The 53 Best Moments of John Elway's Career

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IJune 28, 2013

Happy Birthday, John Elway.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback, born on June 28, 1960, celebrates his 53rd birthday today.

Obviously, one gift he’s likely looking for on this momentous occasion can’t be given out until next February, when his Denver Broncos are hopefully playing in Super Bowl XLVIII. Elway is currently the executive vice president of football operations for the team.

But here the conversation will revolve around Elway and his magnificent playing career. And since he’s turning 53, we’ll be focusing on the most memorable 53 moments (good and bad) of his days in the NFL.

We’ll also be ranking them from “worst” to "best" so chronological order doesn’t necessarily apply here.

Elway remains one of the legendary quarterbacks to play the game. And while he didn’t achieve championship glory until his final two seasons in the league, it wasn’t for a lack of trying on his and his teammates’ part.

So sit back and enjoy. While Elway is busy blowing out those 53 candles, take the opportunity again to be blown away by his many feats and accomplishments.

53. On April 26, 1983, the Baltimore Colts (winless at 0-8-1 in 1982) make Stanford quarterback John Elway the first overall pick in the NFL draft.

52. On April 26, 1983, Elway announces that that he will not play for the Colts and instead will opt for a career in major league baseball with the New York Yankees.

51. On May 2, 1983, the Colts trade the draft rights to Elway to the Denver Broncos for quarterback Mark Herrmann, the draft rights to tackle Chris Hinton (also selected in the first round in 1983) and a first-round draft choice in 1984.

50. The Bad News (Week 1, 1983): In his first NFL start, Elway had his hands full vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers. He completed 1-of-8 passes for 14 yards (to wide receiver Rick Upchurch in the first quarter) and committed two turnovers (throwing his first career interception to safety Donnie Shell).

Elway was sacked four times, called for intentional ground, bruised his right elbow and missed the second half.

49. The Good News (Week 1, 1983): Veteran quarterback Steve DeBerg relieved Elway at halftime and rallied the team to a 14-10 victory over the Steelers, Elway’s first win as a starter.

48. The Bad News (Week 2, 1983): Elway’s second start in the league was better but not much better. The Broncos visited Baltimore to face the Colts and the team he forced a trade from. The rookie signal-caller completed 9-of-21 passes for 106 yards, was sacked three times and left the game after the third quarter with the score tied, 3-3.

47. The Good News (Week 2, 1983): DeBerg relieved Elway again, this time in the fourth quarter, and rallied the team to 17-10 victory, Elway’s second win as a starter.

46. The Good News (Week 3, 1983): Elway and the Broncos returned to Denver for their home opener vs. the Philadelphia Eagles. And with 1:54 to play in the game, Elway threw his first NFL touchdown pass, a 33-yard connection to Rick Parros.

45. The Bad News (Week 3, 1983): Elway also threw two interceptions in the contest and his team would fall to the Eagles, 13-10, Elway’s first loss as a starter. So when it’s all said and done, Elway was the winner in two games he didn’t finish and the loser in his first complete contest.

44. The Broncos were looking to return to the Super Bowl for the fourth time in six seasons. But the team fell short in a frustrating 10-7 loss in the 1991 AFC title game to the Buffalo Bills at Orchard Park. Elway would be hampered most of the day with a thigh injury and eventually replaced by backup Gary Kubiak.

43. A year after playing a relief role in the 1983 wild card game, Elway would make his first NFL playoff start against the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1984 divisional playoffs. But the second-year pro, despite a pair of touchdown passes, would be sacked four times and picked off twice, the second setting up the Steelers game-winning touchdown. The 13-3 Broncos would fall to 9-7 Pittsburgh, 24-17.

42. The Broncos and Green Bay Packers were tied for the best record in the NFL (13-3) in 1996. And although the second-year Jacksonville Jaguars were coming off an upset of the Bills in Buffalo, Mike Shanahan’s club figured to dispose of these upstarts in the divisional playoffs. Elway would throw for 226 yards and earn a pair of scores, but the Jaguars stunned the AFC’s number-one seed in Denver, 30-27.

41. Super disappointment (XXIV): Elway’s first three Super Bowl performances got progressively worse so we’ll go in reverse order. In a 55-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at the Superdome, he completed 10-of-26 passes for 108 yards and a pair of interceptions and also lost a fumble in the most lopsided setback in Super Bowl history.

40. Super disappointment (XXII): Things looked good early for Elway in the matchup with the Washington Redskins in San Diego. The Broncos took a 10-0 first-quarter lead as Elway threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Nattiel on the team’s first play from scrimmage. But by halftime the game had turned into a rout as Washington rolled up 35 points and 356 yards in the second quarter alone as Denver fell, 42-10.

39. Super disappointment (XXI): In his first Super Bowl appearance, Elway would prove to be highly productive…to a point. The Broncos quarterback completed 22-of-37 passes for 304 yards and a score (one interception) by game’s end. But his team couldn’t hold a 10-9 halftime lead on the way to a 39-20 loss to the New York Giants in Pasadena.

38. This AFC wild card playoff meeting with the Seattle Seahawks in 1983 is worth a mention because although Elway didn’t start this day in the Kingdome, he did finish in place of Steve DeBerg, the starter in the team’s 31-7 loss. Elway threw for 123 yards and was picked off once in the 24-point setback.

37. Elway’s last regular-season start came at home against the Seattle Seahawks. In Week 17 of 1998, the Broncos quarterback threw for 338 yards and four touchdowns in a 28-21 win. But it was teammate Terrell Davis who stole the spotlight, finishing that season with 2,008 yards rushing.

36. Back to Elway’s final regular season game (Part I). His final touchdown pass in the regular season was a one-yard toss to tight end Shannon Sharpe in the fourth quarter.

35. Once again, back to Elway’s final regular season game (Part II). His final completion in that contest came in the fourth quarter, a 16-yard toss to tight end Byron Chamberlain.

34. Elway did not throw an interception in his final regular-season game vs. Seattle. 

33. Back to that win over Seattle in Week 17 of 1998 (Part IV). The last player to sack Elway in the regular season was Seahawks defensive end Phillip Daniels, who dropped the quarterback for a nine-yard loss in the second quarter.

32. In a matchup of 12-3 teams in the same division, this Week 16 meeting between the Broncos and Seahawks in 1984 at the noisy Kingdome figured to go the way of the home team. Seattle had won at Denver, 27-24, three weeks earlier but this game belonged to Broncos and Elway…sort of.

The Denver signal-caller ran for one score and threw for another, but he also completed only 9-of-21 passes and was picked off four times in a 31-14 victory that clinched the AFC West.

31. Elway was never a big numbers guy (he never threw 30 touchdown passes in a season). And his best game touchdown pass wise came in his second season. In a Week 12 meeting with the Minnesota Vikings, he completed 16-of-19 throws for 218 yards and five scores in a 42-21 win.

30. Less than three weeks earlier, the Broncos lost to the Dolphins on a Monday night at Miami. There would be no doubt when it came to this rematch in the 1998 AFC divisional playoffs. Elway would throw for 182 yards and a score. But Denver would outgain the visiting Dolphins 250-14 on the ground in a lopsided 38-3 win.

29. Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami proved to be Elway’s final game (Part I). And the final touchdown pass thrown by Elway came in the second quarter of that 34-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons when he and Rod Smith connected for an 80-yard score.

28. It’s Super Bowl XXXIII and more facts (Part II). Who caught Elway’s final pass? That would be wide receiver Ed McCaffrey, who snared a 25-yard pass with less than 10 minutes to play in the win over the Falcons.

27. Despite being named Super Bowl XXXIII MVP, it wasn’t a perfect Super Sunday for Elway (Part III). The final interception of his career came in the first quarter courtesy of Falcons cornerback Ronnie Bradford.

26. One more Super Bowl mention (Part IV). Elway was not sacked in the Super Bowl win over the Falcons. But he was dropped three times in the AFC title game vs. the New York Jets, the final time in the fourth quarter by linebacker James Farrior.

25. Just over three minutes into the third quarter of the 1998 AFC title game at Mile High Stadium, the Broncos found themselves trailing the New York Jets, 10-0. But No. 7 and company would benefit greatly from six turnovers by the Green and White.

Elway would complete just 13-of-34 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown. And his team would score the final 23 points of the game in a 23-10 win. The defending Super Bowl champion Broncos would be keeping their title.

24. Amazingly, John Elway managed to throw exactly 300 touchdown passes in his 16-year career. But you would have never thought that might be possible when you consider he totaled just 158 scoring tosses in his first 10 seasons. Elway threw 142 touchdown passes his final six seasons in the league, including a career-high 27 scores in 1997.

23. On the day that the team’s great linebacker, Tom Jackson, was to have his number retired (57), Elway pulled off one of his best comebacks in Week 5 of 1992. Trailing the Chiefs, 19-7, in the fourth quarter at Mile High, he would throw two touchdown passes in the final 1:55 to stun Kansas City, 20-19.

22. Just two weeks after rallying to beat the Chiefs in 1992, Elway and the Broncos came away with an even more dramatic win. Down 21-20 with 56 seconds to play, the Broncos signal-caller drove his team 80 yards in only 22 seconds to beat the visiting Houston Oilers, 27-21

21. The Broncos advanced to their third Super Bowl in four seasons, once again at the expense of the Cleveland Browns, with a 37-21 win in the 1989 AFC championship game. Elway would throw for 385 yards and three touchdowns as Denver opened up a 24-7 lead, watched the Browns close the gap to 24-21 in the third quarter before pulling away with 16 unanswered points.

20. In Week 3 of 1995, the Broncos rallied for a wild 38-31 win over the Washington Redskins. It was a game that would launch the career of then-rookie and undrafted wide receiver Rod Smith, who caught Elway’s 43-yard touchdown pass on the final play of the game.

19. Elway finally got his first playoff win in his fourth NFL season. The Broncos trailed the visiting New England Patriots, 17-13, in the third quarter. But Elway, who ran 22 yards for a touchdown earlier in the game, connected with wide receiver Vance Johnson on a 48-yard score that put Denver ahead to stay. Dan Reeves' club would close out the Pats 22-17 in the 1986 divisional playoffs.

18. A year after a very disappointing loss to the Jaguars in the 1996 divisional playoffs, Elway and the Broncos would welcome them to Denver for the second straight year, this time in the AFC Wild Card Game. Elway would throw for 223 yards and a score, but it was the Broncos running attack that stole the show. Denver rolled up 310 yards rushing in the team’s 42-17 victory.

17. It would not prove to be a thing of beauty at Arrowhead Stadium. But here was Elway facing off against old foe Marty Schottenheimer, now the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Elway would throw for only 170 yards and completed just 10-of-19 passes. But the bottom line was a 14-10 Denver win and the 1997 Broncos championship run continued.

16. Earlier in the 1997 season, the Denver defense was taken apart by the Steelers courtesy of a 35-24 loss at Three Rivers Stadium. The Broncos would again score 24 points in this AFC title game rematch but would come away with a 24-21 win.

Elway would throw for 210 yards and a pair of touchdowns (one interception) but his biggest contribution came with less than two minutes to play and his team protecting a three-point lead. On third-and-six from his team’s own 15 yard line, he completed an 18-yard pass to tight end Shannon Sharpe that enabled his team to control the ball the rest of the game.

It was on to Super Bowl XXXII.

15. Elway was one of the game’s best quarterbacks in crunch time. In 16 seasons with Denver and including the playoffs, he totaled 35 fourth-quarter comebacks and 46 game-winning drives during his career.

14. The first of Elway’s 46 fourth-quarter comebacks came in Week 15 of his rookie season of 1983, when his team spotted the visiting Colts a 19-0 lead after three quarters. Elway would throw three touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to give Denver a 21-19 victory.

13. The last of Elway’s 46 fourth-quarter comebacks came in Week 15 of his rookie season, when his team spotted the Kansas City Chiefs a 21-7 lead after one quarter and a 31-21 advantage with 8:25 to play. The Broncos rallied for a 35-31 win as Elway would throw for 400 yards and two scores (one interception).

12. Elway would be named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player during the 1987 strike-interrupted season. In his fifth campaign, he threw 19 touchdown passes compared to 12 interceptions, plus ran for 304 yards and four scores. The Broncos would finish 10-4-1 and eventually reach Super Bowl XXII.

11. The Pittsburgh Steelers invaded Denver for the 1989 AFC divisional playoffs and dominated the game for the majority of the afternoon. Chuck Noll’s team owned a 23-17 lead early in the third quarter but Elway did his thing. He drove his team 71 yards in nine plays and a Melvin Bratton one-yard touchdown run with 2:27 to play (and subsequent PAT) have the Broncos a 24-23 victory.

10. For the second straight year (1987), the Broncos and Cleveland Browns would meet in the AFC title game, this time at Mile High Stadium. Elway would throw for 281 yards and three scores in what proved to be a 38-33 victory, sending the team to Super Bowl XXII. But Denver’s win didn’t come without a little luck.

9. Elway finishes his career with a 148-82-1 regular-season record with the Broncos from 1983-98. That includes a 35-8 record as a starter his last three seasons.

8. After 16 NFL seasons with the Broncos, No. 7 announces his retirement on May 2, 1999. Elway would finish his career 14-7 as a playoff starter with Denver, 7-7 in his first 14 postseason and 7-0 in his final seven playoff appearances.

7. The Broncos were hoping to dispose of the visiting Houston Oilers in the 1991 divisional playoffs. But quarterback Warren Moon and company would jump out to a 21-6 second-quarter lead and own a 24-16 fourth-quarter advantage. Elway would lead the Broncos to the final 10 points of the game, including the game-winning field goal march in a 26-24 win.

6. We’ll have a little fun here with the number five. Because Elway and current New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady are the only quarterbacks in history to start five Super Bowls. But it’s interesting to note that while Brady won his first three, he’s fallen short in his last two. Meanwhile, Elway dropped his first three Super Bowls but went out with wins in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.

5. Super Bowl XXXIII would prove to be the final game for Elway and it's hard to go out in better style. He would complete 18-of-29 passes for 336 yards and a score (with one interception) and also ran for a touchdown in the Broncos' 34-19 win over the Atlanta Falcons in Miami. Elway would be named the game's MVP, a crowning jewel on his 16-year career.

4. Elway was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004. He currently ranks fourth in NFL history in career passing yards (51,475) and seventh in league history in touchdown passes (300).

3. Super Bowl XXXII remains one of the best Super Bowls ever. The defending champion Green Bay Packers were supposed to make the Broncos the 14th straight victim of the NFC in the Big Game. But Elway and running back Terrell Davis keyed Denver’s 31-24 upset victory in San Diego. And while Davis would walk away with MVP honors for his performance, when it came to the getting the Lombardi Trophy, that one was for Elway!

2. Back to Super Bowl XXXII, and perhaps the game’s signature moment, provided by Elway in the third quarter. It was an eight-yard run (on third down and six yards to go) that would lead to a Denver touchdown. But it was the manner in which Elway got the first down as we watched the Hall of Famer soar to new heights.

1. One week earlier in the 1986 divisional playoffs, Elway got his first postseason win. But that looked like it would be for naught when the Broncos trailed the Browns, 20-13, late in the fourth quarter of the AFC championship game at Cleveland. Denver would eventually win, 23-20, in overtime and advance to Super Bowl XXI. But there would be no trip to Pasadena without an assist via “The Drive."


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