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D-Lirious

The coach and the Broncos get ready to test Plan Shanahan.

Since going dark-blue-with-white-horse from the neck up, the Denver Broncos no longer sport that big orange "D" on their helmets. But if Mike Shanahan wins big in the biggest gamble of his coaching career, it is "D" that will be inside his players' heads this year. It will be "D" that will loft his championship-starved team back into the Super Bowl. "D" for Defense. Hard-nosed defense, especially on pass plays. What NFL junkies call shut-down defense. The Champ Bailey era begins Sunday night at Invesco Field, and if Shanahan has played his cards right, a team that ranked a respectable ninth in the league in 2003 for fewest points allowed will this year be fourth, or second...or first.

Guess what. The last four Super Bowl winners stood first, first, sixth and first, in that order, in scoring defense. Meanwhile, the offensive scoring prowess of those same teams -- last year's New England Patriots, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 2001 Patriots and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens -- averaged out at just twelfth-best in the league. Shanahan thinks he's on to something: The game has changed radically since the glory days when the high-powered Broncos offense won the Lombardi Trophy for the Mile High City. Today, Shanahan believes, is D-Day.

For now, these are just numbers, statistics pre-supposing a trend upon which a theory is based. If Shanahan is right, the Drive will recede into the back pages of golden Broncos lore and the Trade will take its place. If he's wrong, the Trade may start to look like Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio; the Broncos will fail to win a playoff game for the sixth straight season; and Shanahan's future with the Broncos might, at long last, come into question.

The Trade, for those who've been vacationing on Pluto or writing briefs for Kobe Bryant, sent star Broncos running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins in exchange for star cornerback Champ Bailey. It marked the first time in 32 years that two NFL Pro Bowlers had been traded for each other and, judging by the noise it's provoked, the Trade is the most significant event in Colorado history since the Sand Creek Massacre -- or at least Elway's bust-out from the Baltimore Colts. Coupla guys bring this burning issue up over a cold one in the corner saloon, and suddenly you've got Bush and Kerry armed with nightsticks. You can't give up one of the best ball carriers in the league for a defensive player! It's nuts! guy one shouts. Yer fulluvit! his pal screams back. Shanahan's great with running backs. Doesn't matter who he's got. Defense wins games.

This argument is not likely to be settled anytime soon. But Sunday night's season opener against Kansas City's powerful offense -- KC running back Priest Holmes has scored fifty touchdowns in his last 31 games! -- is bound to give belligerents on both sides of the offense/defense debate plenty to chew on.

The working theory of Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Larry Coyer is beautiful in all its parts: A dominant Bailey shuts off an entire sector of the field (smart quarterbacks don't go there), which allows Denver's defensive linemen to penetrate and linebackers (keep an eye on dazzling rookie D.J. Williams) to make more plays -- including blitzes against the passer -- while freeing up safeties like former Tampa Bay standout John Lynch to help stop the run. Whatever they try, opposing offenses get bottled up -- even if they've got Holmes carrying the ball or, say, Peyton Manning throwing it.

Meanwhile, the Broncos offense does its best with limited resources. Starting quarterback Jake Plummer has looked less than stellar in the pre-season (four interceptions in as many games, no touchdown throws and an abysmal passer rating of 40.8). The receiving corps is sure to miss retired veterans Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe. And a platoon of largely untested running backs is weakened by the August 27, season-ending groin injury to former 1,000-yard rusher Mike Anderson.

Brass tacks: Can the "D" inside the Broncos' heads compensate for what might be a lack of punch on "O"? That's the acid test of the Trade. The good old days are gone. John Elway's bronze visage gazes down from a high perch in Canton, Ohio; it now falls to Champ Bailey and company to save face in Denver.

If things go right, the running game may not be as awful as the why-trade-Portis skeptics believe. Since 1995, Denver has rushed for more yards than any other NFL team -- 20,150 -- and four different backs have come up with 1,000-yard seasons in eight of Shanahan's nine years. Injured-and-retired great Terrell Davis was one of them, of course, and Portis was another, but those who believe Shanahan's rushing system outranks individual talent have reason for optimism. All the Broncos' star rushers of the last decade -- Davis, Anderson, Olandis Gary and Portis -- came from the mysterious middle rungs of the NFL draft, and all of them produced. This year, Shanahan has got quick, shifty Quentin Griffin in the backfield, and he may have come up with another canny mid-level draft pick in Oklahoma State workhorse Tatum Bell. At just 5'7" and 195 pounds, Griffin may have durability issues. In Anderson's absence, the Broncos may have to depend on Bell and on veteran backup Garrison Hearst, who's fully recovered from a severe knee injury.

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