The Drive II

On January 4, 1992, John Elway and the Broncos faced first-and-10 at their own 2-yard-line. Sounds familiar, right? But even though the Broncos trailed the Houston Oilers by a solitary point, they had over three minutes less time than they did five years earlier at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium.

The Broncos did not have to march 98 yards in 5:32. But they did need to go at least 60 yards in two minutes to give David Treadwell a plausible shot at the game-winning field goal. And unlike January 1987, the Broncos were out of timeouts.

“There are times when you know the situation is hopeless,” said wide receiver Michael Young. “But one look at John, and we knew we had a chance.”

With less time on their hands, Elway and the Broncos did not have the luxury of calling short passes and handoffs to escape the end zone: they had to move, now. Under a four-man rush, Elway dropped eight yards into the end zone, and fired a strike to Young. The pass covered 22 yards, and the Broncos were at their 24 at the two-minute warning.

Then, the drive stalled. The aggressive, versatile Oilers brought seven pass rushers on first down, four on second down with a linebacker in contain, and six on third down, when Elway completed a four-yard pass to Ricky Nattiel. With fourth-and-6, the Oilers only rushed three men, dropping seven into deep coverage, and one man into close containment. No one was open, but Elway escaped the pocket, sprinted to the left sideline and got out of bounds—two steps beyond the first-down marker.

But that was only a temporary reprieve. The Oilers kept mixing up their packages, alternating blitzes and tight coverages. Elway’s next three passes fell incomplete; one was deflected at the line of scrimmage. With 59 seconds remaining, the Broncos had another fourth down.

Houston called timeout. At the snap, the defense rushed four men. Elway waited, and then stepped up in the pocket, moving toward the left sideline—just like he had on the previous fourth down. The threat of Elway’s legs sustaining the drive brought cornerback Richard Johnson forward. Eight yards behind him and near the sideline was Vance Johnson.

Instead of using the howitzer, Elway lofted the pass toward Vance Johnson, and over the cornerback’s flailing, desperate hand. The pass was caught, and the Broncos’ Johnson turned upfield past mismatched Oilers linebacker Al Smith and didn’t stop until he’d sprinted 29 yards after the catch, for a 44-yard gain to the Houston 21-yard-line.

“Sometimes, they lose guys when John starts scrambling,” Vance Johnson noted.
If John Elway is not running for a first down, he’s going to find someone.”

Mile High erupted. Elway’s teammates rejoiced, a mixture of giddiness and awe.

“This has got to be the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” backup quarterback Gary Kubiak said after the game. “Everything we did was improvising, once John started on the final drive. He was something. I’m just glad he’s on my side.”

But you wouldn’t have read all that if Kubiak, Elway’s long-time understudy, had not made one of the greatest holds on a field-goal attempt in NFL history.

On David Treadwell’s 28-yard field goal attempt, Kubiak saved the season by fielding a shaky snap from the injured Keith Kartz, then quickly spinning it into position as Treadwell’s foot arrived. The kick sailed through the south uprights, and now the home fans at Mile High Stadium could say they bore witness to one of the signature drives in NFL history.

“I just smothered it and put it down after trapping it,” said Kubiak. “Keith couldn’t play, but bless his soul, he could barely bend over, but he thought he could make the snap. I didn’t look up once David started with his foot. But I saw it once it went through.”

With less time, no timeouts, and two fourth downs, the Broncos’ 12-play, 87-yard march was arguably more impressive than “The Drive.”

“I was part of the Cleveland drive, but this one was nicer,” said running back Steve Sewell. “Everyone wanted the ball on the last drive to make a play. We didn’t mention Cleveland in the huddle.”

The only thing missing? A player with a pithy, tension-breaking observation like Keith Bishop did in Cleveland.

“I was thinking of Bishop,” said Elway. “I missed him saying, ‘We’ve got them right where we want them.”