The Bucking Stops Here

Who's the hip pick to win the American Football Conference title this year? Why, the Jacksonville Jaguars--who else? Led by quarterback Mark Brunell, the Jags are rich in veteran talent, and barring major injuries, their time is now. On the other hand, if you live in hype-saturated New York, the Jets are the obvious choice. Coach Bill Parcells is a genius on the order of Leonardo da Vinci, and last fall, Vinny Testaverde reinvented himself as Joe Namath. If the refs will just quit jobbing the upstanding citizens in green and white, they'll cakewalk to the title.

But not if you ask the Seattle Seahawks about it. A supremely gifted team that has stepped on its, uh, tail for two straight seasons, it has the missing piece now in miracle worker Mike Holmgren. The Seattle club he's taking over is a lot better than the Green Bay Packers he turned into world champions. So the rest of the conference had better watch out.

Meanwhile, don't forget Miami. That stalwart defense promises to be even more impenetrable this year, and Dan Marino now has some legitimate speed at wide receiver to throw to. Another Mensa guy, Jimmy Johnson, is getting impatient, and off-season moves make this his best Dolphins team yet.

So forget about the Denver Broncos.
Sure, they scored 62 touchdowns last year and put their second Super Bowl trophy in the showcase. They've got MVP Terrell Davis at running back, and they're still a pretty tough bunch. But the schedule this year is brutal, and now that John Elway has retired, they'll fall on their faces. The party's over in the Mile High City.

So goes the conventional wisdom as National Football League players sweat through two-a-days and collapse each night in their dorm rooms. Bubby Brister's an adequate passer, but he can't throw the bomb and doesn't have Elway's aura. Davis's record 392 carries last season may have resulted in an astonishing 2,008 yards, but he's got to be feeling the workload bigtime. Consider left guard Mark Schlereth and his 23 surgeries. How much more punishment can one body take? As for pass defense, what can you say about a unit that ranked 26th in the league last year?

This is the year the Broncos turn to horsemeat.
Just don't tell that to the Broncos--or to the people who are keeping the closest eye on training camp. In case the locals haven't heard in South Beach or Times Square, Denver is absolutely loaded again this season. John Elway may by lying in his hammock with a bottle of Coors, but the wheels aren't about to fall off the old Cadillac just yet.

All Systems Go: While the Broncos keep the services of canny Mike Shanahan and a coaching staff that's been with the team five years--that's stability, pardner--Denver's opponents in the AFC West all face change and, possibly, confusion. In post-Schottenheimer Kansas City, the 7-9 Chiefs must put their strife-torn psyches back together at the same time they're trying to absorb new rules and a new system from intense coach Gunther Cunningham. Tall order. So, too, for hapless San Diego, cellar-dwellers the past two years, which has a new coach in Mike Riley and a new/old quarterback in Jim Harbaugh, who's failed to get the job done everywhere he's played. The vaunted Seahawks also have some adjustments to make: Holmgren and defensive guru Fritz Shurmur will come up with new tricks, but will the Seahawks and starting QB Jon Kitna (yes, Jon Kitna, late of Central Washington) catch on fast enough to make a difference? As for Oakland, Oakland simply ain't Oakland anymore.

Meanwhile, Denver's non-divisional AFC foes have some problems of their own. Receiver Johnny Mitchell and guard Erik Norgard have already walked out of Jets camp, apparently fed up with Parcells's Hitler act, and there's no certainty that the unpredictable Testaverde will reproduce the career season he had in 1998. Jacksonville has a powerful offense (item: Receiver Jimmy Smith had 3,750 yards' worth of catches in the last three seasons) and a soft schedule. But the defense remains suspect, and quarterback Brunell has proved himself in only one big game--the Jags' 1996 playoff win at Mile High Stadium.

Home, Sweet Home: As divisional, conference and Super Bowl winners, the Broncos find themselves facing a schedule that might make Attila the Hun blanch. Along with two meetings against Holmgren's Seahawks, Denver will play six 1998 playoff teams and only five clubs that had losing records. But a second look reveals that almost all of the tough games are at home: Miami (in the opener) on September 13, the Jets on October 3, Green Bay on October 17, Minnesota on October 31 and Seattle on December 19. In case anyone's forgotten, the Broncos have gone a perfect 24-0 in regular-season games at Mile High Stadium over the last three seasons. That kind of momentum, enflamed by lunatic sellout crowds, isn't about to vanish, even if they gotta bring Frank Tripucka in to play quarterback. The toughest road games will probably be November 14 in Seattle and December 13 at Jacksonville. But visits to places like New England, Kansas City, Detroit and San Diego just don't look that formidable.

Do Run Run: It's been two years since Elway passed the torch to Terrell Davis. Now that Barry Sanders has retired (at least for now), Davis is the undisputed champ of NFL running backs, as his dazzling MVP season last year attests. With 2,008 yards, he singlehandedly out-rushed 22 teams. But how many more carries, how many more hits, can the rugged sixth-year man take? Plenty, it seems. He's not only durable, he's willing. But even if Davis should falter or--horrors!--suffer a significant injury, the Broncos certainly won't find themselves fresh out of legs. While no one was looking, fullback Howard Griffith, one of the best blockers in the league--scored two touchdowns in the Super Bowl win over Atlanta, and Derek Loville and Detron Smith are likely good enough to start for most teams. Meanwhile, the eagle-eyed Bronco scouts may have found another gem at the University of Georgia. Rookie Olandis Gary, a 5-11, 218-pound brute, has been fast and tough in early camp workouts, and if he proves to have even half the talent of fellow Bulldog alum Davis, he'll be in the league for a long time to come. In all, six running backs are fighting for roster spots in back of Davis and Griffith, and there's not a dog among them.

Bubby's in Receivership: The standard knock on Brister, who turns 37 this Sunday, is that he's not John Elway. But with a running back like Davis and a receiving corps like the Broncos', he doesn't have to be. Denver's small but quick offensive line remains intact. Tight end Shannon Sharpe is one of the best ever to play the game, fast white guy Ed McCaffrey has just signed on for another seven years, and Rod Smith has developed one of the surest pairs of hands in the league. Complement these forces with underused ex-Tennessee star Marcus Nash and former Florida wideout Chris Doering, whom even Broncos fans don't know yet, and Bubby's buddies begin to look pretty good. So do the guys behind him on the depth chart. Brian Griese, the former Michigan star, gained valuable insights from Elway and Brister last year, and concussion-plagued Chris Miller, out of the game since 1995, has a big-league arm and--more important--ten years of big-league experience. Once upon a time, Elway was the star of the Broncos--their only star, really--but Shanahan's strong, balanced offense deserves the all-critical kudos these days. Naysayers who believe the team can't go all the way without Biff are likely wrong, because the quarterback is no longer the main man in Denver--sentimental mythology be damned.

"D" is for Dale: The rich get richer. Veteran safety Steve Atwater is spending his twilight as a Jet, but the acquisition of cornerback Dale Carter from rival (or former rival) Kansas City was the coup of the NFL off-season. The eight-year veteran out of Tennessee is said to be moody, but winning early and often can do wonders for a man's disposition. No one's surprised he chose Denver. Who wouldn't want to join a two-time Super Bowl winner? Meanwhile, Eric Brown will likely replace Atwater at free safety, with vet Tyrone Braxton next to him. And the club's linebacking corps--notably agile John Mobley and fire-snorting wild man Bill Romanowski--may initially feel the absences of Keith Burns and Seth Joyner. But first-round draft choice Al Wilson, another Tennessee product, has been terrific in drills, and it may be impossible for Shanahan and defensive coordinator Greg Robinson to limit his play to special teams. Denver's defensive line remains tough and deep, and if defensive end Alfred Williams can keep the injury bug away, it could be the best ever.

Can the Broncos win the conference championship without John Elway? How about the Super Bowl? The Jaguars and Jets and Seahawks don't want to think so. But what do they know? At the end of January, they're always sitting on the couch with a bottle of beer and a bowl of popcorn.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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