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Tangled past binds Super Bowl teams

Game links three men trying to overcome personal history in quest toforge a football legacy.

By Douglas S. Looney Senior sports columnist of The Christian ScienceMonitor / January 28, 1999



BELGRADE, YUGOSLAVIA

Time was when the three major personalities in Sunday's Super Bowl in Miami - Atlanta coach Dan Reeves, Denver coach Mike Shanahan, and Bronco quarterback John Elway - were pals.

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After all, they were bound by a common and sturdy thread in the 1980s and early 1990s when Reeves was Denver's highly successful head coach, Shanahan the top-gun assistant, and Elway one of the all-time best in the business: Each was very, very good and the Broncos were winning a lot.

All was well.

Well, at the end, not exactly.

To compress mightily: Reeves coached the Broncos for 12 years (1981 to '92), getting them to the Super Bowl three times. But each time they lost. Shanahan got along wondrously with Elway during his time as an assistant, better than Reeves could honestly claim.

Reeves got to suspecting his dashing young assistant and his dashing young quarterback were conspiring on the play calling, leaving the boss out of the loop. The Shanahans and the Elways vacationed together. Reeves fired Shanahan after the 1991 season, bringing up the word "insubordination." Elway said playing for Reeves was "the worst" and they no longer were speaking. Reeves countered that these years weren't "heaven" for him either. Owner Pat Bolen, in what some saw as capitulation to Elway, fired Reeves.

You get the point. Things, shall we say, deteriorated.

But no need to dwell on this checkered past. For openers, each is a decent man, especially by NFL standards. Each is hard-driving, so energetic that it's not that they are willing to work from dawn to exhaustion but that they want to.

Ever since The Clash - as Reeves moved through the Giants and on to the Falcons in 1997, Shanahan traveled through the 49ers and then back to Denver in 1995 as the man in charge, and Elway never moved anywhere - discussions have raged over who was right in those bad old days.

Answer: maybe all of them and maybe none of them. Sometimes, good people with good intentions can just be bad for each other.

Yet, Sunday's game between the 16-2 teams will be dissected with intensity by many, trying to find clues in the performances that might suggest who was right when bickering in the shadow of the Rockies was at full amp.

Gen. Patton in a sweat suit

Reeves, a long time NFL veteran and former player, is a prototype coach out of central casting. He believes in discipline, blocking, and tackling. His demeanor often is gruff, but this attitude helps to let everyone know who is in charge. Most important, it lets the players know for sure they are not in charge.

Nothing about Reeves is flashy. Everything is oak solid, especially his talent. In 1996, the year before Reeves took over as Falcon coach, they were 3-13. Never in the Falcons previous 32-year history had they even made it to a conference championship game, much less the Super Bowl. The Falcons are next to last in winning percentage (Tampa Bay is last) in the NFL over the last 28 years. Symptomatic of Falcon missteps: They once had Brett Favre as quarterback and let him go. He's a star in Green Bay.

Denver, 6-1 in American Football Conference title games, is trying to win its second Super Bowl in six trips.

Shanahan is much like Reeves, understandably, since pupils often take on traits of good teachers. Philosophically, there's not a football length of difference between the two, except that Shanahan employs a more exuberant offense.

So who is right?

That will depend. Reeves is close to desperate in needing a huge day from his talented running back, Jamal Anderson. That's because while Elway is all-everything and a Hall of Fame certainty, Reeves has Chris Chandler, a very late bloomer and a heretofore journeyman QB now with his sixth team in 11 years. Chandler's passing does not frighten the Broncos so Anderson's running better.

No Maginot line, this one

Reeves does have one Mayday hope. His defensive line is the best in the game these days. So even if Anderson fails to have a big day and Chandler struggles, then maybe the defensive front can save the day. It's possible. They'll need to repeatedly flatten Terrell Davis, the NFL's leading rusher this year with 2,008 yards. And maybe they can make life miserable for Elway. It's possible.

Elway has a bevy of superior receivers in Shannon Sharpe, Ed McCaffrey, and Rod Smith and, thanks to Shanahan, an avalanche of creative plays designed to get them running free and open. So even if Davis is subpar, which seldom happens, Elway - playing behind the best offensive line in the league - has a better chance to win without him than Atlanta does of winning without Anderson.

Top assistants are key in the NFL and both head coaches have prizes. Shanahan has offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak and defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. Both will be NFL head coaches another day. Reeves has Rich Brooks as his defensive coordinator. Brooks has been a college and pro head coach and unquestionably will be again.

So who has been right in choosing assistants? Looks like a wash, but perhaps a clue will surface Sunday evening.

Meanwhile, Elway insists Reeves is a "great football coach." Reeves says he's sorry that any ill will surfaced in pre-Super conversation. Shanahan says he'd rather talk about the good times they all had in seven years together. Indeed, despite occasional rocky moments these days, each principal is handling the past troubles well.

It's especially hard, says Will Miles, a clinical sports psychologist in Denver, because hard feelings do surface when a person feels his "identity, his very essence, have been wounded. It's not a superficial thing."

Happily, in the wake of The Clash, all have prospered enormously. One or two of the three will prosper further Sunday. All will shake hands afterward.

So who was right?