Fred Harper

Standing Pat

You don't have to be a psychoanalyst or a Pentagon code-breaker to understand the threat that Pat Bowlen issued last week. It was the ultimatum of an angry man, pure and simple. If the professional football team Bowlen owns and loves and realizes a handsome profit from doesn't win its next two games -- big-deal, high-hurdle games against the spookily resilient New York Jets and the tough, had-it-up-to-here, Bronco-hating Oakland Raiders -- then Bowlen will do his best Henry VIII imitation. Or morph into Jeffrey Dahmer. Dove Valley? Hell, by the time Bowlen gets done picking over the bones of his victims, they'll have to rename the place Vulture Gulch.

Quoth the bird of prey: "If we don't win these next two games, then I don't know what's going to happen."

Neither does anybody else. But let's speculate, shall we? If the Jets, who haven't forgotten their bitter AFC title-game loss here in January 1999, beat the Denver Broncos Sunday afternoon at the Meadowlands, Bowlen will not campaign to name the Broncos' new playpen Mike Shanahan Stadium. But he might have his head coach take a Greyhound back from New Jersey. If Al Davis's 7-1 Raiders, who have lost six straight games to Denver and eleven of the last twelve, bang the Broncos around on Monday Night Football on November 13, Bowlen will not take his starting safeties on vacation with him in Tahiti. But he might have them over to the house to scrub the kitchen and paint the rec room. Meanwhile, beating the Jets and the Raiders on successive weeks will be difficult indeed: Boasting a combined record of 13-3, these are the best teams in the AFC.

Not counting mighty Cincinnati, of course.

If there's a more ignominious day in the history of the Denver franchise than October 21, 2000, no one's come forth to name it. Given hindsight and perspective, not even Denver's 55-10 thrashing by the San Francisco 49ers in the 1990 Super Bowl seems as awful as losing to the winless, hapless and theretofore motionless Cincinnati Bengals, 31-21. That home playoff loss in January 1996 to two-touchdown underdog Jacksonville was a shocker, all right. But it doesn't compare with yielding 407 yards rushing -- the most in fifty years of NFL play -- to the horrid Bengals, who were shut out in three of their first six games this season. Or giving up 278 yards on 22 carries to running back Corey Dillon, who surpassed the NFL record (275 yards) held by the great Walter Payton. Barbra Streisand, Bo Derek and Shanahan's old buddy Bubby Brister might as well have been playing "D" for the Donkeys, so lackadaisical was their tackling. Meanwhile, Cincinnati's hobbled quarterbacks completed just two passes -- for a grand total of fourteen yards. As for Dillon, he's ordinarily no world-beater: In a September game against Baltimore, he managed only nine yards on twelve carries.

One week after beating Denver, Cincinnati managed a second win, just 12-3, against in-state rival Cleveland, which is now an expansion team. Next up for the Bengals? Let's see here...looks like Bowling Green.

Unfortunately, the 4-4 Broncos have had an extra week to contemplate the error of their ways in Ohio. The NFL schedule-makers gave Denver a bye this past Sunday, and you can bet the boys weren't working with their short irons or fishing in Dillon Reservoir. No, coach Shanahan, the Mastermind, imposed upon them hard practices, including lots of hitting drills, bowls of thin gruel and lashes with the cat-o'-nine-tails. "If players get hurt in practice," he vowed, "that's just the way it is."

"I don't know what's going to happen," Pat Bowlen says. Oh, yeah? What's probably going to happen if the Broncos hit the toilet again this year (last one in, kindly flush) is that your predominantly orange gladiators, along with their coaches, trainers, waterboys, immediate relatives and prom dates from high school, will be gushing predominantly red. Think the Palestinians are pissed off at Israel? Wait'll Pat starts waling on the Broncos' defensive linemen. Think Mets fans hate Roger Clemens? Get a load of Herr Bowlen when he catches defensive coordinator Greg Robinson on his bloody talons.

"It'd be a longshot to bet we're going to win eight games in a row," Bowlen said with a straight face. "Odds tell me we're going to lose, but hopefully no more than one game."

One game? Is he kidding? That's like Lyndon Johnson saying the Marines might lose one guy at Khe Sanh. The Jets, fresh from a thrilling comeback win over Miami two weeks ago, in which they scored thirty points in the fourth quarter to tie, and a three-point loss Sunday at Buffalo, can fairly taste Super Bowl. Armed with momentum and talent, they're primed for another win. As for Al Davis and Company, who would just as soon blow up the Broncos' team hotel as face them on the field, Monday Night Football could be the perfect chance not just to break a maddening streak of losses but to humiliate their old enemies on national TV while Dennis Miller trots out stupid puns based on Greek mythology. Screw Super Bowl. The Raiders might be content this season just to grind Denver into horseburgers. Not only that, after playing the two games Bowlen says they have to win, the Broncos must visit Seattle, New Orleans and Kansas City -- none of which now appear to be the clay pigeons everybody thought they were when Denver got a look at its supposedly weakest-ever schedule last summer.

In the wake of the Bengals debacle, Shanahan gave free rein to his critics: "Blame me," he said.

Well, okay. Here's an idea. Come the end of an 8-8 or a 7-9 season, Shanahan gets his pink slip. Gets tossed onto the trash heap with Dan Reeves and Wade Phillips and Don Baylor and Bob Hartley and Bill Hanzlik. Owner Bowlen moves into his brand-spanking-new, taxpayer-financed Stadium-to-be-Named-Later with a clean slate in front of him, with a dozen new defensive players on the roster (none of whom has been busted for downing his wife's uppers), with the new luxury boxes stuffed to the ceilings with corporate fatcats more interested in dialing Hong Kong on their cell phones and swilling Dom Perignon than whether Bob Griese's kid can get the Chiefs' defensive backs to bite on the curl. Having finally recognized that those famously conjoined twins, Shanahan and John Elway, were separated two years earlier, Papa Bowlen lets the weak twin die and moves on. Because his new ballpark is slick. Because the team's financial future is secure. Because it feels like a time for new beginnings.

Sound about right? For a man who says he doesn't know what's going to happen in coming weeks, there's an awful lot of certainty in Pat Bowlen's tone, in the firmness of his ultimatum. Check back with him Sunday night after the Jets game.

In the words of Saint Lawrence of Berra: It's Over. New York haters (and those afflicted with New York envy) can take solace in the fact that half of the big bad city's baseball fans are cloaked in gloom because the Mets lost the World Series. New York haters (and those afflicted with New York envy) can rejoice that ill-mannered loudmouths in all five boroughs, Westchester, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut will now stop shouting and resume their normal activities -- cutting up babies and mugging visitors from Dubuque.

But what New York haters (and those afflicted with New York envy) cannot say is that the World Series was dull. The TV numbers may have been down in San Antonio and Salt Lake City, but the drama was unrelenting at the subway series. In game one, the Yankees took twelve nail-biting innings to eke out a 4-3 win in the Bronx, and the next night five-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens (a Texan, by the way) enlivened the proceedings by throwing a sharp sliver of bat in the direction of his old nemesis Mike Piazza, en route to posting a 3-2 win and getting himself fined $50,000. The tension on the field and in the stands was exquisite.

Over at Shea two nights later, the Mets managed their lone victory, 4-2, behind number-three starter Rick Reed, a pitcher the Colorado Rockies (who have a pretty good case of New York envy themselves) would sign as a free agent in, well, in a New York minute. In the game five finale, Luis Sojo broke a 2-2 tie with two outs in the ninth with a seeing-eye screamer just out of the reach of two diving Mets infielders. A pair of baserunners scored and, just like that, the imperious, overpaid, arrogant, wife-beating, child-molesting, planet-despoiling New York Yankees had their 26th World Championship in hand.

For their part, the Mets had come up a fleck of sweat short in three thrilling, what-can-possibly-happen-next one-run games and lost the last one by just two runs. Despite some Metsian jitters in game one, both teams played beautiful baseball supported by that rarest of commodities -- brilliant pitching. This Series lived up to its billing. If that didn't play in Peoria, then something's wrong with Peoria.


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