First they lost their leader, then they lost their luster, but
even in their darkest hour the Denver Broncos retained their
levity. In a remarkable display of gallows humor, a dozen
members of the two-time defending Super Bowl championship team
gathered on Sunday night at the Chop House, a downtown Denver
eatery, and took turns goofing on their stunning, mile-high free
fall. One fresh-faced player yelled, "We're done!" as he picked
up a salad fork and stuck it against his chest. Four veterans
eyed a row of massive metal vats containing microbrewed beer.
"See that big tank on the right?" one Broncos starter asked.
"That's exactly where I'm headed." After a short pause everyone
broke into giddy laughter.
Sometimes, when your faith is gone, there's nothing left to do
but smile, smile, smile. A few hours earlier, in the wake of a
21-13 loss to the New York Jets, the Broncos retreated to their
locker room, said all the right things to the press, then poured
out of Mile High Stadium and essentially gave up on their
season. Instead of striving to make history, they are
history--and they know it. Saddled with an 0-4 record, a
quarterback controversy and a season-ending knee injury to its
best player, running back Terrell Davis, Denver is mired in the
most bewildering nosedive a Super Bowl champion has experienced.
"We could very easily go 0-8, maybe finish 3-13," one veteran
defender said after the game. "I hate to say it, but we're
The Broncos have as much chance of becoming the first team to
win three consecutive Super Bowls as Davis does of earning a
second straight league MVP trophy. "We're all dumbfounded," said
left guard Mark Schlereth, an 11-year veteran. "I've never
experienced anything like it. We've got to do something to get
out of this, but I have no idea what that something is."
Even Denver's all-seeing savant, coach Mike Shanahan, is out of
answers. Riding high after his Super Bowl triumph over former
boss Dan Reeves and the Atlanta Falcons last January, Shanahan,
who doubles as the Broncos' front-office chieftain, has recently
been torn down by media critics, fans and, most significant,
some of his players. Suddenly, unceremoniously, the man
Coloradans call Mastermind is being depicted as a master of
disaster: Shanahan's prized free-agent signee, cornerback Dale
Carter, has been beaten regularly; his new starter at right
tackle, undrafted third-year veteran Matt Lepsis, has struggled;
and, worst of all, his stylish offensive scheme is in a shambles
without a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback. The Broncos
are adjusting to life without John Elway, who retired in May
after 16 seasons, about as smoothly as the Chicago Bulls handled
the departure of Michael Jordan.
Though Shanahan was close to Elway during his two stints as a
Denver assistant in the 1980s and early '90s, their relationship
suffered in recent years. Shanahan held all the organization's
nominal power after being hired as the Broncos' coach before the
'95 season, but sources say Elway felt comfortable skirting
Shanahan's rules. "If you were out with John," says one player,
"curfew didn't apply." Elway occasionally adjourned quarterbacks
meetings and reconvened them in a bar near Denver's training
When Elway left, Shanahan became the unquestioned king of the
Broncos. On Aug. 31 he made a move some players viewed as
heavy-handed, benching popular veteran Bubby Brister without
warning and handing the starting quarterback's job to
second-year player Brian Griese. Had Denver gotten off to a good
start, the decision would have been heralded as another sign of
Shanahan's genius. Instead, Griese's struggles--and Shanahan's
insistence on keeping him in the lineup--have served as a
lightning rod for all the frustration surrounding the loss of a
legend. Shanahan concedes that it's "human nature" for players
to ascribe their struggles to Elway's absence, "but you just
hope they have enough character to overcome it."
"Mike might argue with me on this, but I have to feel there's a
psychological effect as a result of not having John here," says
Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. "You hear about chemistry all the
time, and a lot of people scoff at it, but I think we're
struggling with it now. Can not having John Elway affect an
entire team? Yes, because of all the intangibles and because he
was this team's identity for so long. We can form a new
identity, but that takes time. It's like breaking up with your
girlfriend. Unless you find a prettier one right away, the
devastation can linger for months."
Griese played well in Denver's season-opening loss to the Miami
Dolphins, but in the past three games he has interspersed
effective stretches with the type of mistakes common to young
quarterbacks. On Sunday his first throw was a sweet sideline
pass to wideout Rod Smith for a 71-yard gain, but he later
served up three interceptions. For the second time in four games
Shanahan pulled Griese in favor of Brister, who threw a pair of
interceptions to Jets nickelback Marcus Coleman in the final 3:12.
Privately, many Broncos would like to see the outgoing Brister,
who won all four of the games he started for an injured Elway
last season, get another shot. Some Denver players are even
pining for veteran Chris Miller, who hasn't played since he
suffered a series of concussions in 1995. The quiet Griese
hasn't yet been embraced by teammates but says he has no plans
to "turn into a rah-rah guy, because I don't think that's what
this team needs. It's tough, because we're losing. I don't know
how much they're listening to me, to tell the truth."
Denver's leadership void extends to the absence of two other
1998 team captains--veteran free safety Steve Atwater,
jettisoned to help make room under the salary cap for Carter
(four years, $22.8 million), and special teams standout Keith
Burns, who left after receiving a bigger contract offer from the
Chicago Bears. Atwater, who signed with the Jets, came back to
sting the Broncos, stopping running back Derek Loville on
fourth-and-one from the Denver 36 with 4:49 to go. Meanwhile
Carter, a physical corner who was a four-time Pro Bowl selection
with the Kansas City Chiefs, had another horrendous afternoon of
missed tackles, blown coverages and costly penalties. Carter's
season has been marred by family trauma: His 34-year-old aunt
died of cancer, and a niece was assaulted recently during a
break-in at her home in Atlanta. After the game he cried in the
locker room. "At least now we know he cares," one teammate said.
Carter, however, may have been crying over one fan's
unconscionable behavior. While walking off the field, he was hit
near his left eye by a metal object.
Some players would like to see more fire from Lepsis, whom
Shanahan promoted after veteran Harry Swayne signed with the
Baltimore Ravens in the off-season. Early in the fourth quarter
of Kansas City's 26-10 win over Denver on Sept. 19, 6'4",
328-pound Chiefs defensive tackle Chester McGlockton became
enraged after being chop-blocked by Lepsis. According to
witnesses, McGlockton approached the 6'4", 290-pound Lepsis in
the Broncos' huddle and slapped him. One Denver player says he
was stunned that neither Lepsis nor any of the other Broncos
Lepsis and his fellow linemen have had trouble opening holes.
Before he went down with ligament and cartilage damage to his
right knee, Davis had gained 211 yards on 67 carries, compared
to the 526 yards (5.5-yard average) and 489 yards (5.2 yards) he
ran for in the first four games of 1997 and '98, respectively.
And though Lepsis can't be blamed for his role in the collision
that ended Davis's season, Shanahan's critics will seize on the
play as a symbolic snapshot: With the Broncos leading 10-7 in
the first quarter and facing third-and-nine on their own 23,
Griese floated a 10-yard pass that New York safety Victor Green
snagged on the run. As Green reached the 20, Davis angled in to
make the tackle, but he was knocked off his feet by the diving
Lepsis, and all three players ended up sprawled out-of-bounds.
Davis stayed down; so did what remained of Denver's swagger.
The Broncos got no sympathy from the Jets, their victims in last
season's AFC Championship Game. New York was well aware that one
player's absence can cause a team to unravel, having lost its
first three games in the wake of quarterback Vinny Testaverde's
season-ending Achilles tendon tear in Week 1. Spurred by a
defense that forced six takeaways and by a solid effort from
fill-in quarterback Rick Mirer (17 completions in 28 attempts
for 242 yards and two touchdowns), the Jets kept hope alive.
While New York's coach and de facto general manager Bill
Parcells has barely been criticized for leaving the Jets without
a proven backup quarterback, Shanahan, despite his 39-9 record
over the previous three seasons, has absorbed a public pounding.
Last week alone an editorial cartoon in the Rocky Mountain News
and a column by The Denver Post's Jim Armstrong each suggested
that Shanahan's ego had influenced his decision to stick with
Griese. Last Friday, when Shanahan received an office visit from
his wife, Peggy, he said jokingly, "She's the only friend I've
got left." Later he said, "You would think I might've earned a
little slack," and it was tough to argue.
Not everyone pins the Broncos' collapse on Shanahan. "Everybody
has his theory," Davis says, "and even in this locker room you
hear the damnedest things." Here are two credible theories:
Opponents devoted large chunks of their off-seasons to figuring
out ways to beat Denver, particularly the Dolphins, who were
vexed by their 38-3 defeat in an AFC divisional playoff game
last season. One of Miami's innovations during its Sept. 13 win
over the Broncos--a set featuring two running backs, two tight
ends and one wideout--was copied by each of Denver's subsequent
foes. The other theory revolves around injuries, which Joe
Montana used to say are the toughest obstacle in repeating as
Super Bowl champions. After three years of good health the
Broncos lost standout linebacker John Mobley to a season-ending
knee injury in the game against Kansas City; now they must try
to survive without the league's premier runner.
Even without Davis, Denver is talented enough to rebound toward
respectability--but it faces some hellacious obstacles. The
Broncos' next four games are against the Oakland Raiders, Green
Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings. Already
the Broncos' locker room is filled with finger-pointing and
second-guessing. Spoiled Mile High fans are even more negative
than the players. Griese was booed late in Sunday's game, and
when Brister replaced him and ran for 17 yards on his first
snap, several spectators behind the Denver bench yelled, "See
that, Griese? You suck. Wake up, Shanahan." On the next play
Brister threw an interception. "Bubby," a fan screamed, "you
suck, too!" Another bellowed, "It's Miller time!"
When the heckling was recounted at the Chop House, it drew
chuckles from all three quarterbacks. As Brister raised his
glass and toasted Griese, another Bronco said, "Throwing Bubby
in at the end wasn't fair to him, and it wasn't fair to Brian.
Mike made his decision, and he should live with it. He can't
have it both ways."
Brister took a sip of his cocktail and then stood up and poured
the rest of his drink into Griese's glass. Behind him the
silvery beer tanks gleamed. Bending his Louisiana drawl into an
impression of Al Pacino in Scarface, Brister proclaimed, "I
share it wit chu," and everyone busted up.
For a few seconds the Broncos in attendance seemed bubbly,
almost unburdened. They may be headed into the tank, but they'll
go as a team.
Broncos defender said after the loss to the Jets. "I hate to say
it, but we're finished."