John Elway was born in Port Angeles, Washington, to Jan and Jack Elway, a notable football coach. As a youth, he lived in Grays Harbor, Washington, Missoula, Montana, and Pullman, Washington, before moving to Southern California at the age of 16. He attended his final two years of high school at Granada Hills High School in Granada Hills, California. He ended his high school career with 5,711 passing yards and 49 passing touchdowns, and was named to the Parade Magazine All America High School Football Team. Known as a dual-threat quarterback (one who can both pass and run), he was the number-one recruited high school player in the country, receiving more than sixty scholarship offers.
Elway chose Stanford University to play his college football and set many NCAA records during his tenure there. John was also a standout baseball player. A favorite play from his college days was during a game versus the University of Southern California (USC). Elway dropped back to pass and came under heavy pressure. He then continued weaving his way back and forth, going backwards the entire time. He finally rolled back to his right, set his feet and fired a pass that travelled over 75 yards in the air over Ronnie Lott’s head for a sublime touchdown.
Elway "The Early Years"
John Elway was the first pick in the 1983 NFL Draft by the Baltimore Colts. However, he refused to play in Baltimore because of his dislike for their owner, and was able to force a trade to Denver because of his baseball skills (he was drafted by the New York Yankees). Ironically, Elway would play the Colts twice during his rookie season. The first game was in Baltimore, a game in which Elway really struggled. Later in the season, the Colts came to Mile High Stadium and led 19-0. Then, Elway rallied the team with three touchdown passes to win the game in a highly dramatic fashion.
This became a trend during the Dan Reeves coaching era in Denver. Elway was handcuffed with a conservative offense that hurt his statistics, only to be turned loose when the game was on the line in the fourth quarter. During Elway’s physical prime, the conservative offense led to an average of only 3021 yards, 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions per season under Reeves. “We looked around the league and there is Jim Kelly and Dan Marino routinely throwing for 25 and 30 touchdown passes,” Bowlen said, “and John's numbers were way down from that, and he is as good or better as those two and any of the rest. It made no sense.” (3)
After the 1992 season, Dan Reeves was out of Denver and Wade Phillips was brought in. Phillips took the handcuffs off Elway, and John led the league in passing yards, threw 25 touchdowns and had only 10 interceptions while completing a career high 63.6 percent of his passes.
Shanahan replaced Phillips in 1995 but continued to let Elway shine. During his last six seasons, Elway averaged 3543 yards, 24 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions, while completing 60 percent of his passes. Elway was still in a running offense, but Shanahan let Elway attack defenses on first downs so he could make bigger plays.
John Elway "The Drive"
It was January 11, 1987. The Denver Broncos travelled to Cleveland to play against the Browns for a chance to play in the Super Bowl. It was a cold day in Cleveland and fans were throwing dog bones on the field. The Browns were favored as they had the better running game and the better defense, not to mention the fact they were playing at home. After Cleveland took a 20-13 lead, they kicked off and after a muff, the Broncos started with the ball on the 1 1/2 yard line. Elway led his team 98 long yards over 15 heart stopping plays. Elway ran for a first down, converted a third and 18 and threw the strike to Mark Jackson that broke Cleveland’s heart from five yards out. Click here to read the play-by-play action.
John Elway - 4th Quarter Comebacks
In the 1970’s, Roger Staubach was named ‘Captain Comeback’ for the Dallas Cowboys. Roger would beat teams with his arms and legs, leading his team from behind in the fourth quarter in remarkable fashion.
Enter John Elway. Elway had a flare for doing the impossible. He made pulling victory from the jaws of defeat a routine. During Elway’s Hall of Fame career, he led a record 47 fourth quarter comeback wins. Click here to see them all. "Elway's the best I've ever seen in the two-minute drill," Reggie White said. (1) “I'd prefer to look at John in the context that I viewed him and that was singularly one of the most competitive players I've ever been around,” said Schottenheimer, now the Chargers' coach. “The one quality that the quarterback brings to the entire football team is hope - regardless of the circumstance, regardless of how much time is left, the point difference. When you've got a guy like that, there isn't a guy on your sideline that doesn't have the hope that we can still do this. That's a remarkable intangible, and John had that.” (4)
Here are my five favorite John Elway comebacks:
1. October 4, 1992 against the Kansas City Chiefs: Denver trailed 19-6 with 1:58 to go in the game. Elway capped an 80 yard drive with a touchdown pass to Mark Jackson, cutting the lead to 19-13. After three plays and out, the Broncos returned the punt to the Chiefs’ 27 yard line. On the third play, Elway hit Vance Johnson for the game winning 12-yard touchdown.
2. January 11, 1987 - “The Drive”: This superb 98 yard drive tied the game on the road in Cleveland against the Browns’ tough defense. Elway capped off “The Drive” with a five yard bullet to Mark Jackson.
3. January 4, 1992: This was in the Divisional Playoffs against the Houston Oilers at Mile High Stadium. Once again, Denver would start on the two yard line with less than two minutes to go, and this time with no time outs. Denver trailed 24-23. Elway on fourth down and six leaped over the arms of a defender, ran out of the pocket and got the first down. Then once again, it was fourth down. This time they needed 10 yards. True to form, Elway broke from the pocket and ran to his left. The defender came up to stop Elway from getting the first down, but he fluttered the ball to Vance Johnson for a big gain, setting up Treadwell for the game winning kick.
4. September 17, 1995 against the Washington Redskins: The game was tied 31-31 with 1:07 remaining and Elway drove the Broncos 80 yards winning the game on the last play of the game. With 6 seconds left at the 43 yard line Elway dropped back and hit Rod Smith on the game winning touchdown as the time expired.
5. December 11, 1983 against the Baltimore Colts: Denver trailed 19-0 going into the fourth quarter. This was his first fourth quarter comeback and is one to go down in sporting legend and folklore. Elway threw three fourth quarter touchdowns, the last one to Gerald Willhite to give the Broncos the 21-19 victory.
The Leadership of John Elway
Many superstar players in the NFL want special treatment. They don’t want to do all of the little things that most players have to do. John Elway is different. He leads by example. “Coaches say you try to treat everyone the same way, but when you have a superstar, it just doesn't work that way,” Head Coach Wade Phillips said. “If John wanted to make his own rules, he could create quite a problem. But what a great thing it is for a coach when you have a player of his caliber who sets the example that he does. When he's in there busting his tail in the weight room in the off season, you can call that second-year player and ask why he isn't here. Elway is. That speaks volumes.” (3)
Is John Elway the Greatest Quarterback in NFL History?
There have been several legendary quarterbacks to play in the NFL over the decades. The ongoing debate is who was the greatest? Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw each won four Super Bowls, so if that is the ultimate measure, they would have to be considered the greatest. Dan Marino and Brett Favre have thrown for the most yards and touchdowns of any quarterback who has ever laced up. For many years, Johnny Unitas was considered to be in a class of his own, setting most of the quarterback records in his era.
We also have to consider the teams in which these quarterbacks played. Joe Montana had Dwight Clark, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Roger Craig, Wendell Tyler, Brent Jones, Russ Francis, and Tom Rathman to help him win his four Super Bowls, along with excellent offensive lines and very good defensive teams. “I look at Joe Montana and there is a certain amount of positive envy there, if there is such a thing,” Elway said. “I think about if I could have run this offense for the last 10 years and I could have had Rice and Taylor and Craig what I could have done, too.” (3) Terry Bradshaw had three offensive weapons who were Hall of Famers in Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, and John Stallworth. He also had an awesome offensive line in front of him, and the Steel Curtain defense on the other side of the ball.
From 1983 to 1992, quarterback John Elway led Denver to three Super Bowl appearances. He was able to accomplish this with average to below-average offensive lines, Sammy Winder, a good running back, but nothing special, Bobby Humphrey, Gerald Willhite, Reggie Rivers, and Gene Lang, who? During those years, he did not even have a pro bowl player to throw the ball to. Steve Watson, Vance Johnson, and Mark Jackson were all good receivers, but none of them was a true number one threat. He took teams to the Super Bowl that would not have even been playoff teams if it were not for John Elway.
Now fast forward to 1995 when Mike Shanahan came to Denver. Over three years, Shanahan built a good team around Elway with pro bowl players on the offensive line, running back in Terrell Davis, all-pro tight end Shannon Sharpe, and wide receivers like Rod Smith and Ed McCaffery who were both complete wide receivers. The result: Elway won two Super Bowls in his final two seasons.
As great as Joe Montana, Bradshaw, Marino, and Favre are, none of them lacked the weapons on the offensive side of football as Elway did for most of his career. John Elway was sacked more than any quarterback in NFL history, despite escaping hundreds of sacks due to his mobility. Despite lacking a great offensive line until late in his career, Elway started a record five Super Bowls, three of them with average teams. If you would have put Elway on the 49ers of the 80’s, or the Steelers of the 70’s, I believe it is fair to say, he would have won a minimum of four Super Bowls, and probably five or six with the talent those teams had.
“When the game was on the line, he was like Michael Jordan, he wanted the ball,” says Dan Reeves, who coached Elway for his first 10 seasons. “I think he thrived on pressure. In those clutch situations, I don't know of anyone who did a better job of handling that like John did.” (6)
The greatest quarterbacks in NFL history have all elevated the play of their teams from Otto Graham to Johnny Unitas to Joe Montana. In my humble opinion, John Elway elevated his teams to an even higher level. For this reason, I believe that John Elway was the greatest quarterback ever to play the game.
John Elway Starts Five Super Bowls
When John Elway came into the league, he wanted to win five Super Bowls. At the time, only Terry Bradshaw had won four. Unfortunately for Elway, he joined a team in his rookie season that had gone just 2-7 in a strike shortened 1982. He joined a team that had no Pro Bowl talent whatsoever on the offensive side of the football. In his rookie season, he helped lead the team to a 9-7 record and a playoff berth.
After going 13-3 in his second season, and becoming the first team in NFL history to miss the playoffs with an 11-5 mark his third year, Elway finally got his team to the Super Bowl in year four by beating Cleveland on a 98 yard drive.
In 1986, the Denver Broncos made it all the way to the Super Bowl to face the New York Giants. The Giants were heavily favored because of their superior defense led by Lawrence Taylor and Harry Carson. Elway and the Broncos had the lead at half time 10-9. In the second half, things started to fall apart as Phil Simms completed 22-25 passes and poured on the points. Meanwhile, Elway was running for his life. John Elway finished the game going 22-37 for 304 yards with one TD and one INT. He also ran the ball six times for 27 yards and a touchdown, but the Broncos lost to the Giants 39-20.
In 1987, Elway would once again lead the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl by defeating the Cleveland Browns again. This time, they would face off against the Washington Redskins. On the Broncos first offensive play, John Elway threw a 56 yard touchdown pass, the quickest touchdown in Super Bowl history at the time. Denver jumped out to a 10-0 lead. Then, in the 2nd quarter behind QB Doug Williams, the Hogs, and Timmy Smith, the Redskins scored 35 points and went on to win the game 42-10. Elway was once again harassed by the opposing defense as he struggled with very little time to throw going 14-38 for 257 yards one TD and three INT. He ran the ball three times for 32 yards.
In 1989, The Broncos would defeat the Cleveland Browns for the third time in four years to return to the Super Bowl. This time, they would face the defending Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49ers who were heavily favored. Elway was once again knocked around by the 49ers defense while Joe Montana had enough time in the pocket to eat his lunch. Denver was humiliated 55-10. Elway had his worst Super Bowl performance against his toughest foe, and went 10-26 for 108 yards and two INT. He ran the ball four times for eight yards and scored the Broncos only TD.
After a disappointing finish to the 1996 season, when they were 13-3 and lost in the first round of the playoffs, Elway was determined to get his team back to the Super Bowl. This time, he had a strong supporting cast with players like Terrell Davis, Rod Smith, Shannon Sharpe, and All-Pro left tackle Gary Zimmerman. Denver won two tough road games against Kansas City and Pittsburgh, and returned to the Super Bowl against the double-digit favored and Defending Super Bowl Champions, the Green Bay Packers.
The Packers strength in defense was against the pass, so Mike Shanahan game-planned for the Broncos to run the football, and Elway would be responsible for picking up 3rd downs. The game plan worked to perfection as Terrell Davis ran for 157 yards and three TD’s. Elway picked up key first downs through the air and made a few plays with his legs, running for a touchdown and two first downs. The last of these was late in the 3rd quarter; it was 3rd down and six to go. Elway dropped back and the pocket began to collapse, so he stepped up through the line, ran to his right as two Packers approached, he dove headfirst and was spun around in the air like a helicopter. When he landed, he had a first down. Denver went on to beat the Green Bay Packers 31-24 in one of the most exciting Super Bowls ever played.
The following season, Elway returned to attempt a repeat. The 1998 Denver Broncos started the season 13-0, finished 14-2, and found themselves back in the Super Bowl. This time it was against the Atlanta Falcons, and his former head coach Dan Reeves. Elway dazzled the worldwide crowd with a masterpiece performance by going 18-29 for 336 yards, a TD and an INT. He also ran for a touchdown late in the game to seal the victory. Elway would leave the game with his arms in the air as Super Bowl MVP and back-to-back World Championships. Elway went out on top, like so many players wish they could, by beating the Falcons 34-19. Before the game, some in the media claimed that Chris Chandler was the better quarterback. Chandler did not agree. "Some people may feel I have the edge, but you're going a little bit too far when you say that anybody is better than John Elway," Chandler said. "It's something I don't think anybody can really say and back up." (2)
“People told him for a long time that he couldn't win the big game,” said Head Coach Mike Shanahan. “For 14 years he didn't win a Super Bowl, but he never wavered. He never lost his desire. He won one, and then won another when he also was MVP.” (5)
John Elway Video Highlights
John Elway Hall of Fame
At the time of Elway’s retirement, he had the NFL record for wins by a quarterback, had more 4th quarter comebacks than anyone in history, and ranked in the top three in yards, completions, and attempts. “He was a great athlete, and his arm strength was second to none,” Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. “He could make all the throws. He would make plays when plays broke down, and he was very intelligent.” (5) John Elway was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004, his first year of eligibility. John Elway was inducted with Barry Sanders, Carl Eller, and Bob Brown.
By A. Goodin, 20Yardline.com
John Elway Biography Sources
(1) Packers' White Stops This Elway Comeback (1993, October 11) The Washington Post