Sports

Horsepower Versus Horse Manure?

Just for grins, John Elway's handsome new saloon in Cherry Creek offers something called a "Smashburger" -- a nice hunk of prime steak that's run through the grinder, knocked into an edible shape, expertly broiled and served without a roll. Nine bucks.

Wonder if Elway was thinking about his old team when he put this item on the menu. After all, the Denver Broncos get ground up pretty regularly these days -- witness Sunday's playoff debacle in Indianapolis -- and no one in his right mind would say they're on a roll.

Elway. Elway. Elway. Elway. Elway.

There. Feels good to get those two nagging syllables out of the system. But before they vanish altogether, it wouldn't hurt to point out once more that the Broncos remain winless in post-season play since the aforementioned Mr. E. retired six years ago and have sunk into the kind of gray netherworld they occupied in, say, the Steve Tensi Era. When the surpassing Peyton Manning and the Colts destroyed Denver for the second year running, absolutely no one in the football world was surprised -- with the possible exception of delusional Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who wore a bright-orange sweater during Sunday's 49-24 humiliation and wound up with a bright-red face. It was Shanahan, you may recall, who decided after last year's 41-10 playoff loss to the Colts that what the Broncos needed was an infusion of high-priced defensive talent. He went out and paid millions and millions for it -- in the persons of so-called shutdown cornerback Champ Bailey and aging safety John Lynch. The result? Instead of giving up 41 points to the Colts in a playoff game, the Denver defense on Sunday yielded 49. The Colts' 35-3 halftime lead was even more distressing than last year's 31-3 count, and only the home team's apparent indifference to the Broncos' futile third-quarter "comeback" bid kept the final margin out of the Guinness Book of World Records. With fifteen minutes left to play, Indy receiver Reggie Wayne (ten catches, 221 yards, two touchdowns) had to be thinking about the clam chowder in Boston. For the Colts, Denver was a minor speed bump en route to a real game with the Patriots.

So much for Shanahan's theory of defensive prowess. His theory, it turns out, is a squirt of ketchup on Manning's Smashburger.

What now? That's the question every Broncos fan is shouting in the aftermath of the latest disaster, and if anybody has the right answer, owner Pat Bowlen should put him on the payroll. Meanwhile, a couple of observations:

Jake's still a Mistake. To be fair, Broncos starting quarterback Jake Plummer didn't personally give up 529 yards and six TDs to the boys from India-No-Place, but it's so tempting to compare a horse with horse manure that we can't resist. Even before Sunday's blowout, Plummer had shown himself to be just about half as competent as Manning as an NFL quarterback -- even though he's been in the league almost twice as long. Plummer's regular-season numbers: 27 touchdowns, 20 interceptions (tied for worst in the league), one bird flipped in anger. Manning's tally: 49 touchdowns (a new NFL record), 10 interceptions, one Most Valuable Player award. But even when you compare the Snake to the lesser lights of the game, he doesn't shine very bright: He racked up 4,089 yards this year (more than Elway ever did), but his 84.5 passer rating puts him fifteenth -- behind even his unlamented predecessor in the job, Brian Griese, who ranked third in the NFC with a 97.5 rating for the Tampa Bay Bucs. Plummer was Shanahan's hand-picked choice for the job, of course; is his future here now at risk? After another rout, even more doubt. And tons of fallout.

An aroused underdog can win a big-deal playoff game on the road. In fact, three of them did it on the wild-card weekend just concluded. While the Broncos got flattened and broiled in the RCA Dome, the visiting New York Jets beat the favored San Diego Chargers 20-17 in overtime, prolonging coach Marty Schottenheimer's post-season woes; the underdog St. Louis Rams knocked off Seattle on the road 27-20, and in the final shocker, the previously defenseless Minnesota Vikings dropped by scary, cold Lambeau Field and smacked the Green Bay Packers 31-17. Okay, so maybe the Broncos were the biggest 'dog of the four (ten points), but why didn't Shanahan have his multimillion-dollar defense ready to go when it counted? You certainly can't lay the blame on poor Roc Alexander, the hapless rookie cornerback Manning exploited all day; the Broncos pass rush looked like four courteous ladies waiting to speak with their minister on the church steps. Meanwhile, Manning and Colts coach Tony Dungy learned a lot more about Denver's schemes and coverages in that meaningless last regular-season game than the Broncos got from watching Indy's junior varsity dump that one in the tank. Why did Roc Alexander look like Jason Alexander on Sunday? Because Manning, conducting his own tutorial on the Invesco Field sidelines a week earlier, saw him trying to cover Reggie Wayne one on one.

Shanahan should feel greater pressure than ever from fans -- and his boss. As in, please take that job at Southwest Alaska State, or whatever place it is that's in the market for a tattered mastermind with an unquenchable thirst for power. His defenders like to insist that Shanny is the best coach the Broncos have ever hired and the finest one available to them right now. But is it so? Six years after Elway retired and a couple of months since the invention of the Smashburger, is Shanahan still the kind of leader a top NFL franchise requires? Those losses to Oakland and Cincinnati this year, his so-so record in the draft (Terrell Davis and Clinton Portis notwithstanding) and his questionable choices in the free-agent market (good morning, Dale Carter) suggest otherwise, and Sunday's catastrophe could well be seen as a lot more than déjà blue: Denver's miserable performance in the first half said less about the Colts, who have the best offense in football, than the systemic failures of the Broncos. It was also the clearest answer yet to the big, burning question about Shanahan's decision to ship Portis off to Washington for Bailey. On Sunday, the Broncos rushed for just 78 yards, which scuttled their plan to control the ball and keep the pass-happy Mr. Manning off the field.

If it's broke, fix it. And that, at long, long last, could mean Shanahan's departure -- or at least some kind of power-sharing with the team's general manager. But first, a team of surgeons has to separate Shanny from his conjoined twin, Pat Bowlen.

The Broncos' season may be over, but Denver pro sports fans still have plenty to look forward to. The continuing emergence of the Nuggets, for one thing. Carmelo and his mates may be 1-9 of late, but, you know, these things have a way of righting themselves. Just ask Jeff Bzdelik. There's also professional hockey. But be sure to gas up the van and lay in lots of emergency provisions before heading north on I-25 for distant Loveland, where the Colorado Eagles ply their trade. And let's not forget baseball. By all accounts, the Rockies will be assembling a top-of-the-line pitching staff in Tucson this spring, and with a couple of twenty-game winners in hand, the club is sure to contend for the National League pennant.

On the other hand, why not just fall by Elway's for a Smashburger? At least that suits the prevailing mood around here.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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