2 Denver Broncos The 1998 Super Bowl champs will need more than a healthy Terrell Davis to hit pay dirt again. But he's a nice start

August 27, 2000

Of all the agony Terrell Davis has endured over the past 10
months, the unlikeliest helping of humility occurred in June on
the Gateway National Golf Course in Madison, Ill. Playing in a
charity tournament hosted by Rams halfback Marshall Faulk, Davis
heard his team get slammed by a precocious critic.

"Man, you need to leave the Broncos," said Michael Livingston,
Davis's 12-year-old cousin and playing partner.

"What for?" Davis asked incredulously.

"Because you guys are done," Michael shot back. "There ain't no
way you're going back to the playoffs."

Ouch.

Davis, who tore up his right knee in the fourth game of '99, knew
his absence had something to do with the Broncos' stinker of a
season. Yet he also understood the skepticism enunciated by young
Michael and by other critics who believe Denver can't be dominant
in the post-John Elway era. So Davis, after some mild
protestations, let his cousin's comment slide. "I wasn't going to
argue with a 12-year-old," he says. "Besides, the kid is one of
the best young golfers in the state of Missouri, and he was
kicking my butt all over the course. It was extremely humbling."

That's a feeling anyone associated with last season's Broncos
knows all too well. Last Oct. 3, when Davis went down in the
first quarter of a 21-13 loss to the Jets at Mile High Stadium
that dropped Denver to 0-4, the worst collapse by a defending
Super Bowl champion was well under way. The season was marred by
a quarterback controversy, locker room turmoil and a rash of
injuries to players such as John Mobley, a burgeoning star at
outside linebacker, All-Pro tight end Shannon Sharpe and Pro Bowl
defensive end Alfred Williams.

Whether the Broncos limp off into oblivion or come strutting back
into prominence depends largely on Davis. If his knee is
right--and it looked strong during Davis's limited preseason
appearances--Denver probably has enough juice to challenge for
another Super Bowl title. If his knee fails him, the Broncos will
have a tough time even getting a playoff berth.

"How important is he?" coach Mike Shanahan asks. "Anytime you've
got the top running back in the league, I'd say he's pretty
important. But we're realistic. Not everybody lasts as long as
you want them to, and we're not sure how he's going to respond."

Davis is. With apologies to his sagacious coach, he is certain
his ferocious approach to rehab and the inner drive that
propelled him from sixth-round obscurity to superstardom will
allow him to plow through the doubters, not to mention oncoming
defenders. "I'm very confident," he says. "Extremely confident.
Overly confident."

Shanahan has the luxury of easing the sixth-year running back
into his workhorse role. One of the few positives to come out of
last season was the emergence of rookie halfback Olandis Gary, a
fourth-round draft choice who, like Davis, had received little
fanfare while playing college ball at Georgia. Gary, a 5'11",
218-pound banger, broke Davis's franchise rookie rushing record
with 1,159 yards in just 12 games. The Browns inquired about him
during the off-season, but Shanahan insisted on a low first-round
draft pick in exchange. Davis served as a willing mentor to Gary
in '99; this year, the Broncos would prefer he teach by example.

"Olandis is a great runner," says fullback Howard Griffith, "but
when Terrell is back there, it changes the way a team tries to
defend us. With him, I think we can get our swagger back right
away."

It might not be that simple. While the injury to Davis may have
been the biggest reason for the Broncos' slide, it can by no
means account for the totality of the team's collapse. "Hey, we
weren't doing much with me in there, either," says Davis, who
averaged 3.1 yards on 67 carries in '99. "We all saw the warning
signs early on, but we were hesitant to say anything. Once I got
hurt, it became kind of obvious. A drive would stall, and when
the offense would come off the field, no one would say a word. We
needed to wake up, and John [Elway] wasn't there to snap us out
of it."

This year the Broncos won't have the voluble Sharpe, their
alltime leading receiver, who signed with the Ravens. That puts
even more pressure on Brian Griese. The third-year quarterback
did some nice things in '99, but that didn't stop Shanahan from
signing Gus Frerotte, who had an impressive season with the Lions
in '99. Another key addition is first-round pick Deltha O'Neal,
an electrifying return man out of Cal whom the Broncos hope will
emerge as a stud cornerback.

Davis, who plans to become a more vocal leader, is the one man
who can make it all good in a hurry. "I think most people around
the league believe our best days are behind us," he says. "We've
been to the top, and now we've been to the bottom. I can't put my
finger on exactly what went wrong last year, but I guarantee it
won't happen again."

--M.S.

COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO RUNNING SMOOTHLY Davis appears to be holding up fine, despite poundings from opposing tacklers--and one young fan. COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO

SCHEDULE

SEPT. 4 at St. Louis (Mon.)
10 ATLANTA
17 at Oakland
24 KANSAS CITY

OCT. 1 NEW ENGLAND
8 at San Diego
15 CLEVELAND
22 at Cincinnati
29 Open date

NOV. 5 at N.Y. JETS
13 OAKLAND (Mon.)
19 SAN DIEGO
26 at Seattle

DEC. 3 at New Orleans
10 SEATTLE
17 at Kansas City
23 SAN FRANCISCO (Sat.)

FAST FACTS

1999 Record 6-10 (5th in AFC West)

NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 12/15/14; defense 19/8/7

2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 27
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .449
Games against playoff teams: 3

PLAYER TO WATCH

It took Al Wilson about five minutes to take charge of the
Broncos' defensive huddle, stepping in as the starting middle
linebacker for the two-time Super Bowl champions early last
season and flapping his lips like Eminem after a six-pack of Red
Bull. This year, the six-foot, 240-pounder who helped Tennessee
win a national title in 1998 has a chance to start taking over
the league. "A lot of times when you look at rookies, you see a
ceiling," says fullback Howard Griffith. "If Al keeps playing the
way he is and having fun, he can be one of the best to play this
game." He's a player with striking intensity--one of his flaws is
that he tends to overrun plays. "He's just a hyper individual,"
linebacker John Mobley says. "But he backs up all his talk."

PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS

Coach: Mike Shanahan
Sixth season with Broncos (61-39 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Brian Griese 106 452 att. 261 comp. 57.7% 3,032 yds.
14 TDs 14 int. 75.6 rtg.

RB Terrell Davis 17 67 att. 211 yds. 3.1 avg. 3 rec.
26 yds. 8.7 avg. 2 TDs

RB Olandis Gary 157 276 att. 1,159 yds. 4.2 avg. 21 rec.
159 yds. 7.6 avg. 7 TDs

FB Howard Griffith 258 17 att. 66 yds. 3.9 avg. 26 rec.
192 yds. 7.4 avg. 2 TDs

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

[PVR*]

WR Rod Smith 80 79 rec. 1,020 yds. 4 TDs
WR Ed McCaffrey 85 71 rec. 1,018 yds. 7 TDs
WR Travis McGriff 232 3 rec. 37 yds. 0 TDs
TE Byron Chamberlain 172 32 rec. 488 yds. 2 TDs
K Jason Elam 143 29/29 XPs 29/36 FGs 116 pts.
PR Deltha O'Neal (R)[1]332 42 ret. 10.2 avg. 1 TD
KR Deltha O'Neal (R)[1]332 19 ret. 29.2 avg. 1 TD

LT Tony Jones 6'5" 291 lbs. 12 games 12 starts
LG Mark Schlereth 6'3" 287 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Tom Nalen 6'3" 286 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Dan Neil 6'2" 281 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RT Matt Lepsis 6'4" 290 lbs. 16 games 16 starts

Defense

LE Maa Tanuvasa 39 tackles 7 sacks
LT Keith Traylor 31 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
RT Trevor Pryce 46 tackles 13 sacks
RE Kavika Pittman[1]42 tackles 3 sacks
OLB John Mobley 10 tackles 0 sacks
MLB Al Wilson 74 tackles 1 sack
OLB Glenn Cadrez 79 tackles 7 sacks
CB Ray Crockett 63 tackles 2 int.
SS Billy Jenkins[1] 93 tackles 2 int.
FS Eric Brown 75 tackles 1 int.
CB Jimmy Spencer[1] 49 tackles 4 int.
P Tom Rouen 84 punts 46.5 avg.

[1] New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
*PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)

THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Broncos

"The offense needs to score more points, especially in the first
half, otherwise there's too much stress on the defense and not
enough freedom to gamble. The Broncos outscored opponents by 159
points in the first half of their games in '98 but were minus 12
last year.... The Broncos might be in trouble if Mark Schlereth's
knees don't hold up. Schlereth and Tony Jones are 34, and the
offensive line's depth is shaky.... I don't think losing Shannon
Sharpe will affect them. Last year they played 11 games without
him, and Byron Chamberlain gives them a big-play dimension if he
can keep his weight down.... Last year Denver ranked 17th in the
league in average gain per pass play. This may reflect the
quarterback's inability to make plays--or a lack of speed at
wideout. Rod Smith [30] and Ed McCaffrey [32] may be on the
downside in terms of speed and big-play ability.... Whether
rookie Deltha O'Neal can handle the role of starting cornerback
and return man may determine what course their season takes."

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)