John Elway's successor is an intriguing choice
Dumb NFL theory of the Week: Broncos coach Mike Shanahan
switched quarterbacks two weeks before the season--from veteran
Bubby Brister to 24-year-old Brian Griese--to flex his giant ego
and show he can win an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl
with an untested second-year man at the helm.
True, the move is a risk. Griese might stink it up, beginning
with the Monday-night opener at home against the Dolphins. The
spurned Brister might not thrive in a relief role as he did last
year, when he went 4-0 starting in place of an injured John
Elway. The locker room might turn against Shanahan, who had
named the popular Brister his starter when Elway retired. But
Bubby was feeling the heat of trying to be a full-time Elway;
his last 13 preseason drives before his demotion had netted no
touchdowns, one field goal, a safety and no spark. "I knew I'd
get killed when I made the decision," Shanahan says. "But I had
to do what was best for the team, like I did when I replaced
[receivers] Anthony Miller with Rod Smith and Mike Pritchard
with Ed McCaffrey."
Shanahan saw the future on Aug. 14 in the fourth quarter of a
38-7 rout of the Cardinals. With the ball at the Arizona 13, he
called a pass Griese had never run in practice. The Cards came
with a blitz Griese had never seen. Griese had never been
schooled to look for the fifth and final receiver, tight end
Byron Chamberlain, on this play. "But as soon as Brian dropped
back," Shanahan says, "he knew from the way the rush was coming
and the way his receivers were deployed that his fifth read would
be open. So he hit Byron on a post route. No hesitation. I
thought, Now that's unusual."
The 6'3", 215-pound Griese lasted until the 91st pick of the
1998 draft because he didn't put up the numbers of Peyton
Manning or have a powerful arm like Ryan Leaf's. But examine him
for a minute. He looks as if he's been shaving for about three
weeks, but he talks and acts like Ward Cleaver. He began to grow
up quickly after his mom died of cancer when he was 12; instead
of being a normal teen in Coral Gables, Fla., he would stay home
to keep his dad, Hall of Fame quarterback Bob Griese, company on
some lonely weekend nights. At Michigan, Brian crafted his own
major, environmental policy, then earned a 3.6 GPA. He guided
the Wolverines to a share of the national championship as a
senior, completing 62.9% of his passes. On the NFL's 50-question
intelligence test, the Wonderlic, he scored higher than any
Denver draft pick ever.
Griese was eating his normal breakfast of champions on Aug.
30--banana-nut muffin and coffee--in the trainer's room when
Brister told him he'd just come from getting demoted in
Shanahan's office. The marrying of the cerebral Griese to the
obsessive Shanahan, in fact, seems almost too good to be true.
Last Friday night during a 34-3 wipeout of the 49ers in the
preseason finale, in his first appearance ever with Denver's
starting offense, Griese twice set up completions with deceptive
play-action fakes. Three times he hit receivers in the numbers
when corners were draped on them. He connected on 12 of 17
passes (two were dropped) for 111 yards.
Bob Griese led Miami to two Super Bowl wins, and Brian is much
like him: thoughtful, quietly confident, supremely accurate as a
passer. Yet father never coached son, and son never badgered
father for stories of the good old days. "I was five when my dad
stopped playing," Brian says. "I really didn't see him much as a
Hall of Fame quarterback, just as a Hall of Fame father. When my
mom died, my dad and I were left in the house alone. We became
almost like best friends. When he'd be preparing for a college
game he was going to announce on TV, I used to test him. Say he
had USC and Cal. I'd take USC's defense and he had to tell me
the guy's height, weight, position, stuff like that. As I got
further along in high school, I almost had to be two people--a
high school student and the guy who was there for my dad."
He'll have to grow as a quarterback pretty quickly, too. Denver
opens against five teams with top defenses--Miami, Kansas City,
Tampa Bay, the Jets and Oakland. "Now that I'm playing, nobody
gives us a chance to win it all," Griese says. "As long as I
don't believe that, we'll be O.K."
Salary Cap Changes?
PROPOSING YEAR-END BONUSES
Concerned with the rapid rise in signing bonuses, which have
made some contracts heavily guaranteed, commissioner Paul
Tagliabue has talked to the players' union about setting aside a
percentage of the salary cap to be divvied up by the top
performers on each team at the end of the season. (There has
been no discussion yet of the formula by which that pool would
be split up.) He told SI that veteran Patriots tackle Bruce
Armstrong suggested the concept to him. "There would still be
healthy salaries and bonuses," Tagliabue said, "but if you set
aside, say, 10 percent of the cap, or about $6 million, it would
ensure that more money goes to the players who at the end of the
year have shown they really earned it."
The bonuses given to rookies are way out of hand. For instance,
if Browns top pick Tim Couch achieves scant incentives his first
three years, some 97% of his income--$21 million of $21.75
million total--is guaranteed in the form of signing bonuses.
Couch appears to be highly motivated, but some year a team's
going to get burned by a first-round pick who isn't. That might
be what's happening now to the Chargers with Ryan Leaf.
REED GLADLY PAYS THE PRICE
Now this is class. The Bills drafted wide receiver Peerless
Price to eventually take the place of veteran receiver Andre
Reed, who's probably in the final season of his magnificent
career in Buffalo. How has the 35-year-old Reed handled the
prospect of losing playing time this season to Price? He has
become the kid's mentor.
"He helps me every day," says Price, a cocksure second-round
pick from Tennessee. "He told me one of the first days, 'With
your speed, you could put the fear of God into every defensive
back if you got off the line quicker. Work on that.' Now I
concentrate on working through the bumps and getting off the
line faster, and it's made me better." By next season Price and
rising star Eric Moulds could be the league's best pair of young
INDY ROOKIE'S 2% SOLUTION
Colts president Bill Polian says rookie running back Edgerrin
James "came in from his holdout the way Peyton Manning came in
last year: totally prepared. He had two percent body fat,
something I've never seen in my years in football." ...A
touching thing happened last week when Seahawks coach Mike
Holmgren traded for a receiver he had trashed as soft and
immature in Green Bay, 25-year-old Derrick Mayes. When Holmgren
called to inform Mayes of his plans, Mayes quietly asked: "Mike,
do you really want me?"
The End Zone
LOST IN THE COSMO
When Michael Richards of Seinfeld fame was in the Minnesota
locker room to film a promo for Monday Night Football last week,
the Vikings refused to let him leave until he had delivered
their favorite Kramerism. "They all wanted to hear me say,
'Giddyup!'" Richards said.
THE INNER GAME
Young under the Gun
When the clock reads 2:00, the Niners' attack really ticks
Talk to Steve Young about running the 49ers' two-minute drill,
and his eyes light up. "You know how confident Pete Rose must
have felt batting in the ninth inning with a 9-1 lead?" Young
says. "That's how I feel in our two-minute offense."
Seven times during the '90s, San Francisco has finished among
the top 10 in scoring in the last two minutes of each half; last
year the Niners were second, with 90 points. (The Saints had
97.) SI watched Young practice one of these double-time marches
during training camp in Stockton, Calif. It was interesting to
see what developed when a small clock in the end zone started
ticking down from 2:00. The defensive intensity shot up. Young,
previously blase, became animated. "The only way this drill
works," Young says, "is if both sides play like it's a game."
Starting from his own 20, Young hit fullback Tommy Vardell and
wideout Mark Harris for a total of 14 yards, then found Jerry
Rice on a crossing pattern for another first down. Three
incompletions followed. Fourth down. "Got 'em now!" screamed
free safety Merton Hanks. But Young saved the drive with a
12-yard crossing route on the numbers to Harris.
Forty yards and 40 seconds remained. On second-and-10, Young
gave Rice a knowing look at the line. "White 90! White 90!"
Young shouted. "Set!" Rice sprinted 22 yards and cut sharply to
the middle. The throw was perfect, but at the last instant
cornerback Darnell Walker flicked it away.
Needing a first down, Young threw a 10-yard incut to tight end
Greg Clark. "Time! Time!" Young yelled with 19 seconds to play.
From the 30, he dumped to running back Charlie Garner, who got
out of bounds after just a three-yard gain. Only 12 seconds
remained; Young had to go for it. He lofted a pass into the
corner for the 6'4" Harris, who plucked it over the 5'8"
Touchdown. The clock read 0:05. "Playing quarterback's like
trying to catch a tiger: You never quite catch it, but that
doesn't stop you from trying," Young said later. "Going 80 yards
in two minutes is one of the real challenges. You can get yards,
but can you score?"
Young can. Consistently.