Afterward, Lionel Washington couldn't hold back the tears. A devastated Shannon Sharpe wondered aloud if he'd be able to look at himself in the mirror come Sunday morning. Or face John Elway. Sharpe predicted it would be "years until the Broncos get over this loss. Probably the next century." Mike Shanahan wandered through the postmortems like a punch-drunk fighter, muttering bravely.
And wasn't that Pat Bowlen standing out there on Federal Boulevard, shaking a little cup of pencils?
Among the great disturbances of mankind, the Denver Broncos' 30-27 playoff loss to the expansion Jacksonville Jaguars doesn't rank very high. In all likelihood, it's less important than Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination or the onset of the Black Plague.
But don't try telling that to the Bronco faithful. Right now they're feeling as blue as the team's new uniforms in the wake of the Jags' shocker. Hey, this wasn't even anything as lofty as another Super Bowl fizzle. This was a garden-variety playoff game against fourteen-point underdogs who had started their sophomore season in the league with a mark of 4-7. The thing was played in visitor-hostile Mile High Stadium. In perfect weather. And in the first quarter, Elway and company had jumped out to a 12-zip lead. Still...
"I'm gonna go get drunk," longtime fan Bob Blaisdell vowed later in the dark, chill parking lot. "Me, too," said Luci Blaisdell. "'Course, we got a head start on that. Let's do it, Bobby. Let's go get drunk."
Okay, but don't forget about the Big Hangover.
By most accounts, the 1996 Broncos were the most talented team in the club's 37-year history. Their battle-wise quarterback, one of the greatest ever, was having a brilliant twilight year throwing his patented rockets to Sharpe, speedy Anthony Miller and reliable Ed McCaffrey. For the first time since the Otis Armstrong era, they also boasted a top-of-the-line running game, in the person of an out-of-nowhere flash named Terrell Davis. The 196th player picked in the 1995 draft, he covered 1,000 yards of ground as a rookie and led the league in rushing for most of 1996, until the peerless Barry Sanders nipped him in the last game of the year.
More amazing, the Broncos' porous defenses of 1992-95 were suddenly shored up--thanks to the addition of ex-49ers linebacker Bill Romanowski, free-agent end Alfred Williams and rookie sensation John Mobley, late of Kutztown State. This year, Denver's "D" ranked first in the NFL against the run, shut down the Patriots' Drew Bledsoe in Massachusetts and helped lead the team to a perfect 8-0 regular-season mark at home. Their 13-3 overall record was best in the AFC and equaled only by Green Bay.
With home-field advantage locked up for the playoffs, Denver's long-beleaguered fans once again started shelling out big bucks for Super Bowl travel packages. They could practically taste the crawfish etouffee at Galatoire's, almost feel the Neville Brothers rocking the foundations down at Tipitina's. Forget going to sleep. Crack us another Dixie, barkeep, and get us to the Superdome on time: At long last, this is the year, and New Orleans is the place.
The most enthusiastic party planner of all had to be team owner Bowlen--a guy who doesn't allow TV crews in his private box...unless the cameramen also bring money. It's incalculable what a Super Bowl victory might have done for Bowlen's battered campaign to finance a new $250 million stadium largely through public funding. But winning the big one sure wouldn't have hurt come this autumn, when the issue goes to a vote. If Pat Bowlen doesn't shoot Jags quarterback Mark Brunell in the next two weeks, some of us will be surprised. But no one should be surprised if Bowlen, who's pleading poverty, sells the team. Or moves it to another city.
Come to think of it, maybe Pearl Harbor wasn't such a big deal after all.
So. What happened out there Saturday afternoon? How did the best (or second-best) team in football gets its collective ass handed to it by a bunch of upstarts draped in trendy black and teal?
For a couple of days now, NFL fans and pundits have been wrestling with that one. In the harder-nosed quarters of Brooklyn, Kansas City and L.A., the old cynics are once again laughing that Denver always finds a way to lose the Big Game--just as the Buffalo Bills do. That Saturday's loss might be the biggest NFL upset since Joe Namath's Jets knocked off the Colts in the 1970 Super Bowl is beside the point. Denver always chokes, don't you know that?
The rest-and-recreation theory probably carries more weight. After clinching the home-field advantage in their December 1 win over Seattle, the Broncos didn't play another meaningful game for five weeks: With Elway on the bench nursing a sore hamstring, they got blasted in Green Bay on December 8, rose up to squeak by the detested Oakland Raiders December 15, then rested starters again in the December 22 loss at San Diego that ended the regular season. Then they spent Wild Card weekend waiting for action.
Rusty and complacent, this view goes, the Broncos simply weren't ready when, as horseplayers say, they suddenly "hooked a bullet." The amazing Jaguars blew into town on a six-game winning streak--including a miracle finish over the lowly Atlanta Falcons in which one of the finest placekickers in NFL history, Morten Andersen, hooked the game winner wide and catapulted the unlikely Jags into the post-season. Then these sly cats went up to Buffalo (yeah, those guys again) and knocked off a club--granted, an aging, somewhat over-the-hill club--that had never lost a home playoff game.
The score? Very spooky. Jax 30, Bills 27. Same numbers as the win in Denver.
The Jaguars' amazing Brunell (245 yards passing, 44 crucial rushing yards) refused to blow his own horn, despite scrambling for first downs all day and throwing strikes very much like some young "Brunell-way." Instead, he credited his Creator. "God has blessed this football team from the beginning," he said afterward. "We've got a bunch of guys who love the Lord, and he's been with us."
So has Natrone Means. Plucked off of San Diego's junk heap--bad attitude, lousy work habits, the Chargers charged--the big running back became a Jacksonville starter only in the fourteenth week of 1996, then promptly went on a tear. Against Denver Saturday, he rolled up 140 yards and a touchdown on just 21 carries and caught four passes for 46 yards. The Broncos should have known that Natrone means business: In his three previous games against Denver, he had 96-, 100- and 115-yard days.
"Yeah. I've run pretty well against them," he said later.
Just ask 36-year-old Broncos cornerback Lionel Washington. He was so deflated by Means' and Brunell's performances Saturday that he tearfully contemplated retirement right there in the deathly quiet Denver locker room. "I just don't know," Washington said. "This whole thing will take some thought now. I just can't..." His voice trailed off into tears.
For Denver fans, the Crying Game isn't likely to end anytime soon. Now 36, the exemplary Elway probably lost his last shot at Super Bowl glory in the late afternoon Saturday, when another of his furious fourth-quarter comeback tries fell three points short. Top receiver Sharpe, a free agent now, gloomily said his return to the team is no better than a 50-50 proposition. Cornerback Washington could be gone, as well as Gary Zimmerman, Michael Dean Perry and Broderick Thompson. The future of guard Mark Schlereth, who has been keeping the knee surgeons in brand-new BMWs for six years, is always in doubt.
So, it must be said, is the Broncos' continued will to win. If Sharpe is right, and this talented but aging team can't get over the trauma of the Jacksonville loss for years, the front office might as well bring back vertically striped socks to go with those moody blue unis. This could be the Dark Ages all over again.
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Meanwhile, there's no way--just yet--to gauge the anger, frustration and resentment of fans whose hopes have been dashed once more. But in the bleak parking lot Saturday night, a couple of stragglers may have indicated just how nasty things may get.
"Screw 'em," a fellow named Mickey shouted. Mad and wild-eyed, he sent a half-empty beer can skidding across the pavement. "Screw 'em. Matter of fact, screw you, too. Screw everybody. I ain't comin' back. Ever. Screw it all."
Okay, Mick. Fine. But first we had to head down to Jose Calvo's place after the game to have some shrimp with chili, some steak burritos and a couple of margaritas. You know the spot? Right there on Federal Boulevard. Great paella. Wonderful flan. Place called Don Quixote. When we walked in, only three tables were occupied. The Broncos had lost and, as the proprietor explained, that's always bad for business. The Avalanche-Flyers hockey game was on the tube, like nothing at all had happened earlier in the day, and for some reason, I couldn't help recalling Don Quixote. The character. You know. The idealist who tilted at windmills. The classic hero driven by perseverance and grand illusion to pursue the Impossible Dream. Put another way: John Elway.
Just thinking about what happened to him Saturday makes me wanna get drunk, too. And maybe screw it all.