Since going dark-blue-with-white-horse from the neck up, the Denver Broncos no longer sport that big orange "D" on their helmets. But if Mike Shanahan wins big in the biggest gamble of his coaching career, it is "D" that will be inside his players' heads this year. It will be "D" that will loft his championship-starved team back into the Super Bowl. "D" for Defense. Hard-nosed defense, especially on pass plays. What NFL junkies call shut-down defense. The Champ Bailey era begins Sunday night at Invesco Field, and if Shanahan has played his cards right, a team that ranked a respectable ninth in the league in 2003 for fewest points allowed will this year be fourth, or second...or first.

Guess what. The last four Super Bowl winners stood first, first, sixth and first, in that order, in scoring defense. Meanwhile, the offensive scoring prowess of those same teams -- last year's New England Patriots, the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 2001 Patriots and the 2000 Baltimore Ravens -- averaged out at just twelfth-best in the league. Shanahan thinks he's on to something: The game has changed radically since the glory days when the high-powered Broncos offense won the Lombardi Trophy for the Mile High City. Today, Shanahan believes, is D-Day.

For now, these are just numbers, statistics pre-supposing a trend upon which a theory is based. If Shanahan is right, the Drive will recede into the back pages of golden Broncos lore and the Trade will take its place. If he's wrong, the Trade may start to look like Lou Brock-for-Ernie Broglio; the Broncos will fail to win a playoff game for the sixth straight season; and Shanahan's future with the Broncos might, at long last, come into question.

The Trade, for those who've been vacationing on Pluto or writing briefs for Kobe Bryant, sent star Broncos running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins in exchange for star cornerback Champ Bailey. It marked the first time in 32 years that two NFL Pro Bowlers had been traded for each other and, judging by the noise it's provoked, the Trade is the most significant event in Colorado history since the Sand Creek Massacre -- or at least Elway's bust-out from the Baltimore Colts. Coupla guys bring this burning issue up over a cold one in the corner saloon, and suddenly you've got Bush and Kerry armed with nightsticks. You can't give up one of the best ball carriers in the league for a defensive player! It's nuts! guy one shouts. Yer fulluvit! his pal screams back. Shanahan's great with running backs. Doesn't matter who he's got. Defense wins games.

This argument is not likely to be settled anytime soon. But Sunday night's season opener against Kansas City's powerful offense -- KC running back Priest Holmes has scored fifty touchdowns in his last 31 games! -- is bound to give belligerents on both sides of the offense/defense debate plenty to chew on.

The working theory of Mike Shanahan and defensive coordinator Larry Coyer is beautiful in all its parts: A dominant Bailey shuts off an entire sector of the field (smart quarterbacks don't go there), which allows Denver's defensive linemen to penetrate and linebackers (keep an eye on dazzling rookie D.J. Williams) to make more plays -- including blitzes against the passer -- while freeing up safeties like former Tampa Bay standout John Lynch to help stop the run. Whatever they try, opposing offenses get bottled up -- even if they've got Holmes carrying the ball or, say, Peyton Manning throwing it.

Meanwhile, the Broncos offense does its best with limited resources. Starting quarterback Jake Plummer has looked less than stellar in the pre-season (four interceptions in as many games, no touchdown throws and an abysmal passer rating of 40.8). The receiving corps is sure to miss retired veterans Ed McCaffrey and Shannon Sharpe. And a platoon of largely untested running backs is weakened by the August 27, season-ending groin injury to former 1,000-yard rusher Mike Anderson.

Brass tacks: Can the "D" inside the Broncos' heads compensate for what might be a lack of punch on "O"? That's the acid test of the Trade. The good old days are gone. John Elway's bronze visage gazes down from a high perch in Canton, Ohio; it now falls to Champ Bailey and company to save face in Denver.

If things go right, the running game may not be as awful as the why-trade-Portis skeptics believe. Since 1995, Denver has rushed for more yards than any other NFL team -- 20,150 -- and four different backs have come up with 1,000-yard seasons in eight of Shanahan's nine years. Injured-and-retired great Terrell Davis was one of them, of course, and Portis was another, but those who believe Shanahan's rushing system outranks individual talent have reason for optimism. All the Broncos' star rushers of the last decade -- Davis, Anderson, Olandis Gary and Portis -- came from the mysterious middle rungs of the NFL draft, and all of them produced. This year, Shanahan has got quick, shifty Quentin Griffin in the backfield, and he may have come up with another canny mid-level draft pick in Oklahoma State workhorse Tatum Bell. At just 5'7" and 195 pounds, Griffin may have durability issues. In Anderson's absence, the Broncos may have to depend on Bell and on veteran backup Garrison Hearst, who's fully recovered from a severe knee injury.

As for Plummer's dismal pre-season, the team is not making too much of it. Last year, the Broncos went 9-2 with Jake the Snake at the controls, 1-4 without him, and in his second year here he's bound to feel more comfortable, as long as he doesn't fall prey to Brian Griese Syndrome in his dealings with teammates and the media. If anything, the receivers look more suspect. Sans Sharpe, there's a battle for tight end among mediocrities, and reliable wideout Rod Smith fell short of the 1,000-yard mark last season for the first time in seven years. Third-year man Ashley Lelie continues to disappoint, with hands of stone at crucial moments, but rookie Darius Watts, out of Marshall, has been the team's pre-season sensation. Don't let it get around, but young Watts is the only guy who can beat Champ Bailey in the secondary.

In the best-case scenario, Denver's George Foster-led offensive line will be adequate, while the revamped defense carries most of the water. Trevor Pryce is the mainstay on the defensive line, but he's now joined by a pair of talented old veterans -- ex-Detroit tackle Luther Elliss and former San Diego defensive end Raylee Johnson. Al Wilson must anchor a linebacking unit that will miss John Mobley (released due to injury) and Ian Gold (gone to Tampa), but rookie D.J. Williams looks like the new stud among the LBs. The crucial strength of the "D" is, of course, in the secondary, starring Bailey in one corner and big Lenny Walls, just now back from a painful foot injury, in the other. They embody the Plan.

Meanwhile, could the Trade be weakened by a change in NFL rules? To wit: the major pre-season controversy of 2004 concerns NFL officials' determination to make more illegal-contact calls this season against cornerbacks. Why are they doing it? Like baseball officials in the post-strike era of the mid-1990s, the NFL is intent on juicing up scores -- which implies more completed passes -- in the wake of reduced fan interest and sagging TV revenues. Connoisseurs may love hard-hitting defense, but average football fans crave touchdowns, and the league means to comply. Bailey, like the other standout cornerbacks in the NFL, could be a marked man this year -- at least in the early weeks of the campaign, as the zebras sort things out.

No team's played a down for real yet, so Plan Shanahan still has to be tested. Local fans voting in a Rocky Mountain News poll predict a sparkling 14-2 season and rank their Broncos number two, behind only Kansas City. On the other hand, Sports Illustrated's "Dr. Z" says they're eleventh best (New England is his top choice, KC his number six), and he sees Denver losing a wild-card playoff game to the Baltimore Ravens -- an outcome which wouldn't keep Bailey in the Champ category for very long.

Our call? Denver goes 10-6 because the team drops three of its last four games in a brutal stretch featuring Miami, Kansas City, Tennessee and Indianapolis. Then the Broncos win a wild-card game before falling to the Colts or the Chiefs in the divisional round. Shanahan and the Plan survive. Ever more confident, the Snake slithers up the QB ratings ladder. No one throws in Bailey's direction. Except Plummer, who occasionally has the new star in the lineup as a receiver, too. When it's all over, Broncos fans weep into their Coors, hope for better in 2005 and bravely tune in as the Patriots beat Philadelphia in the Super Bowl.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo