Stanford's Elway reigns in the land of the pass
Palo Alto, Calif.
"Wanted. One golden arm. Must be at least 17, a high school graduate and a scholar. Interested parties please apply at the Stanford University Athletic Department.
Long ago, Standford decided upon a strategy which would enable it to compete in football which such Pacific Coast heavies as UCLA, Southern Cal, and Washington. The answer: pass the ball.
That's when the "help wanted" sign went out to high school quarterbacks. And over the years, the likes of John Brodie, Jim Plunkett, Don Bunce, Mike Boryla, Guy Benjamin, Steve Dils, and Turk Schonert answered the call. Each in turn earned a spot at or near the top of the national passing statistics.
These days, John Elway of Northridge, Calif., is the arm to answer Stanford's call. This fall, Elway, a junior named on nearly everyone's first-team All-America (Ohio State's Art Schlichter and Brigham Young's Jim McMahon notwithstanding), begins his second full season as the prototype passer in Stanford's system. His talent? Bob Rose, sports information director at Standford, puts it succinctly "John is the greatest we've had." Coming from Stanford, land of the forward pass, such a comment says quite a bit.
And Elway's statistics support Rose's assertion: In 1980, 2,889 yards passing , a 65 percent completion rate, and only 11 interceptions -- that's one for every 34 passes thrown. He also hit for 33 touchdowns through the air in his first two seasons.
In an era when good passers are plentiful, such statistics -- by themselves -- are just numbers. There is more, much more, to being the best at the position.
Quarterback is a position of mystique in football. There are those who can throw and run, and are big and strong. Seemingly, they have all the tools, yet they lack that certain something. Call it leadership or verve or flair -- either you have it or you don't. Joe Namath had it and so did Johnny Unitas and others. It's the ability to take command of a flagging offense, to turn a botched play into a gainer, to call the right play at the right time. those who have watched Elway for two years say "He has it!" Some pro scouts even now predict that Elway could be the next quarterback-of-a-decade in the NFL.
Surprisingly to some, Elway's decision to attend Stanford wasn't easy. "As I look back on it," he says, "the decision shouldn't have been as difficult as it was," a comment referring as much to Stanford's academic standards (with no letup for atheletes) as the football team's proclivity for the pass. There was a temptation to join his father, Jack, who had taken the head coaching job at San Jose State.
Both are doing well, however. Jack Elway, himself an offensive genius, is a winner at San Jose. To wit, last year's 7-4 record included a win over then unbeaten Baylor, the Southwest Conference champion. Each fall Stanford and San Jose State trade volley for volley in an early season rivalry to which the Elway-Elway duel gives heightened meaning these days. Coach Elway's only regret about quarterback Elway's choice is that each fall now he must suffer bites (completed passes) from the arm he fed.
As for John, he can be forgiven if he loses a bit of his concentration near the end of this season's San Jose State game on Sept. 19. The opponent the following week is Ohio State, setting the stage for his match-up with Schlichter. It will be the Buckeyes' basically balanced offense vs. the Cardinals' emphasis on passing; Ohio State predictability vs. Stanford's calculated unpredictability.
Stanford's offense is not simply pass, pass, pass until you get something. It's a highly complex system using a bewildering array of patterns. Elway knows the patterns and can thread the eye of the needle as the receiver suddenly breaks into the clear.
The Cardinals' method demands highly talented athletes at the skill positions (quarterback, wide receiver, and running back -- running backs who can't catch a pass need not apply). Once the talent is in place, it's a matter of sticking to the system. The main idea is that it's easier to throw a pass accurately, even at some distance, to a man running in relatively open spaces than to ram it through lines and stacks of heavy and hostile bodies.
"But the thing is," says Elway, "we need to get something on every play. It's bang, bang, bang back there. If I miss the two primary receivers, I have to get it to a back." Just as a ground game expects at least a yard or two even on a blown play, so the Cardinals look for something on every pass. They do this so well that they've scored via the air in 35 straight games, a remarkable record.
Unpredictability is a key in the Stanford attack. The Cardinals are as likely to pass on the first play of the game as on the last, on their own 1-yard line or their opponents' 1-yard line, on third-and-two or third-and-20.
And of course they can and do run the football.Senior tailback Darrin Nelson has a shot at the NCAA all-purpose rushing record (total yards gained pass receiving, rushing, and returning kicks). In his first two years at Stanford, Nelson put together consecutive seasons with 50 pass receptions and 1,000-plus yards rushing -- the only college player to ever do so. He would have made it three seasons in a row last year but for a late-season injury.
Nelson may be a multiple threat in football, but Elway's versatility extends to a second sport, baseball. The New York Yankees, who made him their first-round draft pick in June, are reportedly trying to sign him to a $140,000, one-year contract. Elway could play pro baseball in the summer and still retain his college football eligibilty so long as he gave up his scholarship.