Encore, Please

They're old. Starting with the left guard, who's undergone twenty surgeries since high school, they've got more dents than a demolition derby. The owner has painted lurid orange flames on their new unis, so they look less like Super Bowl champs than an arena-ball club on the make. After crying wolf a couple of times, their best offensive lineman has taken to his rocking chair for good. The future of the franchise is suddenly sitting on a cushion stuffed with $56 million. Their legendary leader is a lame duck who's just undergone his umpteenth wing repair. There's also that stadium thing to worry about. And a feedlot full of angried-up prime beef in Kansas City.

Can the Broncos repeat?
The very question has a peculiar ring, doesn't it? This is Denver, after all, where for 38 seasons fans of the local professional football team prayed for better things come next year. Well, this is next year. On January 25, better things finally came, and the big question now is if there's one more treasure in the bag.

Let's have a look.
The Goodbye Factor: What effect will John Elway's "Farewell Tour" have on a team that regards him not just as its supremely talented star quarterback, but as its animating spirit and fourth-quarter talisman? It probably can't hurt. The knowledge that every time Number Seven (complete with freshly reconstructed right shoulder) drops back into the pocket means a piece of history will likely move even the slowest thinker on the roster. One of the most compelling reasons Elway, now 38, decided to return for a sixteenth and last season is the 50,000-yard passing mark, and it should take half a dozen games or so for him to amass the 1,331 yards he needs. That done, he can go about the old business of tormenting K.C. coach Marty Schottenheimer (November 16 at Arrowhead; December 6 at Mile High) before finally putting a bandage on the wound. That, of course, is not to say the two teams won't meet a third time in the playoffs.

The other great milestone will come four days before Christmas in Miami, when Elway will square off, for just the second time ever in regular season play, against his old pal and 1982 "classmate" Dan Marino. With an incredible 55,416 yards passing, only Marino has rolled up more yards through the air than Elway, and the Dolphins-Broncos game, broadcast nationally on Monday Night Football, will serve as a fitting valedictory for two great careers. Let us pray that neither man is injured and that both teams are in contention. Wonder if John will give Dan an up-close-and-personal look at his new Super Bowl ring? Alas, Marino is destined never to wear one.

Middle linebackers and other brutes in places like San Diego, Washington, D.C., and, yes, Oakland are unlikely to share Denver's nostalgic embrace of Mr. Elway--at least not until the game is over. It will fall to the Broncos' undersized but brilliant offensive line, minus retired-unretired-retired linchpin Gary Zimmerman, to keep their quarterback alive and winging for sixteen games. Will they be motivated? Count on it. How would you like to be the guy held responsible for the anti-climactic end of a living god's career?

Old West Shoot-out: Last year, the Broncos finally delivered the American Football Conference from the ignominy of thirteen straight Super Bowl losses. This year, they find themselves prime targets in what might be the toughest division in the entire league. Among Denver's AFC West rivals, only 13-3 Kansas City had a winning record last season (Oakland, San Diego and Seattle finished with a composite 16-32 mark), but all these clubs appear so much improved this season that Mike Shanahan and Company will have their hands full. K.C., of course, is the cream of the crop, especially on defense. But let's not ignore sleeper Seattle, which added seven new starters to its roster in the off-season, including blue-ribbon running back Ricky Watters and a guard by the name of Brian Habib, who played for last year's Super Bowl Broncos. If Habib is spilling to Seahawks coach Dennis Erickson half of the Broncos' trade secrets he's rumored to be--and 42-year-old quarterback Warren Moon is listening to half of that--bar the door.

Otherwise, Denver must compensate for the permanent loss of linebacker Allen Aldridge (to free agency) and the temporary loss of defensive end Alfred Williams (to a torn triceps). However, defensive back Tory James is back after missing all of 1997.

On paper, at least, the Broncos' out-of-division opponents don't look all that tough. Last year, New England, Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia, Jacksonville, Cincinnati, the New York Giants and Miami had a combined record of 67-58-3--pretty good, but not world-beating. This season, top contenders Green Bay, San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Minnesota aren't even on the Broncos' schedule.

Famous last words: Look for a tooth-and-nail bloodbath in the AFC West, with Denver stealing Kansas City's divisional title away by putting Schottenheimer in a trick bag once more. But beware those Seahawks under a full Moon.

Bowlen for Dollars. Mile High Stadium, team owner Pat Bowlen claims, is in worse shape than selected portions of Broncos left guard Mark Schlereth, the fellow the doctors have cut open twenty times. Bowlen wants a new stadium with lots of expensive skyboxes, he wants us to pay for most of it, and if we don't agree with him, the Brian Griese- or Bubby Brister-led Broncos will likely find themselves playing in Anchorage or Des Moines. This burning fiscal issue could be happily resolved if only conference-leading and Super Bowl MVP running back Terrell Davis--the sixth-round pick whose name every NFL scout cringes to hear--would agree to toss all $56 million the club will pay him in the next few years into the pot. Absent that, the Broncos' Super Bowl win will almost surely carry the day with voters in November--especially if their beloved (partly) orange and (navy) blue marauders knock off most of their first eight opponents in 1998.

Was Elway's loyalty to Bowlen another major factor in the quarterback's decision to play one last season? It's hard to figure otherwise. How would you react if your boss shelled out millions to put a great supporting cast around you? Bowlen may be a knave, a tyrant and an extortionist (just like most other pro team owners), but Number Seven has got to love him. Did you see the twin grins on their faces when they lofted the Vince Lombardi Trophy?

The City by the Bay: Oakland, California? Of course not. Across the water from the place that has no there there, beautiful San Francisco spreads out like a glimmering necklace, and the local football team should have little trouble this season taking home most of the jewels. If the AFC West promises to be a super-tough division, the 49ers' NFC West opponents again look like a box of marshmallows. Atlanta, Carolina, St. Louis and New Orleans combined for a 25-39 record last season, and rookie 49ers coach Steve Mariucci's boys sailed through them--only to be stopped in the playoffs for the third year in a row by mighty (okay, not so mighty from where you're sitting) Green Bay.

Look for San Francisco to turn the tables on the Cheeseheads this year. Top-rated quarterback Steve Young will presumably have all-world wide receiver Jerry Rice back for the entire 1998 campaign (he saw action in just two games last year), and 49ers management got extremely busy putting together a youth movement in the off-season. San Francisco's thirtysomethings--pass rushers Chris Doleman and Kevin Greene, linebacker Gary Plummer and cornerback Rod Woodson--have all been replaced by talented young-bloods, and Mariucci now has a year of experience under his belt.

Green Bay lost eight important-to-crucial players over the winter. San Francisco's improvements, coupled with the Packers' disheartening Super Bowl loss, point to a 49ers resurgence this year.

Super Bowl XXXIII? John Elway, age 38, outguns Steve Young, age 37, in a sequel just as thrilling as the original: Denver 38, San Francisco 35.

When "Rocket" Rod Laver suffered a stroke last week, you couldn't help thinking about the strokes he once used to devastate opponents.

The forehand was duly powerful and accurate, of course. But the Laver backhand was a timeless work of art. Swinging a tiny wooden racket working as the extension of his huge left forearm, a veritable locomotive piston, Laver imparted fearsome topspin to his deadly winners in an era when topspin was rare.

Perfected by a gentleman, it may be the greatest single stroke in the history of the game.

You can have mechanical Pete Sampras and automatic Bjorn Borg. Get out of here with Andre Agassi, the earring and the shoe-top shorts. Take John McEnroe (please) and stick him in a holding cell until they get the yellow off the balls. Ivan Lendl? Hand him a five-iron and hope his disposition improves.

Roy Emerson? All right, no one else was so steady in the big ones.
But there's only one Rod Laver. In 1962, the five-foot-seven-inch Australian won the Grand Slam as an amateur, and then, as a pro in 1969, became the only man to repeat. That year, Laver shredded Gimeno at the Australian, Rosewall in the French, Newcombe at Wimbledon and Roche at Forest Hills.

Get well, Rocket. The rest of the world still needs lessons.

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