By Richard Sandomir
Dan Reeves, a former Dallas Cowboys running back who, as a coach, guided teams to four Super Bowls (although he lost them all), died Saturday at his home in Atlanta. He was 77.
The cause was complications of dementia, according to a family statement.
Reeves played and coached with the Dallas Cowboys during a stellar period when they won two Super Bowls, one when he was a player-coach and one when he was an offensive coordinator, working for coach Tom Landry. After several seasons as an assistant to Landry, he was hired as the Broncos’ head coach in 1981, replacing Red Miller.
Over 12 seasons in Denver, his teams had a record of 110-73-1 and were among the best in the AFC. Led by quarterback John Elway, they lost the Super Bowl in 1987, 1988 and 1990 by wide margins to the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers.
Reeves clashed with Elway over the Broncos’ offensive scheme and disagreed with the team’s owner, Pat Bowlen, over control of the team. Reeves fired his offensive coordinator, Mike Shanahan, in early 1992 for insubordination, believing that Shanahan had driven a wedge between him and Elway, who would later say it was “hell” playing for Reeves.
Following an 8-8 season in 1992, Bowlen fired Reeves.
“When you own a football team,” Reeves said afterward, “you should be able to run the ball club the way you would like to.” Bowlen said that he could have renewed Reeves’ contract but that within a year “we both would have been miserable and at each other’s throat.”
Reeves was hired in early 1993 by the Giants, who had dismissed Ray Handley after a 6-10 season.
“When you’ve gone and lost three Super Bowls and that’s what people will remember the most about you, that’s what drives you,” Reeves said at the news conference where he was introduced.
He had a promising start, leading the Giants to an 11-5 record and beating the Minnesota Vikings 17-10 in the wild-card playoff game. But the Giants lost to the 49ers 44-3 in a divisional playoff game.
The Associated Press named him its coach of the year.
The Giants did not make the playoffs over Reeves’ next three seasons — his teams had a combined 20-28 record in that span — and he was fired in 1996.
He had grown displeased with the limited amount of input he had on personnel decisions, and he had a testy relationship with some members of the Giants’ front office.
“Everybody talks about a power struggle,” he said at a news conference after his firing. “It was more like a philosophy struggle.” He said that the team had lacked enough impact players and that some of the college players his staff suggested should have been drafted had been taken off the team’s list of potential draftees because they had not done well on psychological tests.
It was not long before the Atlanta Falcons hired him, to replace June Jones after finishing the 1996 season with a 3-13 record.
Daniel Edward Reeves was born Jan. 19, 1944, in Rome, Georgia, to Ann and Edward Reeves. The family moved to Americus, Georgia, where he played high school football, basketball and baseball. At the University of South Carolina, he played quarterback from 1962 to 1964.
Undrafted by any team in the NFL or the American Football League, he signed in 1965 with the Cowboys, who converted him to a running back. He played eight seasons and accumulated 1,990 rushing yards, 757 of them in 1966, his best year.
One of his career highlights occurred during the 1967 NFL championship game, better known as the Ice Bowl because of the arctic conditions at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where the Cowboys played the Packers in one of the league’s most epic contests.
At the start of the fourth quarter, with the Packers ahead 14-10, Reeves took a pitch from quarterback Don Meredith and threw a 50-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lance Rentzel.
“When we pitched it out and I was running with the ball,” Reeves told NFL Films, “I noticed both the safety and corner coming up, which meant that Rentzel would be open.” He added, “When I threw it I thought I had a chance to overthrow it, but the wind was in our face and thank goodness it held it up.”
The Packers came back to win 21-17.
In 1970, Landry made Reeves a backfield coach. He was still an active player at the time.
“You think you’re pretty smart after a few years in the league as a player,” Reeves told the Associated Press before the 1970 season. “But you get into the coaching end and you realize how much work is involved in learning the game.”
After coaching the Broncos and the Giants, Reeves took over the Falcons in 1997. Following a 7-9 first season, he quickly turned Atlanta into one of the best teams in the NFL. The team finished the following year with a 14-2 record; its star running back, Jamal Anderson, gained 1,846 yards.
But as the Falcons were en route to their 12th victory, against the Saints in New Orleans in mid-December, Reeves felt a burning sensation in his chest and throat; a day later, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery.
He missed the Falcons’ two final regular-season games, but he returned for a playoff run that led to the team’s appearance in the Super Bowl against the Broncos, a matchup between Reeves and Shanahan. The Broncos won 34-19.
Reeves was named AP coach of the year for a second time.
But the Falcons were not the same in the ensuing years. Anderson injured his knee early the next season. They had losing records in four of the next five seasons. With the team a dismal 3-10 in 2003, Reeves was fired with three games left in the season.
“I’m an eternal optimist, so yeah, it was a surprise,” he told reporters. “But I’m also realistic enough about coaching to understand this is how it is in the NFL.”
Reeves’ survivors include his wife, Pam; his children, Lee, Laura and Dana, whose husband, Joe DeCamillis, is the special teams coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams; and six grandchildren.
John Elway, now the Broncos’ president of football operations, released a statement after Reeves’ death. His old resentments appeared to have softened.
“We may not have always seen eye to eye,” he said, “but the bottom line is we won a lot of games together. Looking back, what I appreciate about Dan is how he gradually brought me along to help me reach my potential.”
Elway said that Reeves deserved to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame for taking two teams to the Super Bowl.
But the only Dan Reeves in the Hall is the one who once owned the Rams.