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NO REEVES, BUT IS ELWAY HAVING FUN LOSING?

Wonder if the Denver Broncos are having any fun this season?

That was one of the raps on Dan Reeves when the Broncos fired him as coach after the 1992 season. Football wasn't fun under him. In fact, John Elway said the last few years of the Reeves regime were "hell.""I didn't enjoy it," said Elway, a.k.a. the franchise. "It wasn't any fun."

If winning wasn't fun - and Reeves certainly did enough of that during his 12-year tenure in Denver - then how much fun can losing be? The Broncos are off to an 0-3 start this season, and the fans are howling for the head of Coach Wade Phillips.

Denver became a playoff team under Phillips in the first year of the post-Reeves era in 1993. But Reeves wasn't out of work long. He surfaced as coach of the New York Giants and also took them to the playoffs. The Giants won two more games than the Broncos but the two teams headed in opposite directions in the off-season.

The Broncos seemingly took the steps to become a champion. They signed Pro Bowl wide receiver Anthony Miller and AFC rushing runner-up Leonard Russell in free agency and traded for wideout Mike Pritchard, who caught 74 passes at Atlanta last year. Denver also shored up the defense by signing free-agent cornerback Ray Crockett and trading for defensive tackle Ted Washington.

Next stop, Super Bowl.

The Giants, on the other hand, lost their entire secondary, plus two starting offensive linemen in free agency. Lawrence Taylor retired, and quarterback Phil Simms was squeezed off the roster by the salary cap. That dismantling appeared to knock the Giants off the Cowboys' tail in the NFC East and push them down the ladder past Arizona and Philadelphia.

Next stop, mediocrity.

But Reeves didn't change his approach. He continued to run the Giants the same way he ran the Broncos - with discipline. Players still aren't allowed to sit on their helmets during practice. It's hats on at all times, chin straps buckled. And there still are those dreaded penalty laps for screw-ups during practice.

His approach has been a constant - and Reeves annually does more with less than any coach in the NFL. He won 60 percent of his games in Denver with little more than Elway and that thin Rocky Mountain air. And his approach continues to work in 1994 despite those pre-season forecasts of doom.

The Giants are the only unbeaten team in the NFC at 3-0. They lead the Cowboys by a game in the East. Yes, the Giants are having fun. Winning is a blast.

TWO-MINUTE DRILL: Subject: Jack Del Rio, Minnesota Vikings.

Topic: Stopping Barry Sanders.

Background: Is middle linebacker Jack Del Rio a 178-yard difference in a defense? Del Rio made eight tackles two weeks ago and his Vikings held Detroit's Barry Sanders to 16 yards rushing in 12 carries. Then, last week, Sanders shredded the Cowboys for 194 yards on 40 carries. Del Rio was the Cowboys' middle man until 1992, when he joined the Vikings in free agency. Sanders has not rushed for 100 yards against the Vikings in the four games since Del Rio's arrival.

Q. Educate us - how do you stop Barry Sanders?

A. I don't know that there's any real secret to it.

Part of it is doing your best to cut down his running lanes, get as many people as you can to the ball and then hang on. When the game's over, you kind of catch your breath because the guy's a threat to go the distance on every carry. We have all the respect in the world for the guy. Part of the motivation is not wanting to be embarrassed by him.

Q. What makes Sanders so difficult to tackle?

A. When he makes a cut, he's back at full speed after a step and a half. Most people take three, four or five steps. He makes a decision and - BOOM! He's gone. He's the only guy I've ever played against that could be running at you full speed - then jump backward three steps. You're in the air, thinking you're got him, and suddenly he disappears.

Q. Who would you rather have on your team, Sanders or Emmitt Smith?

A. I'd take Emmitt. I know what he can do first-hand because I was on his team. In my opinion, he's the key to the Cowboys. Barry Sanders is just a notch below. Emmitt gets you the eight, nine and 10 yards more consistently.

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Additional Information

Barkley speaks out in support of Ryan

PHOENIX - While Arizona Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan gets heat from fans and the media, he has the support of Charles Barkley, another outspoken Phoenix sports figure.

"I think Buddy says what he believes and thinks," said Suns star Charles Barkley. "You want to be an individual, and open and run your own ship. But if you do and it goes bad, they really, really turn on you. They really kill you.

"I didn't expect them to win the Super Bowl this year, but I thought they would make the playoffs and I still think they can. I'm a Cardinal fan whether they're winning or losing, and I'm going to stick with them. I'm never one to jump off the wagon."

Barkley says the fans should be more loyal.

"People have been a little unfair to Buddy and his boys," Barkley said. "Obviously, they're struggling right now . . . but I believe you take the good with the bad. If they were 3-0, everybody would love them."