Long Bombs Away
With the Rockies banging around in their familiar fourth-place hell and the bewildered Nuggets awaiting the Eye Chart Era (that's B-Z-D-E-L-I-K, Doc, and let's see here, looks like: T-S-K-I-T-S-H-V-I-L-I), local fans find themselves yearning for some real sport -- the invasion of Iraq, say, or the start of football season.
Herewith, a preview of the hostilities:
Broncos: This summer in Greeley, Mike Shanahan has taken a greater interest in body parts than Hannibal Lecter. Terrell Davis's knees. Ed McCaffrey's leg. Rod Smith's leg. Brian Griese's head. Major concerns. As the Denver Broncos try to get ready for the September 8 opener against high-flying St. Louis, the only thing that seems to be in good working order is Shannon Sharpe's mouth. But the Broncos will need more than talk to get through a brutal September in which they must face the NFC-champion Rams, tough San Francisco, a Buffalo Bills club that looks to be much improved with Drew Bledsoe at the controls and the Baltimore Ravens, whose killer defense can still stop opponents faster than an E. coli outbreak.
Alas, Davis really is finished this time -- after three straight nightmare seasons, it seems like a century since that glorious four-year stretch when he ran for 6,400 yards and scored 56 touchdowns -- the team will still have a pair of former thousand-yard backs on the roster (Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson) and fleet rookie Clinton Portis can put it in gear as fast as anyone in the league. Once he gets over his penchant for undergraduate tap-dancing and starts running straight ahead, Portis could become a yardage machine.
As usual, the key to the Broncos' success is likely to be Griese's health -- and his state of mind. By all accounts, Bob's Kid is now throwing pain-free, but that's not the same as throwing straight. In 2000, he was plus-15 in his ratio of touchdowns to interceptions, but last year that number dropped to plus-4. Griese admits he was forcing passes under pressure, and he'll have to regain his cool to be effective this year. The return of favorite target McCaffrey should help (all fingers are crossed in the wake of the gruesome fracture that ruined his 2001 season), and although Sharpe is, let's see here, now 63 years old, his locker-room fire and on-field savvy should give the Broncos a boost they were lacking during Shannon's Baltimore hiatus. Meanwhile, the brilliant wideout Rod Smith won't be the marked man he was when the rest of the Broncos receiving corps was on crutches.
Should Griese fail -- or take another mysterious header on someone's driveway -- look for Shanny to give him an early hook. Backup Steve Beuerlein may be 37, and he's got two surgeries (on a flexor tendon and an elbow ligament) on his recent resumé. But the patched-up Beuerlein has been a sensation at camp this summer, and the coaches haven't forgotten that, as a Carolina Panther, in 1999 and 2000 he passed for more yards than Green Bay's Brett Favre and provided the kind of emotional leadership that puts you in mind of, well, a guy named Elway.
Dee-fense? Linebacker Bill Romanowski and his home pharmacy have moved on to scenic Oakland, but defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes has an improved secondary to work with, and this could be the year that 223-pound linebacker Ian Gold emerges as an NFL star.
Last summer, the Broncos were talking about another Super Bowl season before key injuries devastated them for the third straight year, and the latest Terrell Davis mess is not a good omen. But with a little luck (and a career year from Griese, or Beuerlein) your predominantly orange heroes could make a solid run in the new, Seattle-less AFC West. Looking for a pivotal game? Try November 11, when, after a well-timed bye week, the Broncos host the Oakland Raiders on Monday Night Football.
Buffs: Down at Florida State, Bobby Bowden has made the team motto "Let's Roll," in honor of the Flight 93 heroes of 9-11. The University of Colorado Buffaloes could go with "Let's Plea Bargain." The Buffs may not be number one -- pre-season polls rank them seventh in the nation -- but they sure as hell know how to throw a recruiting party. Booze, babes and bongs were the order of the day at a bash last December 7, and some months later four CU players were arrested on a variety of charges. One of them, defensive back Corey Alexander, has transferred out, and the others will have to pay their own in-state tuition this year. There's also a lingering dispute in Boulder about former CU coach Rick Neuheisel's recruiting practices and a loud public debate over present coach Gary Barnett's five-year, $8 million salary contract.
Aside from that, everything's fine. The Buffs, who went 10-3 last year after a dreadful 3-8 plunge in 2000, are one of the favorites to repeat as Big 12 Conference champs, despite road games at UCLA, number two Oklahoma, and Nebraska -- an outfit still smarting from the 62-36 ass-kicking Colorado gave it last November. The Buffalo strength will be offense: Running backs Chris Brown and Marcus Houston are both rated in the national top twenty, bruising fullback Brandon Drumm is a legit All-American candidate, and junior quarterback Craig Ochs emerged last season as an accurate passer and a threat to run. A concussion and an ankle-tendon strain limited his playing time late in 2001, but he's good as new and one of the Big 12's best.
Last season, Colorado beat five ranked teams and made a much-disputed bid for a national championship, and this year the computer boys say the Buffs have the ninth-toughest schedule in the nation, beginning with rival Colorado State (August 31, Invesco Field). After hosting potent Kansas State October 5, Barnett's bunch seems to have breathers with Kansas and hapless Baylor (which has lost 29 straight conference games), but back-to-back tests against Texas Tech and mighty Oklahoma on October 26 and November 2 will probably tell the tale of Colorado's season. Football pundits say the CU defense is suspect -- it allowed a hefty 24 points per game in 2001 -- but the high-octane offense should more than compensate. Once again, some Buffs have problems with the authorities; on Saturday afternoons in the fall, however, they usually lay down the law.
Rams: Putting decades of frustration and second-class citizenship behind them, Colorado State football fans continue to enjoy Sonny weather. In the last eight seasons at Fort Collins, coach Sonny Lubick has led his team to five conference titles (second only to Florida State in that regard) and six bowl games. CU's country cousins no more, the Rams are loaded again this year, especially in the backfield. Rugged running back Cecil Sapp, who redshirted last year after breaking his leg, is back in pads, joining Henri Childs, who gained an impressive 938 yards last year. The linchpin of the Rams offense, though, is junior quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt, a 6'3", 220-pounder who passed for 1,353 yards and nine TDs last season and ran for 580 yards and five scores. All this while sharing time with D.J. Busch.
CSU appears to be in for a tough early test, what with the season-opener this Thursday night at Virginia (where clever ex-NFL coach Al Groh has some tricks in store, despite just eight seniors on his roster), the annual blood match with Colorado on August 31 and a visit to UCLA September 7. After that, though, the Rams' schedule seems made for success: The roughest mid-season road game appears to be Utah (the other pick to win the Mountain West Conference) on October 19, and CSU has four league games at home. Looking for an edge? Lubick's special teams have always been exceptional, and last year's crop was rated number one in the country by college football analyst Phil Steele -- ahead of number two Nebraska, number six Florida and number eleven Colorado. Punter Joey Huber and return man Dexter Wynn, a 175-pound flea, are all-conference types, and as a walk-on freshman last year, Jeff Babcock booted 22 of his sixty kickoffs clear out of the end zone while allowing returns on just thirty. In close games and on crucial plays, special teams always make a difference, and Lubick's got many secret weapons in the fold. Can CSU bring another MWC title to Fort Collins? Absolutely.
Falcons: What can you say, General? In eighteen years at the Air Force Academy, the superb head coach Fisher DeBerry has had just two losing seasons -- despite the obvious recruiting limitations of a service academy. Small, smart, impeccably disciplined and lightning quick -- they're not nicknamed the Zoomies for nothing -- Air Force football players (hard-science students all) baffle other teams with their tricky wishbone offense and wear bigger, stronger opponents down with their never-quit work ethic. The home field is hell on visitors, and the Falcons' pride of purpose can be withering. In 1998, they went 12-1 with just nine returning starters on board. This season, only eight return. But if visiting powers Northwestern (August 31), Notre Dame (October 19) or Colorado State (October 31) take that as a sign of weakness, it would be a grave error. In last year's 6-6 season, the Falcons' defense was the most porous in the Mountain West and one of the weakest in the nation, yielding almost 500 yards per game in conference play. But DeBerry gets six starting defenders back in 2002 (including five seniors), so the Air Force "D" should score more shootdowns in '02. The head coach calls his three starting linebackers -- in particular, watch inside man Marchello Graddy -- the best group of LBs ever to play at Air Force. On offense, junior quarterback Chance Harridge will have to develop fast (he played in just five games in 2001), but that always irksome 'bone offense will get a boost from running back Leotis Palmer. At 5'8" and 175 pounds, Palmer's the prototypical Academy runner -- smart, fast, tireless -- and when he does double duty as a punt returner, he's always a threat to go all the way.
Along with facing those three tough visitors, Air Force has a challenging road schedule that takes the team to California, Utah and old rival Wyoming. Still, look for the Zoomies to pull off their usual share of amazing upsets again in the coming season and, like clockwork, outflank Army and Navy for another commander-in-chief's trophy. While you're at it, check out the brainy stadium signs. Our favorite (on view at the Navy game): "Nuke the Squids."
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