NFL rewind: John Elway leads the Broncos on ‘The Drive’
From the time we were young many of us have fantasized about leading our team to a big victory when the odds are against us and hope is all but lost. Whether it’s a three-point buzzer beater, a homerun in the bottom of the 9th, or the game winning touchdown as time expires, these vivid images have been relived over and over on empty fields and basketball courts as solo conductors orchestrate the perfect symphony play after play.
The reality of the situation is that the opportunity to live out such a childhood fantasy is only bestowed upon a select few. In 1987, Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway was in his fourth year in the NFL. His Broncos had made the AFC Championship game and would face the Cleveland Browns. Little did Elway realize going into that game that it would be his opportunity to live out his childhood fantasy. It would be the day of the drive.
Many NFL quarterbacks have led their teams down the field at the end of a game for the winning score. Joe Montana and Tom Brady both did it in Super Bowls and where the stakes were higher their efforts fail in comparison to what Elway did against the Browns on that frigid Sunday afternoon. In the biggest moment of his career, Elway was about to define the phrase fourth quarter comeback.
It was late in the fourth quarter and Bernie Kosar had just led his home team Browns down the field for a touchdown to break a 13-13 tie. Cleveland was 5:43 away from going to their first ever Super Bowl. Denver mishandled the ensuing kickoff and got the ball at the two yard line with just over five and half minutes left in regulation. Prior to this possession, the Broncos lone touchdown in the game had come in the second quarter. The odds were against Elway and the Broncos as 98 yards, a tough Browns defense and 80,000 hostile fans stood between Denver and their Super Bowl aspirations. But then…just like the many scenarios that are played out in a child’s mind on those empty fields…it began to happen.
Looking the part of a battered warrior Elway took the field in the shadows of his end zone. The right side of his uniform was muddied from the field conditions that day and his pigeon-toed gate resembled that of another infamous John; John Wayne. The first play was a five yard pass to running back Sammy Winder. The Broncos would run the next two plays to get a first down and with it a little breathing room and renewed hope. Hope and opportunity would be all that Elway needed on this day as he would complete passes of 22 and 12 yards before getting sacked on a second down play that left the Broncos in a 3rd and 18 predicament on the Cleveland 48 with just under two minutes remaining.
It’s often said that you should judge a leader by how they respond in the most difficult moments. Without a doubt John Elway proved the type of leader he was on the drive. Of Elway’s demeanor during the drive Broncos’ receiver Vance Johnson would later say, “I never saw him so calm.” That calmness allowed Elway to hit Mark Jackson for 20 yards and a Broncos first down. Teams don’t convert 3rd and 18 on the road in a conference championship game every day. It was at this point that the Browns and their fans knew they were doomed while the Broncos realized they were about to do something special.
With 39 seconds left in the game the Broncos had gone 93 yards and were on the Browns’ five. Five yards is all that separated Elway from greatness and the completion of his 98 yard journey.
When Elway was drafted by the Baltimore Colts in 1983 he was also drafted by the New York Yankees. A talented quarterback and baseball player, on this day, Elway would rely on his pitching skills to complete the drive. The throw was a perfect strike; low and away to a sliding Mark Jackson. Touchdown Broncos and with the extra point the game would head to overtime. When the drive was all said and done Elway had moved his team the length of the field throwing for 78 yards while gaining 20 more on the ground. His career-defining performance was simply brilliant.
I often wonder if the NFL had the two point conversion back in 1987 if Dan Reeves would have had the guts to go for two. Elway was unstoppable on the drive and wasn’t going to be denied on that day.
The Broncos won the game in overtime on a 33 yard field goal by the barefooted Rich Karlis sending Elway to the first of his five Super Bowl appearances. No other quarterback has ever done that. Thanks for the memories John Elway.
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