Shanny and Snake Ain't Jake

My favorite news item of recent weeks is the one about the family in New York that's suing a restaurant chain for $10 million because one of those showy Japanese hibachi chefs flipped a grilled shrimp at a customer. Whether the guy was trying to catch the hot morsel in his mouth or get out of the way remains unclear. In any event, the plaintiffs claim their relative wrenched his neck in the incident and, six months later, upped and died after what was supposed to be corrective surgery.

Moral of the story: Go with the ribeye, medium rare, and make them bring it to you on a plate.

This brings us, of course, to Mike Shanahan, who's performed all manner of contortions this season trying to get his modestly talented and occasionally motivated Denver Broncos back to playoff contention. He's changed his hard- trying running backs more often than J.Lo changes husbands, with bewilderingly mixed results. In the wake of last year's playoff debacle at Indianapolis, he reconstructed the team on a model of hard-nosed defense, only to see his new $60 million star in the secondary, Champ Bailey, get scorched for two touchdowns in an unforgivable loss to the godawful Oakland Raiders, then get beaten badly on San Diego's first touchdown drive this past Sunday. Shanahan has shown the patience of a saint with quarterback Jake Plummer, but the eight-year veteran has gone hot and cold without apparent motive. Three of the four interceptions Plummer threw Sunday against the Chargers may have been tipped -- including the season-killer, on first down at the San Diego seven-yard-line, with some four minutes left to play and Denver trailing 20-17. But they were interceptions, nonetheless. In the locker-room aftermath, Jakespeak had an unmistakable resemblance to Griesegrumble: "I don't give a shit about picks," the Snake said. "I want to win ballgames. And we almost did."

Almost. For Shanahan no less than his none-too-talented quarterback, "almost" is the key word. Just as it was for the poor guy eating dinner at Benihana.

When the Jacksonville Jaguars threw Shanahan a shrimp way back on September 19, he flew ass-over-elbow out of his chair and lost a game, by the unhappy count of 7-6, whose outcome should never have been an issue. When the Raiders tossed him a somewhat more frozen shrimp three days after Thanksgiving, he promptly choked on it. Blowing an eleven-point fourth-quarter lead -- at home, no less -- to this year's Oakland team was like spitting it out to, say, Wake Forest. Come Sunday, a tidbit of broiled Dolphin is likely to come sailing Shanny's way, and that's a play Ray Charles would be able to make.

But don't count on anything else. Post-Chargers, the Broncos say they are anything but dispirited. Like the Brits at the Somme, they pledge to fight on. Still, the 9-3 New York Jets, who've just gotten starting quarterback Chad Pennington back into the lineup, have a two-game lead over 7-5 Denver in the tight American Football Conference wild-card race; the 7-5 Baltimore Ravens also hold an edge, by virtue of their superior record against AFC opponents. Not only that, Denver's three remaining games after Miami could be gruesome. The 4-8 Kansas City Chiefs are a major disappointment this year, but, oh, wouldn't their high-powered offense love to lay one on the hated Broncos come December 19 at lunatic-stuffed Arrowhead Stadium? As for Tennessee, the Titans may be 1-4 at home and 4-8 overall, but consider some of the teams they've lost to: division leaders Indianapolis (twice) and San Diego, and dangerous Minnesota. On the other hand, they beat Brett Favre and company by three touchdowns in Green Bay. Meanwhile, division leaders San Diego and Atlanta are the only good teams Denver has faced: Their other eight opponents have a combined record of 39-57.

Bad news, then, that Denver will face a juggernaut in the regular season finale on January 2 -- an Indianapolis Colts team that has already scored ninety points more than anyone else in the league, led by a quarterback, Peyton Manning, who's about to annihilate Dan Marino's single-season record for touchdown passes (48). It's unlikely that Archie's little boy will be much concerned by the Broncos' much-ballyhooed Mr. Bailey, much less his mates on "D."

How does 9-7 sound? And a nice warm seat on the rumpus-room couch come playoff time? When the great scorer in the sky (you know, Pat Bowlen) finally reckons with the latter days of Mike Shanahan (no playoff wins since John Elway went), he'll reckon with Shanahan's draft choices and Shanahan's roster updates -- with the Dale Carters and the Daryl Gardeners of the world, with the major error that was Brian Griese. With the probable blunder of Portis-for-Bailey. And, yes, with Shanahan's crucial choice of a mobile, athletic quarterback who can't seem to get over his old Cardinal sins -- forcing the ball under pressure, too often panicking, trying to do the whole thing himself. Unless the Jets collapse in New York and the Ravens pack it in Sunday against the lowly Giants or in their finale against punchless Miami, Denver is doomed once more.

Those animal whimpers that fill the stricken city's boardrooms and bars this week come from believers who wagered Grandma Martha's silver that the vastly improved, playoff-bound Broncos would kick the visiting Oakland Raiders all over the place on a snowy Sunday night at Invesco Field -- or that they would rise up the next week to upset San Diego. Gleeful in their task, the Raiders and Chargers put those myths to rest, albeit by a total of just four points. As usual, the Broncos field the lightest offensive and defensive lines in the NFL -- a weight-for-speed theory that began working pretty well for them back in the Elway era. But now, the fans are compelled to ask, hasn't the entire team also grown a little light in the head, including its mastermind?

By all accounts, the Florida Gators hired a new head football coach last week. But what about California College of Ayurveda, where ex-Miami running back Ricky Williams has been studying holistic medicine? Don't they need someone to oversee the X's and O's? Maybe we've got just the guy. Soon as he's done trying to catch another shrimp or two.

Speaking of coaches, Gary Barnett is apparently a man of many faces. He's the visionary who lifted Northwestern's embarrassing football program from the slough of despond and set the Mildcats down at the Rose Bowl. He's also the blind man who claimed to know nothing when a couple of Northwestern players got involved in a sports gambling scandal. Gary Barnett is the head coach who reinvigorated University of Colorado football after Slick Rick Neuheisel and his guitar set out for Seattle. Alternatively, he's an upright leader of young men who claimed to know nothing when a scandal (sex, booze, rape, hookers, misuse of funds) far more damaging than the mess in Evanston rocked the Buffaloes from horn to hoof. This is the Barnett who was temporarily relieved of his duties -- months before CU athletic director Dick Tharp was permanently relieved of his.

Couple of weeks ago, we met another Gary Barnett -- the inspirational force who coaxed his psychologically impaired team to a 7-4 regular season this year and, on the strength of that, was named Big 12 Conference coach of the year by a panel of twenty sportswriters. What happened on the field is what counted, the voters claimed, not what happened in any grand-jury room or, for that matter, in the dark hallways of Barnett's conscience. Big 12 coach of the year. As turnarounds go, this outranks Northwestern's 1995 miracle season by several multiples: Imagine Osama bin Laden, decked out in his best burnoose, sitting down to a state dinner at the White House.

Of course, it's always hard to keep up where Barnett is concerned: His latest incarnation is the helpless boob who looked on grimly as Oklahoma wasted his Buffs 42-3 Saturday night in the Big 12 title game. Take your pick among the various and sundry Barnetts. But you might do well to hurry here, too.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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