Transformed Testaverde strong-arms his shaky past

January 17, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

DENVER -- And so it has come to this: Vinny Testaverde could be the quarterback who sends John Elway into retirement.

Not exactly the plot that everyone predicted for the AFC championship game, was it?

For once, New York Jets coach Bill Parcells can't brag that he knew something that others didn't -- he signed Testaverde as a backup to Glenn Foley.

And now Testaverde is 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl, trying to ruin what likely will be Elway's last game at Mile High Stadium.

At least we think it's Testaverde.

It could be a body double. It could be Rip Vin Winkle. Or it could be the son of Joe Namath, given the startling resemblance between the two last Sunday, when Testaverde ran off the field, waving his right index finger in the air.

Both quarterbacks broke Baltimore's heart, in one way or another. But looking at Vinny, listening to Vinny, reading about Vinny, it's difficult to believe this is the same guy.

Forget his 13-1 record as the Jets' starter -- he never could have managed that with a lesser coach, lesser running back and lesser receivers in Baltimore.

What's even more astonishing about Testaverde's transformation is the Namath-like confidence that is rapidly becoming his trademark, both on and off the field.

Would you believe that Testaverde left his teammates in stitches by surprising Parcells at a team meeting with a tape of the coach singing in a tortilla-chip commercial?

Would you believe that Testaverde screamed at Keyshawn Johnson on the sideline in Kansas City after the volatile receiver ran the wrong pattern, resulting in an interception?

Sports Illustrated recounted both incidents, portraying a quarterback who is almost the polar opposite of the joyless, aloof Charlie Brown figure Testaverde was in Baltimore.

That might tell you more about the Ravens than it does about Testaverde -- four of the Jets' defensive front seven also are former Cleveland Browns.

But what it speaks to most is the power of Parcells.

Testaverde and Parcells figured to be a horrible match, given the coach's distaste for mistake-prone quarterbacks. Only Testaverde no longer fits that description. He threw 29 touchdown passes, and just seven interceptions, in the regular season.

No question, Parcells put tighter reins on Testaverde, but that explanation discredits the quarterback's accomplishments. He was the top-rated passer in the AFC this season, ahead of Elway. He has made one big play after another.

"I just hoped to get a guy that maybe we could use as a quarterback if we needed to," Parcells said last week. "What he's given us has been too much to have asked for or even to hope for. He's just been great."

But today, Testaverde faces a quarterback who is 4-1 in conference championships, and a team that has won 18 straight games at Mile High Stadium.

The notion of Testaverde defeating Elway in a game of this magnitude is preposterous, but no more preposterous than the rest of the Vinster's rags-to-riches season.

You bet against Testaverde, you bet against Parcells.

And that's not a smart thing to do in January.

Parcells is 5-1 in conference championships and Super Bowls. Twice in the 1990 season, his New York Giants faced high-powered offenses as an underdog -- at San Francisco for the NFC title and against Buffalo in the Super Bowl.

The Giants won both games by a total of three points.

The Jets might not be capable of such an upset, but they shouldn't be nine-point underdogs, either.

Defensive coordinator Bill Belichick works with less talent than the Ravens but gets more out of it. If the Jets can slow down Terrell Davis and force the aging Elway to beat them, they've got a chance.

As for Testaverde, well, he still produces those dreaded Vinny moments, but such is his hometown karma in New York, they rarely hurt the cause and rarely are held against him.

Remember his fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak from the 5-yard line against Seattle? With the Ravens, he would have fumbled the snap. With the Jets, he didn't even cross the goal line and was awarded a touchdown. The New York media praised his daring call, when in fact the play didn't work.

How about last week, when Testaverde threw an interception into the end zone with a seven-point lead and 2: 30 left? With the Ravens, such a mistake would have proved fatal. With the Jets, it was Parcells who took the heat for the call, and Jacksonville's Donovin Darius who suffered brain lock, running the ball out of the end zone to the 1-yard line.

Testaverde had never beaten Miami until this season. He was 0-6 against Jacksonville. He is 0-2 against Denver. But as he said this week, "Nothing in the past affects what I do in the future. It's like night and day."

And when Denver safety Tyrone Braxton suggested the other day that Testaverde might be rattled like the Vinny of old, the Jets rose defiantly to their quarterback's defense.

"He ain't been rattled all year," Johnson said. "He's been doing his thing. I don't think it'll change."

The Broncos should win today -- they're at home, they've got more playoff experience, they start a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

It's difficult to imagine Testaverde being the quarterback who sends Elway into retirement. But then, it was difficult to imagine Testaverde being 60 minutes away from the Super Bowl.

Here he is.

Pub Date: 1/17/99

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