On A Roll With precision performances from unsung offensive heroes, the Broncos streaked to their seventh straight win, over the formidable Jaguars

November 02, 1998

The mastermind faced this conundrum on Sunday night: So many
milestones to acknowledge, so little time. After handing a game
ball to running back Terrell Davis following the Denver Broncos'
seventh straight win, a 37-24 thrashing of the Jacksonville
Jaguars, coach Mike (the Mastermind) Shanahan turned to do his
postgame radio show. Class dismissed. As the Broncos drifted to
their lockers, John Elway hissed a reminder: "Psst, Mike! Jason!"

"Oh, jeez," said Shanahan. "Sometimes you forget about kickers."
Jason Elam's 63-yard field goal on the last play of the first
half had capped a 24-point quarter for Denver and tied Tom
Dempsey's 28-year-old record for the longest NFL three-pointer.
After belatedly giving Elam his props, Shanahan shouted, "What
do you think, guys?" A roar arose; Elam got his game ball.

Like Elam, Davis had cozied up to some exalted company. His 136
rushing yards on 31 carries gave him 1,001 on the season, making
him the third player in NFL history, along with Jim Brown and
O.J. Simpson, to crack four figures in just seven games. In
discussing this milestone, Davis displayed all the exuberance of
Deputy Dawg. "I'm not really a record guy," said the guy who,
after 3 1/2 seasons, holds or shares 51 Broncos records. "I'd
exchange every record I have right now for another Super Bowl."

The way Denver is playing, Davis might end up with both more
records and another ring. As the midpoint of the season
approaches, 1998 looks like the Year of the Bronco. By keeping
its coaching staff intact and avoiding key free-agent losses,
Denver has avoided the hangover that defending Super Bowl champs
sometimes suffer. "In fact," Shanahan said on Sunday night,
"we're playing better than we did last year."

The Jaguars were expected to provide a barometer as to just how
good the Broncos are, but the keenly anticipated showdown turned
into a showcase for Davis, who also scored three times and
caught five passes for a career-high 76 yards. He has now
outrushed 27 teams and is on pace to break Eric Dickerson's
single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984. As a
reward to those teammates he deemed integral to his success last
season, when he ran for 1,750 yards and was named Super Bowl
MVP, Davis handed out nine Rolex watches before Saturday's
walk-through. Let us take his cue, then, and sing the praises of
those unsung Broncos to whom he is always snapping off crisp
salutes.

Meet Howard Griffith, the best blocking fullback in football,
bar none. Against the Jaguars he touched the ball twice, on a
pair of receptions, which is a lot for him. (Going into Sunday's
game, he had two carries and six catches.) But he steamrollered
one Jacksonville defender after another with his blocks.
Griffith, a points machine as a senior at Illinois in 1990, when
he had an NCAA-record eight touchdowns in one game, has scored
seven times in his five-year pro career. He could care less
about not getting the ball. A free agent who left the Carolina
Panthers to sign with the Broncos before the '97 season, he
embraces his role in Denver. "The accountability factor is
incredibly high here," he says. "No one wants to be the reason a
play didn't work."

Certainly not McCaffrod. Forget the 64 catches and eight
touchdowns for which Denver's starting wide receivers, Ed
McCaffrey and Rod Smith--Rolex recipients both--have combined this
season. No wideout tandem does a better job of downfield
blocking. "We never take a play off," says Smith. "We're busting
our butts on the backside. If we go get that safety, there's a
chance of Terrell breaking it every time."

Like virtually every Bronco, Smith was extra ornery going into
Sunday's game. Unpleasant memories of Jacksonville's epic 30-27
upset of Denver in a 1996 AFC divisional playoff game still
rankle. "Damn right, I remember," says Smith. "I lost about 30
thousand dollars [in playoff money]. I figure somebody owes me."

Smith prefers to hit opposing defensive backs up high, with
exceptions. "If a guy is going to take a full-speed run at me or
if he's jaw-jacking, well, he's going to get cut. He's running
his mouth, I'm busting him on the knees," he says. "He keeps
talking, I'm going to keep cutting him. That way, when I come
down the field, he's leery. He's asking himself, Is this guy
going to cut me, or is he going to run a route?"

McCaffrey, likewise, goes against the grain in the generally
effete fraternity of wideouts: He likes the rough stuff. On the
first play of the second quarter on Sunday, Elway faked a
handoff to Davis--free safety Chris Hudson bit hard--and hit
McCaffrey in stride on a 41-yard touchdown pass. Instead of
trying to outrace cornerback Aaron Beasley, the 6'5", 215-pound
McCaffrey turned into him at the three and stiff-armed and
bulled his way into the end zone.

McCaffrey's touchdown catch was his fifth this season but only
his second from Elway. The other scoring throws were slung by
backup Bubby Brister, who completed 43 of 71 passes for 561
yards and eight touchdowns subbing for the hamstrung,
sore-backed Elway earlier this season. Brister, who sports a
gaudy 111.3 quarterback rating, also kept things light in the
huddle during his appearances, periodically drawling, "All
right, m------------, I'm not John, so get your asses in gear."

So smoothly is Denver's offense running that tight end Shannon
Sharpe aptly likens it to a Ferrari. During a 41-16 win over the
the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 4, Smith says, the Broncos used
13 formations in their first 15 plays: "We know it gets in their
heads, because it gets in our heads during practice. That's when
we have our problems." Executed to perfection, Shanahan's
offensive system is a defensive coordinator's daymare. Brister's
success at the wheel of the Ferrari suggests that the
Mastermind's system is as important as or more important than
its parts.

Ask Alex Gibbs. (If he answers, would you mind telling us what
he says? Like most of his mesomorphic pupils, the Broncos'
superb offensive line coach doesn't speak to the press.) The
single biggest threat to a Denver Super Bowl repeat was the
off-season upheaval on the offensive line. Pro Bowl left tackle
Gary Zimmerman retired; right guard Brian Habib signed with the
Seattle Seahawks as a free agent; and David Diaz-Infante, slated
to replace Habib, tore the ACL in his right knee on Aug. 19 and
didn't return until Sunday, albeit in a backup role.

We imagine Gibbs, who has a master's in European history from
North Carolina, staring down these obstacles and exclaiming,
"Nuts!" Former right tackle Tony Jones shifted to left tackle;
33-year-old Harry Swayne, benched two years ago by the San Diego
Chargers, stepped in at right tackle. Second-year guard Dan
Neil, whose name became synonymous with inactive last season,
when he played sparingly in three games, replaced Diaz-Infante.
The other guard remained Mark Schlereth, who spent the Broncos'
recent bye week recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left
knee. It was the King of Pain's 22nd operation--his 12th on that
joint.

From this chaos Gibbs has salvaged order. In Gibbs's scheme,
Davis picks his own hole. "It's a zone-man system," says
Diaz-Infante. "We believe in giving the back a two-way go. Never
decide for the back, just stay on your man, stay square and let
the back cut off you."

"It's almost like a nonverbal communication Davis has with [his
linemen]," says Jaguars defensive tackle John Jurkovic, who
describes a kind of Mile High entropy that afflicts visiting
defenses. (Jurko was on the sideline with a broken leg when
number 30 gashed the Jaguars for 184 yards, and the Broncos ran
for 310 in Denver's 42-17 wild-card playoff victory last
season.) "Guys try to do too much, things get a little
helter-skelter," he says. "Davis is a great cutback runner. If
you flow to the ball too quickly, if you leave your area, the
next thing you know, you've got a gaper."

Though he's now running behind a less-talented, less-experienced
line, Davis is seeing more gapers this year than last. What's
more, Denver quarterbacks have been sacked a league-tying-low
eight times. That's less surprising. Quarterbacks with the five
NFL teams that Gibbs has coached have rejoiced, because sacks
have come way down. "It doesn't matter to me whether it's the
right tackle, the fullback or the tight end; somebody's ass is
going to be accountable for [not keeping the quarterback] well,"
Gibbs told the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph in 1995--the
last time, as far as we know, that he sat for an interview. "I
will not allow those people to shirk their jobs."

"He's totally different from any coach I've ever had," says
Diaz-Infante, who talked last week because the Orange Hush has
been urged to designate a spokesman each week. "In meetings he
calls us up to the board and quizzes us. He connects you to the
system, to the guy next to you. He wants you to be more involved
than in just your little world. He wants us to know why we do
things."

In that case Diaz-Infante and the other Orange Hush members must
have been wondering, What the hell was going on in the final
minute of the first half? On a fourth-and-three at the
Jacksonville 40, the Broncos' punt team stood idly by while the
clock ticked down to four seconds. The Broncos were flagged for
delay of game.

Why get penalized and then send out the field goal unit? Why not
try a 58-yarder? Because, Shanahan explained afterward, if Elam
had missed the field goal attempt, Jacksonville would have had
the ball near midfield with three timeouts. As the penalty was
being stepped off, the Mastermind asked his kicker, "Can you
make it?"

"I said, 'I think I can get it there,'" said Elam, "and he said,
'O.K., kick it.'"

In addition to tying Dempsey's dusty mark, Elam set an
unofficial record for Most Media Attention Ever Paid to a
Kicker. Long after every other Bronco was showered, dressed and
out the door, he was still in uniform, reliving his feat. To
monitor these interviews was to learn that Elam has kicked field
goals of as much as 72 yards in practice; that he has kicked in
the same shoe--a Nike Tiempo, size 10, with kangaroo-leather
instep--for at least six years; that before lining up he had
noted that the streamers attached to the tops of the uprights
hung limp. "There was no wind," he said.

Of course there was no wind. Not on this afternoon. Not in the
Year of the Bronco.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Cruise control Elway, who considered retiring, is steering a team that Shanahan says is playing even better than it did last year. [John Elway in game] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Looking good When they weren't opening holes, Schlereth (69) and center Tom Nalen helped Elam (1) get into the record book. [Jason Elam behind Mark Schlereth and Tom Nalen looking up at after field goal kick] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Tenacious Smith (80) hurts defenses not only with his pass receiving but also with his blocking, a skill much appreciated by Davis. [Rod Smith running with football]

"The accountability factor is extremely high here," says
Griffith. "No one wants to be the reason a play didn't work."

"Davis is a great cutback runner," says Jurkovic. "If you leave
your area, the next thing you know, you've got a gaper."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)