A Plan for Shanny

After a brief Gator flirtation, the Broncos' coach must get back to business.

Let's see: In the last two weeks, Steve Spurrier unexpectedly quit after twelve years as head football coach at the University of Florida because he wants to try the NFL. On the other hand, coach Chan Gailey left the pros for college, and Tyrone Willingham quit Stanford for Notre Dame, where he will replace George O'Leary. O'Leary was Notre Dame's coach for five days after leaving Georgia Tech -- the program Gailey will now take over. Meanwhile, the San Diego Chargers fired Mike Riley, who may wind up in Willingham's old job at Stanford. Furthermore, Jim Mora has been fired by the Indianapolis Colts, and Marty Schottenheimer was canned by the Washington Redskins, a job Spurrier landed. In a related development, Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan became the hot candidate to replace Spurrier at Florida, but he wound up saying no.

In the midst of this ego-and-ambition-fest, only one thing seems certain: Before Shanahan wanders off to begin his new career teaching X's and O's to the Edmonton Eskimos or the University of Akron Zips, he's got some unfinished business right here in Denver. The agenda:

1. Implicate Brian Griese in a plot to blow up Del Frisco's Steakhouse. Since Shanahan's conjoined twin, star quarterback John Elway, retired in April, 1999, the Broncos have barely managed to play .500 ball (25-24). Their once-feared offense has vanished -- along with the strategic edge "the Mastermind" once had over many of his fellow coaches. In 2001, Denver ranked 22nd among NFL teams in both yards gained and scoring, and that sorry-assed statistic resulted from more than the season-ending broken leg of wide receiver Ed McCaffrey or the continuing woes of running back Terrell Davis, who spends more time on the sidelines than the Gatorade jug. The real problem, as the shrinking hard core of fans can tell you, is Shanahan's mulish faith in quarterback Brian Griese. The $38 million contract Bob's Kid landed (including a $12.6 million signing bonus) has yielded exactly one (losing) playoff game in three long seasons along with a raft of complaints about Griese the Younger's weak arm, haughty attitude and susceptibility to injury. He sees downfield a little better than Stevie Wonder, but Number 14 may need psychiatric help this winter: The nineteen interceptions he threw this year probably indicate a crisis of confidence. As for Griese's ability to inspire his teammates, what he's produced is mainly esprit de corpse.Surely, Shanahan has to be rethinking the legitimacy of Griese's big-bucks contract and probably wishes he'd never seen the kid, but where is a genius to turn? The coach drove Bubby Brister out of town; Gus Frerotte is a free agent; and the team has no green to shell out for a proven starter. As Shanahan stews through a winter of discontent at his favorite table in Del Frisco's, he's probably not contemplating the heroic future of number-three QB Jarrius Jackson.

2. Keep those skyboxes well stocked with Moët & Chandon. Broncomania, as once we knew it, is a thing of the past. In the simpler days when Denver was an eleven-horse town, Rockie-less and absent an Avalanche, the Faithful jammed Mile High Stadium in fair weather or foul, swilling Coors and cheering on hapless Frank Tripucka or magical John Elway, content that no pinstriped millionaires could drive their loyal butts out of the cheap seats. These worthies were rewarded, at long last, with a couple of Super Bowl wins. Now fans find themselves filed away in expensive but antiseptic Invesco Field at Mile High, watching a mediocre herd of Broncos bang heads en route to 6-10 or 8-8. The seats cost a lot more, even though they are a lot farther from the action. Increasingly, the crazies of old stay away altogether or -- sin of sins -- take their leave in the third quarter. Meanwhile, the pampered rich eat catered lunches behind their high panes of glass, chatting on cell phones and watching other ballgames on TV. Shanahan's favorite guy, owner Pat Bowlen, sold the citizenry of Denver a bogus $400 million bill of stadium goods, all right, but even the much-hated official name of Patty's Playpen is here to stay: Last week a Denver judge threw out a year-old lawsuit to void Invesco Corp.'s $60 million naming-rights contract.

3. Make bail for the Big Uglies.It doesn't much matter that Bronco linebacker Bill Romanowski is considered one of the dirtiest players in the game. NFL officials also have their eyes on Denver's offensive linemen, who paid fines totaling more than $100,000 this season for illegal-blocking tactics. Now, a hundred grand wouldn't pave the driveway at Mike Shanahan's $11 million house in Cherry Hills, but the coach has got to be concerned that his hogs up front are in for even heavier scrutiny in 2002. Imagine how badly the lowly Washington Redskins would have beaten them if they didn't cheat?

4. Cut the cap.Shanny hasn't worn his Denver welcome out just yet -- he's got a ways to fall before hitting bottom, à la John Ralston and Wade Phillips -- but his peculiar draft choices (Good morning, Marcus Nash, wherever you are riding the pine) and the way he's bungled the NFL salary cap don't speak well for the team's future. League commissioner Paul Tagliabue nosed into the Broncos' smoke-and-mirrors tricks -- attempting to stay under the limit while deferring $22 million in salary to Elway and Davis -- and has taken away a third-round choice in this year's draft in response to Denver's chicanery. But the Broncos are still $8 million over the cap going into 2002 -- not good news for a banged-up, 8-8 team that can't score touchdowns but whose fearless leaders promise a return to the Super Bowl. Soon-to-be-fired Indianapolis coach Jim Mora burst into tears when his floundering Colts finished the year 6-10 (the finale was a 29-10 win over Denver); Denver fans may do the same the next time their team manages ten points against San Diego. Shannon Sharpe, an expense the Broncos couldn't afford, is in Baltimore, and when last seen, Keith Traylor, all 325 pounds of him, was returning pass interceptions for the playoff-bound Chicago Bears. But the Broncos are still mired in money troubles, with the cops watching every move.

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