dallas clubs of more recent vintage. The New York Giants, who won in 1987 and 1991, relied almost exclusively on tough-nosed defense and dogged, dull, grind-it-out rushing attacks.
A superb athlete, Warren Moon seems doomed to retire without playing a game in late January.
And what of John Elway?
Dame Fortune decided that Elway and Moon should pass the 40,000-yard marker on the same day, November 5, although it took the most popular athlete in Denver sports history eighteen games more than Moon. With 5:29 remaining in a 38-6 blowout win over Arizona, No. 7 tossed a little outlet to running back Aaron Craver that went for nineteen yards and raised the local hero's total to 256 yards for the day and 40,008 for the lifetime.
New head coach and old friend Mike Shanahan immediately took Elway out of the game--no need for his trademark last-minute heroics on this day--and replaced him with young Bill Musgrave.
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.
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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.