As the lights at Mile High Stadium were flicked off for the
evening on Sunday, Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan walked
through the stadium's deserted underbelly relishing his team's
28-17 win over the San Diego Chargers. His face tanned from the
afternoon sun and his right hand clutching a rolled-up stat
sheet, Shanahan stopped to say hello to a security guard and
posed for pictures with a retired couple from Florida before
joining his wife, Peggy, the person who just might have played
the key role in the Broncos' unlikely 5-1 start.
In late August, on the day after Denver's final preseason game,
Peggy and Mike threw a party for the team at their home in the
swanky Denver suburb of Cherry Hills. That party apparently
bound together this band of NFL misfits who, six weeks later,
stand atop the AFC West, a half game ahead of the Chiefs, who
were scheduled to play Steelers on Monday night. There were door
prizes, a mountain of food and drink, a karaoke machine, pool
tournaments, air-hockey matches and card games. All of which may
seem trivial to everyone but the Broncos, a team whose roster
includes 21 players who have been cut by other franchises.
Shanahan, cast out himself by Al Davis in 1989 after just 20
games as the coach of the Los Angeles Raiders, had already
organized an off-season golf outing and a fishing derby to
promote team unity. But Peggy's party seemed to finally do the
trick. Attendance was near perfect, and most of the players
stayed until the wee hours of the night talking about the
upcoming season. In the billion-dollar industry that is pro
football, you still can't buy the key component to winning. Team
chemistry is something you must build.
"Ask us, and to a man we will tell you, that night was the
moment we became a team," says Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe.
"The man lives in a mansion with white carpeting, hardwood
floors and antiques all over the place, and he brings 75 of us
in and says, 'Have fun and stay as long as you want.' That night
we became a family."
The benefits of that camaraderie were evident on Sunday. In a
showdown of 4-1 division rivals, before a sellout crowd of
75,058, Denver battled back from a 17-0 first-half deficit to
win the game. "It's been a long time since this place rocked
like it did today," said Shanahan, whose Broncos are off to
their best start in seven years. "And in a business like this,
when people care about each other, it means all that much more."
The good times at the preseason party--not to mention the color
TV he won playing cards--helped soothe Sharpe, a two-time Pro
Bowler who was still bitter about being dangled as trade bait
for Arizona defensive tackle Eric Swann in the off-season. But
Sharpe came up a big winner again on Sunday, catching a
team-record 13 passes for 153 yards and three touchdowns against
the Chargers, who stubbornly refused to double-team him. "If you
can't beat people one-on-one in this league, then you're gonna
be selling cars pretty quick," said Sharpe. "I'm not very good
at selling cars, and John [Elway] isn't hiring at his dealership
The proprietor of John Elway Nissan completed 32 of 41 passes
for 323 yards and four scores, in the process steering past Dan
Fouts into fourth place on the NFL's alltime passing list, with
43,092 yards. Since taking over in 1995, however, Shanahan has
been building the Broncos into a team that doesn't have to rely
on number 7 all the time. Denver has the league's second-ranked
rushing attack (157.2 yards a game through Sunday) and the NFL's
fourth-best defense (allowing only 251.7 yards a game). But with
the Broncos' league-leading rusher, tailback Terrell Davis,
suffering from blurred vision due to migraines and San Diego
stacking the line with as many as nine defenders, Elway and
Sharpe were forced back into full-time duty.
They looked especially good against the Chargers' defense, which
is ranked dead last in the NFL. On Sharpe's first touchdown
catch, a 20-yard play with 1:19 left in the first half that cut
the gap to 17-7, San Diego cornerback Willie Clark bit so hard
on the tight end's inside fake that Sharpe could have turned
around and moon-walked into the end zone. Sharpe bounced off
three tacklers for another 20-yard score to open the second-half
scoring. And there wasn't a defender within eight yards when he
caught his third TD pass in the back of the end zone to put the
Broncos on top, 21-17, five minutes later. "It was just one of
those great days when it feels like you're invisible to the
defense," said Sharpe, who, after his final score, ran over to
the south stands to strut in front of a banner that depicted him
as the Incredible Hulk.
In fact, the entire team's second-half transformation was
Hulk-like. In the Denver locker room at halftime, defensive
tackle Michael Dean Perry, who was cut by the Browns after the
'94 season, reminded his teammates that Chargers linebacker
Junior Seau had called them a bunch of "average players" the
week before the game. (Seau was not totally out of line; the
Broncos' first four wins came against teams with a combined 3-19
record.) Perry's locker-room rants, during which he has been
known to challenge the manhood of everyone in the organization,
including owner Pat Bowlen, are quickly becoming legend in
Denver. And on Sunday he ignited the team's second-half charge.
"For too long there was no pride here, especially on defense,"
says Perry. "Everyone always sat back and thought number 7 would
bring us through. Well, nobody wins a title with one person. And
John's got some age on him now, so we all have to help."
Perry did his share this summer by dropping 15 pounds--an
unheard-of feat in a family synonymous with monstrous midriffs.
"A Perry on a diet, can you imagine that?" says the Fridge's
little brother. "How did I do it? I stopped eating so damn much,
that's how." Down to 275 after giving up fried foods and beer,
Perry covers more ground now, and he dominated the line of
scrimmage against San Diego. Paced by Perry, defensive tackle
Jumpy Geathers and outside linebacker Bill Romanowski, the
Broncos held the Chargers to 12 yards rushing while shutting
them out for the final 30 minutes. In the process they sent
Charger quarterback Stan Humphries home in a neck brace.
Shanahan left Mile High in a tailored gray suit and expensive
black loafers, with a priceless grin on his chiseled face and
his MVPP (Most Valuable Party Planner) on his arm. "I'll tell
you when I'm going to throw another party," Peggy said as the
couple walked into the cool, dark Denver night. "Right after the
Super Bowl. How about that?"
CARDINALS at COWBOYS
Michael Irvin returns to a Dallas offense that is averaging 52.6
fewer yards per game than Arizona's. The Cowboys' defense, top
rated in the NFC, will close that gap because it will stop
Cardinals running back LeShon Johnson cold.
LIONS at RAIDERS
Detroit has outscored the opposition 45-7 in the first halves of
its last two games. Oakland has a chance to beat a team with a
winning record for the first time in 14 games, but only if it
can hang close early.
DOLPHINS at BILLS
Miami rookie Karim Abdul-Jabbar ran for 280 yards in his first
three games--all wins--but only 37 in the last two, which were
both Dolphins losses. He must return to his early form in a game
that's sure to be a low-scoring affair.
REDSKINS at PATRIOTS
Look who's hot! New England has won three straight, Washington
four. The difference: The Pats have not faced a back like the
Skins' Terry Allen, who leads the NFC in rushing with 103.8
yards per game.
49ERS at PACKERS
Super Bowl XXXI won't have half the atmosphere of this midseason
game at Lambeau Field. Steve Young, who sat out the last two
weeks, has thrown one TD pass while Brett Favre has thrown a
RAVENS at COLTS
Baltimore versus the Colts? Art Donovan's head must be spinning.
Houston Oilers quarterback Chris Chandler is not a lame duck. He
only plays for one.
In March 1995 Chandler, then a free agent, signed with the
Oilers. His career till then had been a series of false starts
and disappointing results. A third-round pick out of Washington,
he had won the starting job with the Colts in 1988, only to be
traded to Tampa Bay two years later after Indy drafted Jeff
George. The Bucs gave up on him midway through his second year
in Tampa, and the Cardinals picked him up on waivers. The next
year, 1992, working with Arizona offensive coordinator Jerry
Rhome, he had his best season, only to be let go the next season
after losing his job to Steve Beuerlein. The Rams then gave
Chandler a shot; he stayed one season before leaving as a free
agent. But things were going to be different in Houston, where
Rhome would again be his offensive coordinator. The Oilers gave
Chandler a four-year contract, and he told his wife, Diane, that
they had found a home. "A month later they use their first pick
on [quarterback] Steve McNair. Four months after that I hear the
team is moving to Nashville," says Chandler. "I was blindsided
Now in his ninth season, Chandler can quit looking over his
shoulder. Though his backup, McNair, won both games he started
last season and has a seven-year, $28.4 million contract,
Chandler is not boasting when he says, "I'm the guy here."
Since becoming an Oiler, Chandler has thrown 26 touchdown passes
and only 14 interceptions. Last year he completed 63.2% of his
passes, and this season he was the AFC's fourth-rated passer at
week's end. In Sunday's 30-27 win over the Bengals, he completed
18 of 32 passes for 193 yards as the Oilers improved to 3-2 .
"He's a late bloomer," says Rhome. "He's just beginning to
become what he can be."
Still, quarterback controversies never completely subside around
Chandler. Late last season he contracted mononucleosis. He
started Game 14 against the Lions and completed 15 of 21
attempts for 143 yards in the first half, but he was too weak to
finish and spent the fourth quarter sleeping in the locker room
as the Oilers lost. McNair started and won Houston's last two
games of the season, and soon the Chandler-versus-McNair debate
Chandler immediately went to Oilers coach Jeff Fisher. "I asked
to be traded," says Chandler. "I didn't want to go through that
whole routine again." Fisher promised Chandler that the starting
job was his and that McNair was there to learn from him.
Chandler also found solace from his father-in-law, former 49ers
quarterback John Brodie, who is his next-door neighbor in Palm
Springs, Calif., in the off-season. "I was in the same boat as
you," said Brodie, who played for 17 years in the NFL. "I sat
behind Y.A. Tittle for three years in the beginning of my
career, then had to hold off a Heisman winner [Steve Spurrier]
at the end of it."
When Chandler met the media at the opening of the Oilers'
training camp, the first question he got concerned McNair. His
answer was that of a secure quarterback. "As long as I'm here,"
said Chandler, "he's waiting to play."
THE MARCUS CHRONICLES
When USC's Marcus Allen was about to enter the 1982 NFL draft,
his college coach, John Robinson, damned him with faint praise.
"I don't see him in the context of a Walter Payton or Earl
Campbell, a dominant player," Robinson said. Allen has outlasted
a slew of people in the NFL, and heading into Monday night's
game against Pittsburgh, he had put together one of the most
distinguished careers of any NFL running back. Here's a
year-by-year look at that career.
1977: Named California high school player of the year as he
quarterbacks Lincoln High to the San Diego County championship.
1981: Wins Heisman Trophy his senior year at USC, establishing
single-season NCAA records for rushing yards and attempts.
1980: Bob Dole fails in his bid to gain the Republican Party's
1982-88 SALAD DAYS
1982: Drafted by the Raiders with the 10th pick in the first
round, behind running backs Darrin Nelson of Stanford and Gerald
Riggs of Arizona State. Allen later wins the NFL Rookie of the
1984: Wins MVP award in Super Bowl XVIII as the Raiders beat the
Redskins 38-9. No AFC team has won the Super Bowl since.
1985: Sets NFL record that still stands for total yards gained
from scrimmage in a single season, 2,314.
1986: With 104 yards against the Redskins, sets NFL mark with
his 11th straight 100-yard rushing game.
1987: Seventh-round pick from '86, Bo Jackson (34, below), joins
Raiders, but Allen leads team in rushing.
1982: Cheers debuts and ends up as the year's lowest-rated
1983: John Robinson leaves USC to coach the Los Angeles Rams; he
drafts Eric Dickerson with his No. 1 pick.
1986: Cheers finishes as the third-rated show of the year.
1989-92 DARK PERIOD
1989: Carries only 69 times as knee injury limits him to eight
1991: Starts in just two games and has only 63 rushes.
1991: John Robinson resigns as Rams coach, having held the job
longer than anyone else in team history.
1992: The Raiders sign Eric Dickerson.
1993: Signs as a free agent with Kansas City and leads the AFC
in touchdowns with 15.
1995: Becomes the first NFL player to gain more than 10,000
yards rushing and 5,000 yards receiving.
1996: Scores the 106th rushing touchdown of his career, tying
him with Jim Brown for second place on the NFL's alltime list
behind Walter Payton, who ran for 110 scores.
1993: Cheers airs its 275th, and last, episode; John Robinson
returns to coach USC; Eric Dickerson retires as the NFL's
second-leading alltime rusher.
1996: Bob Dole wins the Republican Party's nomination.
In a display of frustration during the Bears' 37-6 loss to the
Packers, Chicago linebacker Bryan Cox stood helmetless in the
middle of the end zone as Green Bay attempted an extra point.
The Pack's Chris Jacke missed the kick, his first point after
flub in 88 attempts....The Dolphins have lost the last eight
games that quarterback Dan Marino did not start. The 14-year
veteran is expected to miss two to four more games with an ankle
fracture....Since the start of the '95 season the Raiders have
won more games at Giants Stadium (three) than the Jets (two)....
The Jaguars have gained 609 yards rushing this season and lost a
league-high 513 yards in penalties. Jacksonville, flagged 18
times in its first three games, has been penalized 40 times in
its last three.... Including Sunday's overtime win against the
Colts, the Bills are 76-4 under Marv Levy when their rushing
attempts outnumber those of their opponent....Bengals
quarterback Jeff Blake is angry at the media for criticism of
his play during Cincinnati's 1-4 start. "Who are you going to
blame if the Chicago Bulls lose? Michael Jordan," offensive
cordinator Bruce Coslet said. "Jeff has got to learn to deal
with it, learn to accept it. Jeff hasn't figured Jeff out.
That's the problem. He's pressing."...The 49ers' offense has
committed a league-low three turnovers this year; the Packers'
defense has forced a league-high 25. Something has to give when
they meet on Monday night....Minnesota defensive ends Derrick
Alexander and Fernando Smith know what it is like to walk in
each other's shoes. They often swap one of their size 13 cleats
before practice as an act of friendship and train in a hybrid
pair of shoes.... Before Bills kicker Steve Christie attempted
his game-winning 39-yard field goal against the Colts with 9:22
gone in overtime, Indianapolis called time out to let him think
about it. "They were trying to ice me," said Christie, "But I'm
Canadian, so I will not be iced."