It is still the holiday season on the windy, treeless plain that is Dove Valley, and the man who's overseen the Denver Broncos media machine for 21 seasons is in a mood for parables. "Say your car is stalled on the railroad track," Jim Saccomano begins, "and the train is coming. Think of the flow of adrenaline. Your senses are going to be pretty acute. But if you're stuck on the track and there's no train in sight, you don't have that same sense of urgency. You're not in the same hurry to get things done."
This, of course, is a Bronco man's semi-oblique way of talking about the infamous Mile High Stadium playoff loss against Jacksonville two seasons past, about the unexpected misstep this year's undefeated team took on December 13 against the lowly New York Giants, and the subsequent stumble--a deflation more predictable in view of the first one--down in Miami eight days later. You don't talk about the failure to sack opposing quarterbacks or adequately cover wide receivers in the fourth quarter. You talk about cars and railroad crossings and need.
Fair enough. If the Broncos know what's good for them, they understand that their predominantly orange Cadillac is perched right in the middle of the rails and that the Miami Dolphins Express is bearing down at eighty miles an hour, horn blowing frantically. And by all accounts, they do. To a man, head coach Mike Shanahan's weary troops say they're ready to get off the tracks and up to playoff speed. They might even hijack the damn train.
Steve Atwater, bare-chested and surgery-scarred, sat in front of his locker at the Broncos southeast suburban training facility one morning last week and explained. "In the back of my mind, the Jacksonville game is always gonna be there," the Broncos defensive captain and eight-time Pro Bowler said. "I'll always have a bad feeling about that game. I don't think about it that much, but every now and then, it pops into my mind and I remember the pain we had from that game. That's something I never want to experience again."
It was quite an experience. After the Jacksonville loss, wide receiver Rod Smith sat stunned on his living-room couch for five days. Shanahan clicked off his TV, refusing to watch any more playoff football. Star tight end Shannon Sharpe predicted, in dire tones, that the Broncos wouldn't recover from the shock until well into the next century.
It didn't take that long. Remembering the Jaguars, a hungry and vengeful 1997 Denver club got off the mat at season's end, burned alien Pittsburgh and Kansas City to the ground in the playoffs and knocked off favored Green Bay for their only Super Bowl win in five tries. Still, that wasn't enough. This year, the Broncos' best ever, they won their first thirteen games and set franchise season records for touchdowns (62), first downs (347), scoring (501 points), rushing yards (2,468), total offense (6,092) and a dozen other things fanatics care about. Their season-ending 28-21 win over Seattle on December 28 was, amazingly, their 24th straight regular-season home victory.
Here's more from 1998's embarrassment of riches: Quarterback John Elway joined Dan Marino in the exclusive 50,000-yard passing club; running back Terrell Davis became just the fourth back to rush for 2,000 yards; and placekicker Jason Elam calmly booted an NFL record-tying field goal of 63 yards. On December 21, Vaughn Hebron broke a 26-year team drought by returning a kickoff for a touchdown. Since Randy Montgomery last did it in 1972, the Broncos had run 1,362 kicks back without scoring. It was a year without peer.
So. What's to worry about Saturday afternoon?
Keith Traylor, a 304-pound defensive tackle with a reassuring glower on his face, says it all in a few words: "It's a new season. You lose, you go home." As in 1996. As in Jacksonville Jaguars.
With that in mind (at least for some), the Broncos last week turned Dove Valley into a scene of quiet concentration. Because their AFC-best 14-2 record earned them a day off over the first weekend of the NFL playoffs, their emotions were set on low simmer while they waited for the wild card games to yield Miami as Saturday's foe.
"This gives you a chance to heal up and rest and get your legs back," Traylor said. "You polish up some of the things you need to polish up." His eyes visibly narrowed. "Like third downs." He patted his huge forehead with a towel. "Like pass rushes." He shifted his bulk and resettled. "If we had to play this week, that would be fine with me. Because I'm looking forward to going out and proving some things to some people. Like we're the Super Bowl champions. You're the champion until somebody knocks you off. If we win it again, somebody may start speaking good about us and not so much of that negative shit. This defense doesn't get the respect it deserves. We've had some stumbling blocks, and we gotta sharpen up. So that's what we're gonna do. Everything will be coming into itself this week."
Traylor abruptly stopped talking. With a swift yank, he tied a neat bow in a lace on a shoe the size of a motorboat.
A slow simmer prevailed in Dove Valley last week, yes. But memories of the Jaguars and the Giants and the Dolphins kept cooking away as the players worked out in their navy-and-white sweatsuits.
"With Jacksonville two years ago," Atwater allowed, "we all relaxed a little bit. You can't afford to do that--especially when you're playing the most crucial games of the season. I think we all got a little too comfortable and forgot what it was like to come out and play hard-nosed football. This year we gotta keep that mentality and come out like Mike Tyson--ready to knock somebody out...We felt good about the [season-ending] win against Seattle. But," and here he sounded like Tyson and Sonny Liston and Rocky Marciano all rolled into one, "we didn't finish that guy off. When you get a guy down, you gotta hurt him. And we let Seattle make it close at the end."
Atwater paused, and you could see ten NFL seasons in the set of his jaw. "We're gonna make sure that doesn't happen anymore."
To grasp the true temper of the Broncos on the eve of playoff war, read the barometer: Shannon Sharpe. Along with eight teammates, the irrepressible tight end is returning to the Pro Bowl this year, and out on the chill practice field, his voice drifts on the wind, laughing and joking. But there's also pressing business at hand. "It's a long season, but this is what you look forward to. This is the part you work so hard for in training camp, what you talk about. Being in this position. Right where we wanted to be. Right where we thought we'd be. Now we have to take advantage."
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For Sharpe, win number fourteen against Seattle was definitely an emotional get-well game. After catching an Elway touchdown pass, he even kissed the team horse at the corner of the north end zone. "We had to prove ourselves offensively," Sharpe says. "That we could still move the ball, get big plays, make the plays we had to make. And we did that. We got back to being the consistent team we were in the first thirteen weeks of the season. We got that resolved. So now we move on."
And the ghosts of Jacksonville past?
"It's something that's always gonna be a part of me," he admitted, "but I'm not thinking about the Jacksonville game now. Not anymore. It's not a motivator in any way. The fact of the matter is, this is an entirely different season. I think we're a better team now, and we've learned from our mistakes. Now we go forward. And hopefully, it will be a good enough run to do what we did last year."
As for next season, no one in Dove Valley wants to talk about that. No one wants to look that far ahead. In 1999, after all, John Elway could be retired after sixteen long years on the job. Offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, Elway's alter ego, might be head coach of the born-again Cleveland Browns. And the 1999 schedule, reflecting the Broncos' division-winning record, will be the toughest in the league: Aside from their AFC rivals, they will play eight out-of-division foes with a combined 1998 mark of 81 wins and only 47 losses--including Minnesota, Green Bay, Jacksonville and the New York Jets.
But that's an age from now. Starting Saturday, it's a new season. You lose, you go home. You doze off on the tracks, the train hits you. Again.