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WIN ONE FOR THE GIMPER

Every time they see their therapists, Company Commander John Elway and a few other tattered vets of 1990 must surely recall that slaughterhouse offensive the San Francisco 49ers laid on them in Super Bowl XXIV. It is the kind of thing old soldiers never forget: mates gunned down in the trenches, relentless air strikes by the Montana squadron, unit morale shredded on the killing ground of the Superdome. Can we set this in small type, please? The score of that one is still 55-10.

Talk about post-traumatic stress syndrome. Your beloved Donks, new and old, won't be able to clear their heads until they finally win the Big One themselves. Only then will they forget the halftime lead the team blew against the Giants in XXI, or those 35 second-quarter points Doug Williams and the Skins put on the board the year after that. Or the Niners debacle. 55-10.

Elway, whose time grows short as his tortured knees grow older, prays that season number thirteen is a charm. And that prayer is probably shared now by even the most rabid Bronco-baiters and haters, of which this city has a surprising number. Zero-for-four in the Super Bowl. Outscored 163-50 by Dallas (Craig Morton's Waterloo), the New York Giants, Washington and the 49ers. That's the nightmarish legacy this team must live down.

Meanwhile, the seemingly invincible 49ers still lurk out there by the bay. And on the other side of the bridge, Emperor Al Davis's hated Raiders have reinstalled themselves in blue-collar Oakland, where football has always fascinated the appreciative locals more than the murder trials of football players. The challenge looks greater than ever, but if the Broncos can somehow defeat Northern California, maybe they can get the monkey off their backs.

General Mike thinks they can do it. Wade's World, which proved a confused, inhospitable place, has now given way to Shanaland, and if the tough early mood at Camp Greeley is any measure, the soldiers have their minds on their work. In Patton's words: Kill the other sonofabitch before he kills you.

"I want to give John one more chance at the Super Bowl before he retires," Shanahan says. "I really think we can get the job done in two years."

But not if the troops fall down on the job like they did last year. In his one dozen pro seasons, the supertough Elway has missed just eight starts because of injury. But in 1994 he was sacked an appalling 46 times--a lot more than Rome suffered at the hands of the infidels--which doesn't speak well for an offensive line in which not even Pro Bowl left tackle Gary Zimmerman often got it done and right guard Brian Habib, who was paid about $8 billion last year, made a reputation as a high-priced underachiever.

Do we dare utter the word "defense"? Opposing quarterbacks had time to retake their SATs in 1994 while Wade's Maids bumped into one another trying to pass-rush, despite the presence of gritty Simon Fletcher. As for first-round 1993 pick Dan Williams, the less said, the better. The defensive line's shortcomings are one reason Elway deferred 3 million bucks of his salary until 1996, and team owner Pat Bowlen and Shanahan may have come through for him. Michael Dean Perry and James Jones, a combined 580 pounds of ex-Cleveland beef on the hoof, mean to shore up that awful "D," which was last in the league in both total defense and pass defense. By all indications, the glowering Perry is the man who wants to take charge of his mates. They'd do well to listen up.

Linebackers and defensive backs? Hmmmm. Remember the great Mike Croel? He didn't record a single sack in 1994. Karl Mecklenburg and Dennis Smith? Cherished local relics both, but long past their primes. Ray Crockett? Well...

The Broncos face Buffalo and Dallas in their first two regular season games, and if Messrs. Kelly and Aikman have their way with the passing game the way most opposing clubs did last year, General Shanahan might have to hold a few court-martials in the secondary. Ex-Packer Tim Hauck may play alongside safety Steve Atwater, but no one knows whether the dam will hold.

Ah, but then we get to the offense. Shanahan and Elway could be a match made in heaven, if history is any indicator. Remember 1991? That was the year when, despite the iron rule of former head coach Dan Reeves (now happily ensconced at the Meadowlands), the frustrated quarterback and the then-offensive coordinator secretly conspired to script the first twenty plays of each game. When the testy Reeves got wind of the dastardly plot, he fired Shanahan, who was then reduced for three years to running San Francisco's "West Coast" offense. Poor guy. All the 49ers managed to do in that time was finish first, first and second in total yards, win a couple of Super Bowls and re-establish themselves as one of the greatest offensive machines in NFL history.

After an earlier flop in Al Davis-land, Shanahan became the hottest head coaching prospect in the league after the Niners destroyed San Diego for last year's championship, and San Francisco's management quickly offered him a million dollars a year to stay on as offensive coordinator, coupled with a promise that he would get the top spot when George Seifert retires.

No dice. Those sideline conspiracies with his old pal Elway (they'd grown close during Shanahan's first assistantship here in the 1980s) must have remained fresh and sweet in his mind, and here he is as head coach, chief of the Broncos' war college. Come to think of it, San Franciscans probably hold a lot of animus these days for the Mile High City: This year, too, the Colorado Rockies snaked top starting pitcher Billy Swift away from the Giants--although he hasn't exactly burned down the league so far.

Where were we? Oh. Biff and Mike. The doctors have apparently told Number 7 that his strained left knee won't take much more abuse, so the Broncos' number-four all-time rusher (2,670 running yards) has curtailed his scrambling activities. But he still runs those gutty quarterback draws and scary sweeps into the teeth of opposing defenses, and he thinks he's got two more good years left. When his wife, Janet, asked him to quit and settle down into a nice, quiet life of selling two or three hundred cars a day, he quietly declined that request, too. That's how bad he wants the Ring and how confident he is that Mike's the man who can help get it for him and his teammates. Only Miami's Dan Marino, a fellow member of the celebrated Class of 1982 and a fellow Super Bowl have-not, could possibly feel the sense of mission Elway feels this year.

But not even Marino has got a corps of receivers as good as Broncos speed-burner Anthony Miller, swing-man Shannon Sharpe and CU standout Mike Pritchard, who lacerated a kidney last year but is ready to fly in 1995. The running game? Stay healthy and live up to the old billing, Rod Bernstine. Let's see something, Aaron Craver.

For the canny old pro Elway, the urgency is real and acute. "It has to be now," he said the other day. "Or next year. I want this, and the team wants it."

But is it possible? Not if Mike Shanahan's former club, clearly the cream of the crop, has anything to say about it. Or Bill Parcells's onrushing New England Patriots. Or the Dolphins, who would love to win one more for the Shula before he retires. Or those nagging Raiders, who are likely to play their butts off for the first real crowds they've seen in years. Or the Dallas Cowboys, a little cracked around the edges these days, it seems, but still Texas-proud and plenty tough.

Still, there's a new sense of purpose at the heart of those sweltering Greeley two-a-days, along with a sense that this coach--so young and tough and smart--is the guy who can get them there. I know, I know: That's what they all say in mid-July. But if football has gods (I'm certain baseball does), then it's about time they smiled on the strong-armed kid from Stanford who has bravely fought all these years to win the war.

Come on. Pin the medal on him, guys. Give him heaven. Once.


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