Season's Greetings

Broncos coach Mike Shanahan has his work cut out for him.

When new Nuggets owner Stan Kroenke held Dan Issel's big feet to the fire last week, any casual observer of Denver's beleaguered NBA franchise had to wonder: What is Issel to do? Wave a wand and transform his motley collection of slew-footed children and graying journeymen into the Los Angeles Lakers? There's nothing wrong with the Nuggets that eleven or twelve talented new players couldn't fix, and Kroenke probably knows it. Still, head coach/general manager Issel is likely to lose one or both of his jobs this season if the Nugs flounder again.

Question: Is Mike Shanahan subject to the same harsh scrutiny from his team's owner? Not likely.

In sweltering Greeley the other day, Broncos large and larger were panting and heaving through their afternoon drills when it occurred to a visitor that the Mastermind has an awfully good thing going here. He isn't required to sweat or hit the blocking sled, and he gets to shout in the faces of guys who outweigh him by 150 pounds with no fear of retribution. For this he is extremely well paid and only occasionally has to eat banquet food.

By all appearances, Shanahan also enjoys an uncommon degree of indulgence from his boss. You get the feeling that the Broncos coach could run down the 16th Street Mall in his underwear, spouting pig Latin, and owner Pat Bowlen wouldn't blink an eye. He could start Britney Spears at quarterback and Pat would take a wait-and-see attitude. Shanahan has won two Super Bowls, after all, and every mosquito in Greeley knows it.

Still, this could be -- should be -- a crucial season for the head coach. The disastrous 1999 campaign, in which the team lost half a dozen key players to serious injury, slipped to 6-10 and lost a ton of respect around the league, is being viewed in Broncoland this summer as an aberration, a glitch. The real Broncos will be back and ready to kick serious butt this year, and anybody who doesn't believe it has only to note the fire in Ed McCaffrey's eye or the knowing smile on Terrell Davis's face. Healed up now and renewed in spirit, the Broncos mean to put their rivals in the AFC West and the rest of the NFL on notice that the great have not sunk as low as the skeptics imagine.

"We will be good," wide receiver Rod Smith assures the wary. "We'll be ready to go."

In 1998, with John Elway at the helm and Terrell Davis smashing rushing records, the Super Bowl-winning Broncos offense rolled up 380 yards per game and scored 501 points, second in the league. Last year, with Elway on the golf course, Davis in a plaster cast and tight end Shannon Sharpe on Mars, the team averaged only 330 yards per game and scored 187 fewer points. But injuries accounted for only part of the problem. Shanahan, the can-do-no-wrong guy, botched a crucial call, turning a quarterback controversy into a full-scale team virus from which neither veteran Bubby Brister, now departed, nor overeager rookie Brian Griese emerged unscathed. The fortunate party, it now appears, was third-stringer Chris Miller, who had the good sense to retire after suffering his umpteenth concussion. If he's lucky, Miller won't remember much at all about the Broncos' season in hell.

Griese and Shanahan can't help but remember. The former Michigan quarterback, who is said to be getting stronger and smarter by the moment, completed 261 of 452 passes last year for 3,032 yards and fourteen touchdowns. Not bad numbers, except that he also threw fourteen interceptions and had some veteran teammates grumbling that he was arrogant and egotistical. If former Pro Bowler Gus Frerotte, late of the Detroit Lions, has anything to say about it, Griese will be riding the pine this autumn while Frerotte revives his sagging career.

This persistent quarterback mess -- is it the Curse of the Biffster? -- is certainly not the only quandary Shanahan faces at training camp. Since the garrulous and talented Sharpe signed with the Baltimore Ravens, the Mastermind finds himself looking at three fair-to-middling tight ends -- Dwayne Carswell, Desmond Clarke and Byron Chamberlain -- in the hopes of filling a huge void. Looking for a third wide receiver to join Smith and McCaffrey, the Broncos signed sixteen-year Buffalo veteran Andre Reed, but no one quite knows how much gas he has left in the tank.

Happily, defensive tackle Trevor Pryce ended his contract holdout last week and reported to camp with gaudy credentials: fifty tackles in '99 and a team-leading thirteen quarterback sacks. Safety Eric Brown is healthy again, and the return of weak-side linebacker John Mobley means the Broncos will have one of the best linebacking crews in the game: Al Wilson in the middle, fire-breathing Bill Romanowski wherever the hell he wants to play, and Glenn Cadrez, who led the team in tackles in 1999, as a blue-ribbon reserve.

Last season, Denver's defense was actually very good, giving up only 297 yards per game and allowing only two opponents to score thirty points. But Shanahan faces wholesale changes on "D" this fall: Veteran defensive ends Neil Smith and Alfred Williams were both released at season's end, so former Dallas Cowbuy Kavika Pittman and ex-Atlanta Falcon Lester Archambeau will have to pick up the slack. Troubled cornerback Dale Carter has been suspended by the NFL for substance abuse, and Cal rookie Deltha O'Neal will get that spot. He'll likely get burned a few times before learning the ropes.

However, if Griese continues to improve, Terrell Davis returns to anything like his MVP form and the five veteran starters up front -- center Tom Nalen, guards Dan Neil and Mark Schlereth, and tackles Tony Jones and Matt Lepsis -- continue to get the job done, the Broncos offense could very well catapult Denver back to the top of the AFC West and a date in the playoffs. Certainly, they'll be inspired by frustration with last year's hard luck. Looking for a secret weapon? How about second-year running back Olandis Gary? Filling in for the injured Davis last year, Gary set a Broncos rookie record for rushing (1,159 yards), caught 21 passes and scored seven TDs. For most teams, he would be the prized starter. Here he can give fellow Georgian Davis an occasional breather while tormenting opponent defenses.

If Shanahan is to get the job done this year, he'll have to get in gear early. On opening night, September 4, the Broncos face not only the Super Bowl champion St. Louis Rams but also the sneering wit of Dennis Miller. Maybe Romanowski will go up to the ABC booth and rip the guy's tongue out. After that, the team's out-of-division schedule looks deceptively weak: Atlanta, New England, Cleveland, Cincinnati, New Orleans, San Francisco. But beware the AFC West. Kansas City appears over the hill (how will Derrick Thomas's death affect the Chiefs?), and San Diego seems so hopeless that it's turning to problem child Ryan Leaf for help. Mike Holmgren's Seattle Seahawks will likely be very tough, though, and the Oakland Raiders -- you remember them, the psychopaths in the silver hats? -- could be even tougher. Widely regarded as the best .500 team in the NFL last year, Al Davis's fun-lovers lost eight games in 1999 by a total of just 34 points. They had the fifth most-productive offense in the league (third in rushing), and their tenacious defense held opponents under twenty points a game. In 1999 the Broncos managed to beat Oakland twice (16-13 and 27-21) and have generally had their way in recent seasons with this most hated rival. But look out for the Raiders this season: On paper at least, they loom as the Broncos' most potent divisional threat.

As for Mike Shanahan, this is the year he will be called to task -- or should be. Barring another plague of injuries or having to use Craig Morton against the Chargers, he once more has the horses to reach the playoffs and win. If he doesn't, then Bowlen probably shouldn't give him the chance to tee it up in 2001 at Good Corporate Neighbor Stadium, or whatever they choose to call the place.

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