Now that the Stanley Cup's in the trophy case and the Rockies are in the toilet, local sports junkies can return to their first love in good conscience. All eyes are fixed on Greeley, a grim backwater drenched in brutal heat and stockyards perfume, where the Denver Broncos and their slavemasters are gearing up for a telltale season in a brand-new playpen. Mike Shanahan's troops will open in the national spotlight, hosting a September 10 Monday Night game against the New York Giants, last year's Super Bowl losers, at $362 million Invesco Field. They'll wind up the regular season on December 30, cuddled under the mistletoe with some dear old friends, the Oakland Raiders.
Between alpha and omega, intriguing questions will yield answers. Can quarterback Brian Griese stay in one piece for sixteen bruising games and finally retire the ghost of John Elway? Will a tough new defensive coordinator be able to turn around a "D" that gave up more than 4,000 passing yards last year and transformed no-name running backs from places like New England and Cincinnati into superstars? Will bad-boy pickup Leon Lett be more prominent on the stat sheet or the police blotter? And who, pray tell, will emerge as Denver's premiere running back? Shanahan's got three former 1,100-yard rushers on the roster, which makes him the envy of other head coaches. But two of these are coming off major injuries, which makes them the envy of orthopedic surgeons.
For the moment, ninety big guys wearing navy blue find themselves hitting and hydrating, hitting and hydrating, on the killing fields of the University of Northern Colorado. Parris Island and its screaming drill sergeants have nothing on the average NFL training camp, as the grief-stricken Minnesota Vikings can tell you, and anyone who thinks pro football players don't earn their money in the pre-season need only stick around for the two-a-days under the blazing August sun.
"I think cool thoughts," one veteran linebacker said the other day, sweating profusely. "I think January in Green Bay."
The rest of the Broncos are thinking January in the French Quarter. Following a disastrous 1999 and a resurgent 2000, in which it took the eventual Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens to knock them out of the playoffs, the Broncos are clearly bent on their third championship in five years. Sounds strange, doesn't it? Can it really be only three seasons since Elway and Company demolished the outmanned Atlanta Falcons 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII? Can it be just four years since Terrell Davis scorched the favored Green Bay Packers for 157 yards and three touchdowns on Super Bowl Sunday in balmy San Diego? Many in the football world believe Bucko (or is it Bucky?) the Bronco is primed for a run back to glory in 2001. If Chester McGlockton hasn't lost a step. If Romo stays away from Dr. Feelgood. If Howard Griffith keeps leveling enemy linebackers.
Herewith the Larger Issues:
Defender Rhodes: Say "Greg Robinson" to any dyed-in-the-orange-wool Bronco fan and he'll tell you about last October's debacle in Cincinnati, during which the worst team in pro football ran roughshod over Robinson's slow-thinking, arm-tackling excuse for a defense. Sure, Denver won seven of its remaining nine games in the wake of that shocker, but after finishing dead last in team pass defense and 24th overall, eight-year defensive coordinator Robinson got his pink slip at season's end. He's been replaced by tough guy Ray Rhodes, late of Philadelphia, Green Bay and Washington. No predictable eight-man fronts for Rhodes, and no butter-soft zones. Last year's weak links at cornerback, Terrell Buckley and Ray Crockett, are outta here, and not even the job of feisty strongside linebacker Bill Romanowski is safe this summer in Greeley. Look for five, possibly six, new starters on "D"-- notably, ex-Titan corner Denard Walker, rising star Ian Gold at linebacker, and a veteran one-two punch at defensive tackle led by ex-Cowboy Lett and ex-Chief McGlockton. Backer John Mobley is overdue for a great season, and newcomer Lee Woodall adds depth. One of the best defensive minds in the game, the no-nonsense Rhodes is probably the most valuable free agent among the many the Broncos brought in this off-season. If his beefed-up, keep-'em-guessing defense produces, Denver could be one very scary club -- despite significant moves forward by every team in the competitive AFC West.
Pass and Ye Shall Receive: Quarterback Brian Griese finally won over skeptical teammates' admiration last year by beating the hated Raiders despite a separated shoulder. All Dolphin Bob's kid did otherwise was rank first in the mysterious NFL passer ratings (102.9) and get elected to the Pro Bowl. Griese's favorite targets, Easy Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith, ranked third and fourth in receptions, respectively, and the offense as a whole was second in the league, with 410 yards per game. Griese reportedly added ten pounds of upper body muscle this winter to make him more durable. Still, the team saw room for improvement -- particularly in light of Griese's apparent fragility. Gus Frerotte was an adequate replacement at QB last year, but newly acquired Steve Beuerlein is a real blue-chip backup at age 36. He passed for 3,730 yards at Carolina in 2000, putting him seventh among all quarterbacks. If Griese goes down again this year, Beuerlein will likely prove more talented than most NFL starters. He'll also have some new choices downfield: Speedy Eddie Kennison got seasoning in St. Louis, New Orleans and Chicago and will add even more pop to a dynamic offense, but the real sleeper could be Keith Poole, who made 21 catches last year for the Saints. He's looked superb in early camp and could prove to be the free-agent gem of the year.
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Do Run Run: Here's a problem every team would love to solve -- three major horses in a backfield built for two. Ex-MVP Terrell Davis is still regarded as the best of the bunch, despite having played in only nine games over the last two seasons, running for a paltry 493 yards and scoring just four touchdowns. But if his 1999 knee injury and his 2000 stress fracture are healed (don't even whisper that word "hamstring") and he can stop getting tackled by the bimbos working the Gold Club, Denver's beloved T.D. could return to the form that racked up 6,400 yards and 56 scores in his first four years in the league. Meanwhile, another 1,100-yard man from the University of Georgia, Olandis Gary, makes his own return from injury, while last year's leading rusher, Mike Anderson, fills out the trifecta. Shanahan's embarrassment of riches in the rushing department could be a chimera, though, if the Broncos' offensive line -- once the best in the NFL -- misfires in the absence of longtime magician/coach Alex Gibbs. Left tackle Tony Jones and left guard Mark Schlereth (29 surgeries in twelve years) are both gone. So, for the most part, is Gibbs, who's listed as a kind of consultant to new, full-time O-line coach Rick Dennison. If the new guys can still open holes, T.D.'s yardage (and Griese's passing numbers) could go off the charts.
Kick Ball, Win Game: They still call it football, but most teams pay far too little attention to the kicking game. Not this year's Broncos, who spent a pretty valuable fourth-round draft choice to get punter Nick Harris, late of the University of California. Long as well as accurate, Harris will likely supplant mediocre veteran Tom Rouen and, in tight spots, pin opposing offenses deep in their own end. Meanwhile, solid placekicker Jason Elam has the chance to put a nightmarish 2000 behind him. Plagued by a bad back, he spent three games on the shelf and looked uncertain thereafter. Look for a return to his old form. This is, after all, the guy who kicked a league-record 63-yard field goal in 1999 and has generally been money in the bank since joining Denver eight years ago.
If these elements, and others -- some unforeseen, some unanticipated --come together, the Broncos could be eating jambalaya and drinking Dixie in late January. If Griese and Beuerlein fail or the defense rests, they could wind up smelling like Greeley. In any event, that Monday Night opener at Invesco Field should be a lot more fun than, say, Dan O'Dowd Bobblehead Day at that half-empty ballpark across town.