Reeves revisits bitter memories of Denver days

Rift with Shanahan, Elway not forgotten by Falcons coach

Super Bowl Xxxiii

January 24, 1999|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,SUN STAFF

Reluctant at first to reopen old wounds on Monday, Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Reeves lost his inhibitions and poured out his soul on Wednesday. What tumbled into view was private pain and public acrimony.

In the space of 48 hours last week, Super Bowl XXXIII went from the Dirty Bird to simply down and dirty, from John Elway's valedictory speech to his unwashed laundry.

Miami, get ready for the mud bath.

Amid Reeves' allegations that he was betrayed by Denver coach Mike Shanahan some seven years ago, the Falcons will face the Broncos in the NFL's championship game next Sunday.

A feud that started in Elway's rookie season has grown to such proportions that it could command center stage much of the week ahead. Reeves assured that much with his candid assessment of the events that led to his firing as Broncos coach in 1992.

Why now? Why this platform?

"I really don't know," said Shanahan, who spent seven years on Reeves' staff in Denver, four of them as offensive coordinator.

"I'm not trying to figure it out, either. I thought we were going to take the high road on this. Hopefully, we still can."

Too late. Not after Reeves lowered the boom. Not after he revisited old suspicions and pulled out the road map to the fractious past.

Two days after he brushed aside questions about his relationship with Shanahan and Elway, Reeves delved into it like a detective. He accused Shanahan of plotting to take his old job, said Shanahan violated a coaching confidence by telling Elway what was said behind closed doors, and suggested Shanahan and Elway secretly scripted plays to undermine Reeves' authority.

Shanahan had worked for Reeves from 1984 through 1987. He left Denver to become coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, was fired in 1989 and returned to the Broncos. But what had been a close friendship with Reeves quickly deteriorated.

Their relationship hit the rocks in 1991 when, Reeves said, he learned of Elway's discontent through newspaper stories.

"The biggest problem I had [with Shanahan] was, `If John Elway had a problem with me, and you're coaching that position and you know, why did I not know that prior to reading it in the paper?'

"And you say things in a coaches' meeting, as far as critiquing a play of someone, that you would never say to the player. If John ever got any bad feelings about something that I said, it was never done publicly. It had to be something coming from a staff meeting.

"Now, does that mean Mike did it? You got a lot of people on your staff. I have no proof of [a leak], nothing. I did what I felt was best for our football team. I didn't think Mike acted in my best interests."

Shanahan denied Reeves' charges and said he never told Elway of any negative statements Reeves made in meetings about the quarterback.

"It's totally untrue," he said. "And when I was there, Dan never said a word about it. Dan wanted to run the offense and he wanted complete control, and he really didn't want somebody with my type of personality around."

After the 1991 season, Reeves fired Shanahan for insubordination. Shanahan landed deftly on his feet in San Francisco as offensive coordinator. He went to three NFC championship games with the 49ers and one Super Bowl, then came back to Denver as head coach in 1995. But the fallout of that firing ultimately splattered Reeves, too.

The Broncos went 8-8 in 1992 after Elway missed the final four games with an injury. That finish, coupled with Elway's well-documented dislike of his coach, led owner Pat Bowlen to fire Reeves. Although Elway denies it, there was considerable speculation that he issued a "him-or-me" ultimatum to Bowlen about Reeves.

By training camp of 1993, Elway uttered his famous condemnation of Reeves: "The last three years have been hell. I know that I would not have been back here if Dan Reeves had been here. It wasn't worth it to me."

Elway's feud with Reeves actually started as a philosophical one. As the first pick in the 1983 draft, Elway wanted a high-powered passing game. Reeves preferred to keep games close to the vest into the fourth quarter, when he'd turn Elway loose.

Elway felt Reeves held him back, especially when he compared his career passing numbers with those of Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino.

"I wouldn't be 5,000 yards behind and 100 touchdowns behind," Elway said at one time, indicting Reeves' run-oriented system. "I would think we would be nip-and-tuck at this point."

Reeves' system nevertheless took Elway to three Super Bowls, but Elway didn't win one until last season, Shanahan's third year back.

Reeves, who had quadruple heart bypass surgery in December, sounded wistful talking about his breakup with the Broncos.

"I don't know that I'll ever get over, quote, the situation," he said. "There's still a lot of hurt that won't ever go away. You never will forget those things. But am I a person that's not going to speak to Pat Bowlen or Mike Shanahan or John Elway? I don't live my life like that. I had a lot of great times with those guys. I can be cordial to them."

This week, though, it may be hard to keep cordiality from becoming hostility. Let Super Bowl week begin.

Super Bowl XXXIII

Denver Broncos (16-2) vs. Atlanta Falcons (16-2)

Site: Pro Player Stadium, Miami

When: Next Sunday, 6: 18 p.m. TV: Chs. 45, 5

Line: Broncos by 7

Pub Date: 1/24/99

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