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Heart of the matter: Reeves uses forum to relive Denver feud

Sunday, January 24, 1999

By Chuck Finder, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Five weeks after quadruple-bypass surgery and one week before the Super Bowl, Dan Reeves has shown the doctors from Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital and the inhabitants of Planet NFL what's in his heart:

 
Dan Reeves on his fallout with Mike Shanahan: "It's something that won't ever go away." (Ric Feld, Associated Press) 

A lot of strength.

A lot of football.

A little vitriol from his Denver days.

That's what keeps him tick, tick, ticking into his 55th birthday, his NFL-record ninth Super Bowl with three different teams as either player or coach, his rehabilitation of the once-flightless Falcons whose back-to-back playoff victories matched the output of their previous 32 franchise seasons.

That's what keeps him tick, tick, ticked into a super Sunday collision next week with Mike Shanahan, the assistant coach whom Reeves fired in 1991 over a perceived mutiny on the Broncos, and John Elway, the quarterback who hastened Reeves' Denver dismissal in 1992.

"I don't know that I'll ever get over the full situation," Reeves told reporters Wednesday, barely three days into the fortnight of hype that culminates with Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami. "It changed an awful lot of people's lives. Just like me making the decision about Mike.... changed a lot of people's lives. I don't know that Mike will ever get over the hurt from that, and what it cost his wife and children. Well, the same thing with me. It caused a lot of pain for my wife, my children. It's something that won't ever go away."

The prelude to this passion play at Pro Player Stadium all started Sunday with mutual admiration gushing from every side: Reeves after his Falcons upset heavily favored Minnesota on the road; Shanahan and Elway after their Broncos spanked the New York Jets.

Shanahan then talked about those Denver days all being in the past. Elway pronounced it done and over. Even Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, the man responsible for releasing Reeves after an 8-8 season followed a 1991 AFC championship-game appearance, conversed with his ex-coach about the subject being raised time and again the ensuing two weeks.

"I like to think in a lot of ways those feelings have matured," Bowlen said Tuesday after his long-distance chat, "and there's a positive spin to it rather than the negative spin that everybody will try to put on it."

The next day, Reeves went off.

He was asked by a Denver Post reporter to assess Shanahan's coaching performance this season. As Jim Armstrong wrote in the next day's Post, "Twenty minutes later, he had accused Shanahan of everything but being on the grassy knoll when Kennedy was shot."

Scripted plays without the head coach's knowledge in 1991, ultimately causing Reeves to oust his offensive coordinator for insubordination.

Withheld from his head coach the extent of Elway's frustration until Reeves had to read about it in the public prints.

Breached his head coach's confidence by repeating to Elway remarks uttered in coaches' meetings.

Coveted the head coach's job all along.

From Denver, Shanahan responded sharply to what he called dirty laundry: "I can't believe he's going into past scenarios. I thought we both were going to take the high road going into this game."

Follow us down the low road, from Reeves' Denver departure to this Miami meeting.


Broncos busting

The relationship between Reeves and Elway soured before there ever came to be a sweet relationship between Shanahan and Elway.

Elway was a rookie discombobulated by the Denver head coach, twice placing his hands under guard Tom Glassic during games. Reeves allowed the rookie just five formations and backup Steve DeBerg 15. Reeves benched the rookie twice, the last time coming in the playoffs. Elway grew so distraught he talked to his wife about quitting to become a Stanford assistant under his dad, Jack.

Reeves realized the gravity of the situation. By 1984, Bowlen's first year as owner, DeBerg was traded to Tampa Bay and Shanahan was hired from the University of Florida to counsel the quarterbacks.

Shanahan moved to offensive coordinator the next season. After spending 1988 and the first month of 1989 as the Raiders' head coach, Shanahan returned to Denver as offensive coordinator.

The Broncos had reached, and lost, three Super Bowls under Reeves' run-first, conservative offense. The quarterback was uncomfortable in the system he called a "hell." The head coach was uncomfortable that the quarterback and offensive coordinator took family vacations together.

It hit a wall in 1990, amid a 5-11 season. One day, the late Post columnist Dick Connor quoted Elway as admitting that he quit communicating with his coach, that their relationship was "the worst." Reeves went into Shanahan's office and threw the newspaper at him. The offensive coordinator said he immediately went to the weight room to fetch Elway, gathering the disgruntled quarterback and disgruntled head coach for a talk.

Still, Shanahan added this week, "Everything went downhill after that column. I thought I did a great job of keeping that relationship intact for seven years."

Reeves believed that part of Elway's anger came from private comments Shanahan relayed to the quarterback, comments made in coaches' meetings critiquing the performances of players.

Then, in 1991, he accused Shanahan and Elway of scripting plays without informing the head coach. Shanahan, however, said Reeves was mistaken: The quarterback called his own plays that season, and any good offensive coordinator could predict what was coming by knowing his quarterback's favorite formations and plays.

Reeves added it all up nevertheless, and it came out: insubordination.

On Wednesday, he maintained he still couldn't prove the allegations, but based his decision to fire Shanahan on speculation and feeling. Said Shanahan, "To not have any proof, but to say somebody is insubordinate, that's one of the reasons I've had such a tough time with this. That's a strong word not to have any proof."

Shanahan went on to San Francisco as offensive coordinator, Elway went on to strike a him-or-me pose after an 8-8 season in 1992. Out went Reeves. In came Wade Phillips, though Reeves figured Shanahan wouldn't have turned down the job if he didn't suspect a public outcry about mutiny.

Two seasons later, Shanahan became the Broncos' coach. He and Elway won a Super Bowl ring last January, after which Reeves sent the quarterback a congratulatory note.

"We would have never been where we were without John Elway. I always had a tremendous amount of respect for John Elway. And ... Mike Shanahan is a great football coach. He's as good a coach as I've been around," Reeves said this week, comparing his pre-1990 relationship with Shanahan to his own relationship as a Dallas assistant with Coach Tom Landry. "And, really and truly, I couldn't have been closer to someone than I was with Mike. It was a tough thing, but it happened."


Flying Falcons

Given power with the New York Giants, Reeves promptly guided them to the 1993 playoffs, a winning record the next season, then two losing years. This despite the lack of a decent quarterback. This despite clashes with then Giants General Manager George Young.

Given complete control of the Falcons - vice president of football operations and head coach, in that order - Reeves set about cleaning up a messy franchise that twice fired Marion "Swamp Fox" Campbell, traded away Brett Favre and Deion Sanders, spent half of its 32 seasons losing 10 games or more.

He brought in a new attitude, relaxed conditions (a roomier charter and no team hotel the night before a home game) and a dozen starters. Cornerback Ray Buchanan was signed from Indianapolis. Fullback Bob Christian, originally a Falcons draftee, was signed from Carolina. The VP-coach traded for Tony Martin of San Diego. He traded for troubled Chris Chandler of Houston.... after vacillating between the veteran of five different NFL teams and young free-agent Elvis Grbac.

Chandler remembers being informed about the deal in a 6 a.m. wake-up call from Reeves, Atlanta to Palm Springs, Calif. "I couldn't figure that one out," he said.

"I read about a lot of things that happened in Denver with John and in New York with [quarterback Dave] Brown," Chandler added. "But I've had nothing but fun playing for Dan. It's been fun, it's been rewarding, it's been challenging. All that."

And not hell.

Reeves pals with these Falcons. Two nights before the NFC championship game in Minnesota, when a reporter asked Chandler to compare himself with the Vikings' Randall Cunningham, Reeves interjected in an off-stage aside, "You've never seen Chris run." Chandler replied, "Ever since he came back, he's been like a comedian. You should hear him in meetings."

Reeves still wants his offense to run first, with 1,800-yard rusher Jamal Anderson, but Chandler threw enough to finish fourth in NFL quarterback rating (100.7) and sixth in touchdowns (25). Refurbishing a roster with 39 bodies new to the 53-man roster he inherited, Reeves signed 22 free agents - only three of whom hadn't tasted the playoffs in the previous season or two. On defense alone, he has nine players with five years of experience and two Super Bowl veterans: Cornelius Bennett at linebacker (0-4 with Buffalo) and Eugene Robinson at safety (1-1 with Green Bay). No wonder a 1-7 start turned into a 22-4 run since midseason last year.

Sometime after the Falcons' 30-27 overtime victory and before Reeves made his version of the Dirty Bird dance look like the Funky Chicken, Minnesota's Cunningham came up and offered, "Great job, coach. The Lord's taking good care of you."

Falcons special-teams coach Joe DeCamillis, who just so happens to be Reeves' son-in-law, calls it "his best coaching job ever."

"This is probably more rewarding than any other teams I've been involved in," Reeves said. "It really is amazing to think five weeks ago I was in an operating room. It just blows you away.... It seemed like it was yesterday when my wife [Pam] leaned over to me in the hospital. Now we're in the Super Bowl. It's a miracle."

This old coach had five knee operations by his mid-20s and two angioplasty procedures to relieve heart problems while coaching Denver earlier this decade. He nearly put off the chest pains for later until a pregame prayer somehow made Reeves ask team physician Dr. Charles Harrison, "Is it dumb to wait until after the season to have this checked out?"

The quadruple bypass the next day, Dec. 12, using veins from his chest and leg, caused Reeves to miss the final two Falcons games of the regular season, when they clinched their first NFC West title since 1980 and a 14-2 record.

"Dan has really inspired us all," said linebacker Jesse Tuggle, a 12-year Atlanta veteran. "He walked in the meeting room four days after having had surgery, and you could have heard a pin drop. We wanted to hear every last word he had to say.

"He's a true leader, a true winner."

Reeves is the winningest active coach in the league, his 172 victories (including playoffs) surpassing Paul Brown for seventh all-time. Even after three heart procedures and two firings, he still has the drive at 55.

Why not retire? "I guess," Reeves said. "Because I need a job."

His task this week: Be strong, steer the Falcons, avoid revisiting the Denver pain that lingers almost a decade later.

The three don't actually hate each other after their messy Denver divorce, but they keep a cordial distance. They ran into one another at Augusta National last spring and exchanged pleasantries, the Georgia-born Reeves walking off the 18th green, Shanahan and Elway walking to the first tee. When Reeves underwent open-heart surgery, the Shanahans sent get-well wishes and the Elways made a donation in Reeves' name to the Atlanta Youth Foundation.

But high road, low road, or somewhere in between?

"I can play golf with them," Reeves said. "I won't go out to eat with them, or go socially to a function with them, but I would have no problem carrying on a conversation....

"It's going to be there."



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