Even staring-mad, orange-to-the-bone Broncos fans were snoozing through the third round of last month's NFL draft when Mike Shanahan exploded a major bomb under their butts.
Maurice Clarett! You gotta be kidding! Only a lunatic on crack would take a chance on the whiny, divisive ex-Ohio State running back. Talk about high-maintenance. This is a guy who caused so much trouble for the Buckeye football program, they're still throwing darts at his picture in the Sigma Chi house. This is a guy who walked out of a scouting combine in Indianapolis after running the forty slower than Kirstie Alley. A guy who hasn't taken a handoff in three years. A guy without apparent virtue or much skill.
In other words, perfect. An ideal choice for a team that turns plodders into Pro Bowlers, college no-names into thousand-yard rushers. Temporarily, anyway.
Every football fan in the country knows the story of Terrell Davis. A sixth-round choice out of Georgia in the 1995 draft, he became the Broncos' all-time leading rusher, with 7,607 yards, and helped lead the team to consecutive Super Bowl wins. Not bad for the 196th player taken in '95. The first-round picks from that crop who thrashed in his wake included Ki-Jana Carter, Tyrone Wheatley, Napoleon Kaufman, James Stewart and Colorado's own Rashaan Salaam -- who had a lot of As in his name but mostly D-minuses on his report card from the Chicago Bears.
Still. Maurice Clarett! He'll poison the punch, naysayers claim. Spread cancer in the locker room. You think wideout Marcus Nash was a lousy pick? How about Ted Gregory? You ain't seen nothing yet. By mid-October, any other team would have Maurice Clarett washing the linebackers' socks and driving the bus to the airport.
In other words, he's perfect for Denver. Mike Anderson perfect. Olandis Gary perfect. Clinton Portis perfect. The right guy for Mike Shanahan, who changes out his spare-parts running backs faster than Mr. Goodwrench. True to form, Shanny landed his man this time with the 101st pick -- and if the Buckeye with the bad attitude and the big ego produces like his late-round Broncos predecessors did, then the Mastermind label will be back. Mike Shanahan, winner of the Nobel Prize for Prophecy. Maurice Clarett, Redemption Project of the New Millennium.
So how does Shanny do it?
Get-a-life obsessives, who follow pro football more closely than anyone should, speculate it is the Broncos' oft-criticized, possibly dirty-tricking offensive linemen who make possible the anyone-can-rush-here theory. To hear the gridiron technocrats tell it, Denver's complex blocking schemes favor ball carriers who make one decisive cut and plunge straight ahead rather than dazzling gymnasts like Barry Sanders and Edgerrin James. This implies that Denver backs needn't be lightning-fast, just resolute. Witness the success of the relatively slow Davis and the big converted fullback Anderson. Witness also the way Shanahan and the other key figure in Denver's rush-oriented offense -- running-backs coach Bobby Turner -- reinvented former University of Miami jitterbug Clinton Portis. Early in his Broncos career, Portis liked to dance and juke around the backfield before getting the engine started, but his new coaches soon put a stop to that. One move and get straight south, they ordered.
The result? In 2002, Portis rushed for a team-record 1,508 yards on 273 carries and was named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year. In 2003 he racked up 1,591 yards -- the third-best total in Broncos history. In fact, Denver has been one of the league's top five running teams in seven of the last nine seasons, turning out 1,000-yard rushers like Steamboat manufactures ski racers. Of course, any team that has Brian Griese or Jake Plummer at quarterback should run the ball.
Maurice Clarett! Not to worry. He may be a flake, but he's also just the latest in a long line of interchangeable parts that reaches from Henry Bell (drafted by the Broncos in 1960) to Tatum Bell (drafted in 2004). Character issues? Come now, let's get real. Transmissions and differential joints don't require character; they just need to be in good working order. And when the gizmo wears out, the shop foreman replaces it. Terrell Davis carried the ball 1,655 times in seven years before his agonized knees finally gave it up. By the end of 2003, the undersized Portis looked so worn down from his 290 carries that you wanted to bring the guy a folding cot and a cup of hot broth. Mileage already high, he was summarily dispatched to Washington D.C. Olandis Gary? The 1,159-yard phenom of 1999? Where the hell is he these days? How about Reuben Droughns, a 2000 third-rounder the Broncos got from Detroit? No sooner did the affable Droughns battle his way into Shanahan's good graces last season and run for 1,240 yards than he was shipped off to Cleveland.
Mike Anderson? Forget about those 2,800 yards you've given the team. Get hurt again this year, big guy, and they'll grind you into dog food. As for the smurf-sized and overworked Quentin Griffin, he might do better to look for a ride in the Preakness than a starting spot in the Broncos backfield.
But that's Boss Shanahan's method: Trash the mules until they collapse, then buy new ones. Cheap. Maurice Clarett? Whatever else he is, he's the perfect spare. For a season or two, anyway. Puts you in mind of the wonderfully acidic football movie North Dallas Forty, in which the players come to see their role on the field. "Employees?" muses the beat-up wide receiver played by Nick Nolte. "We're not the employees. We're the equipment. "
So make sure you show up at camp with a fresh coat of paint and the motor running, Maurice. Shanahan and Turner say you're coming here with a clean slate and a fresh chance, so you'd better make the best of it before they use you up and spit you out. Truth be told, running backs have always been disposable quantities in Denver -- certainly long before the Mastermind took up his whip in 1995. The second-most-popular Bronco of them all, Floyd Little, enjoyed the only major Broncos run that defied the trend: The crafty back from Syracuse rushed for 6,000-plus yards and 43 touchdowns in his nine-year career at Mile High Stadium. The team's next great back, Otis Armstrong, wasn't so lucky. A first-round pick in 1973, the former Purdue star had 1,000-yard seasons in 1974 (when he led the league) and 1976, but when a gruesome leg injury ended his career in 1980, the Broncos didn't even want to make good on his insurance coverage. By the next year, Armstrong couldn't lift his own baby or take the garbage out for his wife.
So. Maurice Clarett? A perfect fit. Because there's no such thing as a long career for a back on this club. No Walter Paytons or Emmitt Smiths need apply. Mr. Goodwrench doesn't want 'em and has long since tired of giving them the raises they deserve. He'd rather root around in the parts warehouse and see what he comes up with.
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There is a God -- and not just in Colorado Springs. It's mid-May, and the New York Yankees are in fourth place, eight games behind division-leading Baltimore. On Saturday, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner's horse finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby, behind a 50-1 shot, a 71-1 shot and -- let's see here -- two Louisville debutantes wearing picture hats along with the middle infielders for the Boston Red Sox. If this doesn't bear witness to Divine intervention in the affairs of men, nothing does. Both the Yankees and the Boss's thoroughbred, Bellamy Road, were heavily favored to win, and their failures give hope even to atheists and agnostics that Somebody Up There is keeping an eye out for us.
Little matter that Steinbrenner has always coveted the top job in the universe for himself. The real God has already said No! to him twice this spring, and we all can now relish His justice and bask in His sunshine -- at least until Jason Giambi puts his batting stroke together and Bellamy Road gets it in his head to, say, run off and hide in the Belmont Stakes.