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Plumbing the Broncos

If Jake Plummer doesn't stumble at QB, the Broncos could make the scoreboard glow like a Christmas tree.

You know it. I know it. Every figure skater in Moscow knows it. Eleven high school kids coached by their home-ec teacher could beat the lowly Cincinnati Bengals. So that 30-10 road win your Denver Broncos put on the books Sunday afternoon doesn't mean a thing. The first real tests for a rebuilt team that hasn't won a post-season game since beating Atlanta in the 1998 Super Bowl will come in four of the next five weeks, when your predominantly orange heroes must travel to San Diego and Kansas City and face the Oakland Raiders and the Pittsburgh Steelers at home. The middle game of that stretch features a visit to Invesco Playpen, or Mile High Downs, or whatever they call the thing, by the Detroit Lions, who won only three of their sixteen games last year.

If the Broncos can't beat Detroit at 5,280 feet, Mike Shanahan might as well go run for governor of California.

The big Broncos question of the off season, of course, was whether Shanahan -- still regarded as the finest developer of quarterbacks since the invention of the forward pass -- did the right thing by signing free-agent QB Jake Plummer from the Arizona Cardinals. As any third-grader in the entire Rocky Mountain region can tell you, Jake the Snake engineered eighteen fourth-quarter comeback wins in his five-year stint with the Cards, but his ninety career touchdowns were besmirched by 114 interceptions. Arizona was unquestionably a mediocre-to-bad club (this year, it's ranked 31st of 32 teams in ESPN's pre-season experts' poll), but Plummer's detractors believe that not even the Broncos' high-powered offense (third in the league last year), highlighted by a blue chip receiving corps -- Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, Shannon Sharpe and second-year speedster Ashley Lelie -- will do much to improve a guy they say is plagued with a wild arm and an unsettled mind.

Jake the Snake? Around the league, many are asking if he's Jake the Mistake.

On the other hand, he's not Brian Griese. Plummer has yet to fall on his nose in anyone's driveway, alienate teammates with aloofness or snap at the media. He's definitely one of the guys, and he's a gamer. Unlike Griese, he can run the bootleg or scramble on third down in the manner of Saint John Elway. He's inspired fellow Broncos with his fire in the huddle and, with Shanahan in his ear all summer, he may, at 28, be ready to turn the corner to greatness. Certainly, he sounds ready. He's absorbed the Broncos' tricky playbook, offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak says, and Jake's publicly delighted to see canny veterans like Sharpe and McCaffrey in the open field. Sunday in Cincinnati, he played to form: 12 for 25 passing, 115 yards, three interceptions.

Since the days of Frank Tripucka and vertically striped socks, the Broncos' starting quarterback has had to endure more scrutiny than a Hollywood starlet in a cell block, and so it shall be for Plummer. The Elway Legend remains so powerful in the minds of the Bronco faithful that no successor will match up until he, too, wins a couple of Super Bowls and maybe marches up to the press box at halftime of a Raiders game and strangles Al Davis. But Shanahan must also be feeling tremendous pressure to bring glory back to a franchise that's missed the playoffs three of the last four years. You don't sign a questionable quarterback to seven years for forty mil (that makes him a very Liquid Plummer) without a sleepless night or two. And when, to keep an extra cornerback on the roster, you cut the QB crew down to just two, you're really playing it close to the bone. Good morning, Steve Beuerlein, date of birth 03/07/65.

Truth be told, Jake shouldn't have to take all the heat if the Broncos fail this season. In 2002, the Broncos' offensive front four gave up a whopping 46 quarterback sacks, a number that will give Plummer pause, no matter how much slinkier and quicker he is than the slow-footed Griese. This year, those four have been reconstituted -- Ephraim Salaam and Matt Lepsis at the tackles, Ben Hamilton and Dan Neil at the guards -- and it's clear they must come together quickly against teams better than the Bungles if Plummer is to survive and the Broncos are to win. The best news up front: Center Tom Nalen, now 32 and one of the best linemen in team history, has returned from the gruesome knee injury he suffered early last season.

By the way, did we mention Clinton Portis?

The other thing Shanahan does better than anyone in the NFL is spot great running backs -- often in the bottom drawers of the draft. Sixth-rounder Terrell Davis, the ball-carrying star of back-to-back Bronco Super Bowl wins, may have had a short career, but his brilliance was unquestionable. How about Olandis Gary? Or the durable Mike Anderson, a 1,500-yard running back converted to fullback who remains one of the most underrated players in the NFL? Seen in that light, Portis is no surprise. The former University of Miami Hurricane gained 1,508 yards in his 2002 rookie season as his team went just 9-7, and with Plummer in the backfield with him, he could have an even greater year in 2003. He's shifty, he runs low, and he has tremendous breakaway speed. If he could just learn to catch the ball, he might become the best back in the league.

While we wait, the Broncos will be required to send a defense onto the field, and if that doesn't give you fits, you haven't been watching. In 2002, now-departed defensive coordinator Ray Rhodes's charges forced only 22 turnovers (28th in the league), had only nine interceptions (down there with the Bengals and Bears) and gave up 21 rushing touchdowns (dead last). Most alarming, they couldn't stop Jennifer Lopez inside the twenty-yard line. When opponents reached the Red Zone, the Broncos gave up touchdowns 64 percent of the time.

No wonder the new defensive coordinator, Larry Coyer, took each player aside this summer to challenge him. But this summer's four-game pre-season yielded no improvement: Broncos defenders intercepted just three passes and forced six fumbles, recovering only two. The linebackers are smart and fast -- Ian Gold, Al Wilson and John Mobley rank with any in the league. But the cornerbacks and safeties could be the weakest links on the '03 Denver roster. The inconsistency of corner Deltha O'Neal is a major Shanahan worry (this guy's better as a punt returner), and two other cornerbacks, Kelly Herndon and Lenny Walls, had never started in the NFL until last Sunday. Neither had free safety Sam Brandon. As for strong safety Kenoy Kennedy, some say he remains spooked after his suspension last year for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a Miami receiver.

The Broncos' major acquisition on "D" this year was 295-pound defensive tackle Daryl Gardener, a seven-year NFL veteran out of Baylor. Incredibly strong and quick, he was to be the heart of the run defense, but he tore ligaments in his right wrist even before training camp opened -- in a fight at an Aurora pancake house at 2:30 in the morning.

Wonder what choice words Messrs. Shanahan and Coyer had for him in the aftermath. Gardener may start September 22 against Oakland.

In sum, the Broncos are likely to light up the scoreboard again this year (if Jake's no Fake, that is) while trying to hold on defense. Will that be enough to snag an elusive playoff spot? Well, maybe. But only because glimpses of the other teams in the tough AFC West reveal similar patterns. The defending conference champion Oakland Raiders, the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Diego Chargers all appear to be high-powered offensive teams, especially adept at throwing long, with weak defenses. So when these clubs go head-to-head, look for a lot of scoring and leg-weary safeties dragging themselves off the field at game's end. K.C. has a weak pass rush and secondary. Even with Charles Woodson and Rod Woodson in the secondary, Oakland's pass defense ranked 23rd in the league last year. San Diego's was dead last, and this season, it's as green as Denver's.

Our advice: Take the Jake, play the "over" and hope for the best.