Mark Poutenis

Busted Broncs

That ominous rumble gaining volume in the mean saloons and unhappy living rooms of Denver is the sound of a citizen army being mustered. Taking up their cudgels as they pull on their predominantly orange flak jackets, these aroused militia-folk are clearly plotting an advance on Dove Valley, there to have at General Mike Shanahan for the war crimes he's committed.

Crimes like signing the petulant man-child Daryl Gardener, who has done for General Mike's regimental unity what Udai Hussein did for the Iraqi soccer team. Imagine: a 300-pound college graduate who tears up his wrist in a parking-lot scuffle at three o'clock of a summer morning, sits on his big ass for most of the season, then snipes at his coach on a radio-blabber show for not treating him with the proper respect. Whatever animus the cudgel-swingers have for the ungrateful, lazy Gardener, they've transferred it in triplicate to the guy who hired him. Like an ill-fitting pair of shoes now down at the heels, Shanahan is increasingly regarded not with affection but with weary skepticism. Losing at home to the clawless Chicago Bears was the equivalent of Lennox Lewis getting KO'd by a Britney Spears uppercut. And that 2-0 mark versus Oakland doesn't do much to soften the blow.

What in the name of Eddie Kennison is going on here? Has Shanny lost his touch? Has he lost his team? In NFL locker rooms and sports bars, as well as in faulty marriages, Familiarity Breeds Contempt (copyright this part, will ya, boss?), and the same people who sent Shanahan's bio to the Vatican just five years ago -- Saint Michael of Oxygen Debt, Lord of the Championship Rings -- now want to do a Joan of Arc on him. You can almost feel the lick of the flames as he's incinerated in a corner booth at Del Frisco's. Cook that heart medium-rare.

While Shanahan takes the heat, all three starting Broncos linebackers are banged up, busy refilling the Gatorade jug. Wideouts Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe are suddenly looking very much their ages, and when kicker Jason Elam pulled his groin (at least somebody else didn't do it), it gave him an excuse to Norwood everything over 25 yards.

Let's see: Suspended fullback Mike Anderson is rolling a doobie somewhere. Popular quarterback Steve Beuerlein, once a solid backup, is sipping chicken broth in the dayroom at Golden Years Manor. And that slew-footed pup chained in Shanny's oversized doghouse, Deltha O'Neal, is still looking for a position that suits him -- team laundress, perhaps.

So let's get that guillotine blade sharpened up for the coach, okay?

For the growing lynch mob, the glories of Terrell Davis (where did he come from again? The sixth round of the draft?) are as yesterday as the Eisenhower administration, and those back-to-back Super Bowls might as well be a couple of W's in the Punic Wars. If you listen to the dark buzz, neither the Chicago Cubs nor the Boston Red Sox have anything on the smudge of gloom that's overhung Denver's quarterbacks since the retirement of John Elway. Call it the Curse of the Biffster. Cryin' Brian Griese couldn't get out of Number Seven's long shadow and, for now, neither can Jake the Mistake. Griese, you'll recall, once fell on his face in a teammate's driveway, but that was nothing compared with his regular pratfalls on third-and-seven, or his less-than-fluent encounters with the media. Enjoy South Beach, pal. That's where you'll be watching the playoffs with Dad. As for the incumbent, the jury's still out on Mr. Plummer, but running back Clinton Portis constitutes most of the offense. Between the two Broncos with occupational last names, the Plummer may yet be the prize. The Gardener's destined to get troweled under with the sheep dung.

And Shanahan's fate? That lackluster 41-36 record he's run up with the Broncos since winning the 1998 Super Bowl is not the stuff of longevity -- despite nine years commanding the troops. He probably doesn't deserve the firing squad just yet, but even his buddy Pat Bowlen may one day gaze down from his high window, regard with some alarm the torch-waving, knife-throwing masses below, and squeeze off the kill-shot himself. Sic transit Broncomania.

If it's any comfort, the Donks have plenty of company this year in mediocrity.

The least-awful major college program in the state this season has been Colorado State, which managed a 7-5 record and won a bid to the San Francisco Bowl -- the Rams' eighth post-season appearance under coach Sonny Lubick. This is not the most prestigious bowl bid on the planet, but it certainly has its attractions -- stone crabs on Fisherman's Wharf and a nice plate of saltimbocca in North Beach chief among them. Senior quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt brought fire and cocky attitude to the team, but consecutive losses at Wyoming and New Mexico revealed its weaknesses, especially at the injury-battered linebacker spots. At season's end, the Rams stood at number 35 in the national power rankings, and while the two wins they scored to close the year (over San Diego State and Nevada-Las Vegas) showed heart, things aren't likely to get much better next fall. Lubick will lose twenty seniors to graduation and could find himself in rebuilding mode. The Rams had their moments, but this was not one of Lubick's better teams. As always, they earned everything they got.

By contrast, the 5-7 Colorado Buffs had to be one of the most inept University of Colorado teams in recent memory. Friday's season-ending loss to Nebraska confirmed the worst. With only three starters returning on offense, they began happily enough, with wins over Colorado State and UCLA, but their brutal schedule, a porous defense and a dreadful running game doomed them thereafter. Getting hammered in successive weeks by Washington State (47-26) and Florida State (47-7) may have been understandable -- those teams are now ranked number 16 and number 9, respectively, in the Associated Press poll. But when Colorado went down to Waco on October 4 and got torched 42-30 by hapless Baylor, Gary Barnett and Company hit bottom. Long the worst team in the Big 12, Baylor had won only one conference game in the past four years, and the team it put on the field had lost 29 lettermen to graduation -- the most in the league. The week after its startling upset of the Buffs, Baylor quickly returned to form against Texas A&M, which beat it 73-10. A&M, you may recall, is the team that later lost to Oklahoma 77-0.

Meanwhile, CU gave up forty or more points five times and, going into Friday's Nebraska game, its running backs averaged less than 100 yards per Saturday -- last in the conference and, let's see here, 112th nationally. Before this season, CU had the tenth-best record in the country in games played since 1989, and their 14-2 record in Big 12 games in 2001 and 2002 was best in the league. But there was no bowl bid this year, and 2004 could be another long haul.

Down in Colorado Springs, Air Force got off to its usual fast start, winning its first five games, but in week six the Falcons got unexpectedly knocked off by Navy in Annapolis, and the unraveling continued apace. Fisher DeBerry's disciplined, never-say-die kids took out UNLV and Army before season's end but finished the year with five losses in their last seven games -- a trend that began last year. The 2002 Falcons went 6-0 and jumped up into the top 20 before a 21-14 loss to Notre Dame started a three-game losing streak. This year, they petered out with season-ending losses to New Mexico and San Diego State, despite having one of their most talented and experienced rosters in years. If you're shopping for reasons, try this: Always undersized, even very good service-academy teams wear down as the season wears on, and this year's Air Force club, while smart and fast, featured the usual array of 250-pound defensive ends and 195-pound running backs. The starting quarterback, 5'11", 185-pound Chance Harridge, will fit nicely into the cockpit of an F-16, but he has no future in the NFL -- not even as a backup to, say, Danny Kanell.


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