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Up and Running After taking a pratfall in '99, the Broncos dusted themselves off and are playing like champs again

Sept. 25, 2000
Sept. 25, 2000

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Sept. 25, 2000

Up and Running After taking a pratfall in '99, the Broncos dusted themselves off and are playing like champs again

He had a gun for an arm, a sniper's eye and a silver and black
jersey. If he only had a brain. An hour before the Oakland
Raiders' game against the Denver Broncos last Oct. 10, a
spectator with severe anger-management issues stood up in his
seat behind the south end zone and fired a battery at Broncos
coach Mike Shanahan. The Energizer sailed 15 yards and smacked
Shanahan in the back of the head, and though the blow nearly
knocked the coach unconscious, he continued to supervise his
team's pregame warmups. "I was seeing stars," Shanahan recalled
last week as he prepared to return to the scene of the crime.
"But I knew that if I would've turned around, the Raiders fans
would've gone nuts, so I waited awhile and then casually picked
up the battery. Luckily it was only a double A, or I might not
have been in such great shape."

This is an article from the Sept. 25, 2000 issue Original Layout

That cowardly act wasn't enough to short-circuit the NFL's
resident mastermind, and conventional methods aren't doing the
trick, either. On Sunday, Shanahan strode back onto the Oakland
turf and did what he always does against the Raiders--mess
mercilessly with their heads. Following their coach's strategic
blueprint to perfection, the Broncos rolled to a 33-24 victory
that reestablished the former NFL kingpins as, at the very least,
the class of the AFC West. Shanahan, an erstwhile Oakland coach
and a Raider hater of the first degree, is 10-1 against the team
from which he was divorced bitterly 11 years ago, but he's
focused on bigger and better things. "I've got the same goals
I've always had," says Shanahan, who led Denver to Super Bowl
triumphs following the 1997 and '98 seasons. "We've had a lot of
people question us the last couple of years, but these players
have responded to the challenge, and they're thinking big."

While Shanahan's bunch hasn't yet regained the swagger it had in
the waning years of John Elway's career, the spring in the
Broncos' step is increasing by the week. When you're scoring 36.3
points a game without your best player (injured halfback Terrell
Davis), and when his replacement (Mike Anderson, a rookie who
began the season as a third-stringer) ransacks Oakland for 187
yards on 32 carries, you have ample reason to believe. One other
number stood out after Sunday: The Broncos (2-1), who dropped a
41-36 thriller to the Rams in their opener, are above .500 for
the first time since Super Bowl XXXIII in January 1999. "We're
good, bro," defensive lineman Mike Lodish said after the game.
"Just because John Elway's not here and we've lost some other
All-Pros, it doesn't mean we're going away. Even against St.
Louis, we didn't feel the Rams were that much better than us--if
at all."

If the fact that a Denver team run by Shanahan is a bona fide
Super Bowl contender seems like less than startling news,
consider how dramatically the Broncos' fortunes have changed in
11 months. When they last visited Oakland, the battery that
caromed off Shanahan's noggin was a harsh metaphor for the fire
he was under in Denver. His first post-Elway season had been one
giant headache from the outset, what with Davis's season-ending
knee injury in the fourth game, new quarterback Brian Griese's
shakiness and an 0-4 start that caused major locker room
dissension.

Now the Good Ship Shanahan is back on cruise control. With three
AFC West teams--the Kansas City Chiefs (1-2), the defending
division-champion Seattle Seahawks (1-2) and the San Diego
Chargers (0-3)--seemingly dead in the water, Sunday's showdown
with the undefeated Raiders had strong ramifications. "This was
big, and our coaches deserve a lot of credit, because in our
organization they're almost more important than the players,"
said Broncos wideout Rod Smith, who caught seven passes for 63
yards. "The game plans this season have been nearly perfect. All
week [the coaches] talked about how we'd wear them down in the
fourth quarter, and that's exactly what happened."

Siphoning the will out of Oakland used to seem like stealing to
Shanahan, but these are not your big brother's Raiders, who for
much of the '90s were a talented ensemble that too often played
like the Tin Man. Since Jon Gruden took over as coach in 1998 and
began weeding out me-first players--and especially since last
season, when fierce veteran Rich Gannon stepped in at
quarterback--Oakland has developed a commendable comeback spirit.
"Pretty freaky, huh?" fullback Jon Ritchie said last Friday as he
sat in his Berkeley home strumming the Guns 'N Roses tune
Patience on an acoustic guitar. "It all stems from Rich Gannon
and his relentless pursuit of perfection. I liken it to the movie
Alien. Let's just say the big mother alien, who we'll call Rich
Gannon, has implanted all these little aliens, us, with an
overwhelming sense of positivity."

But on Sunday these extraterrestials were spacey beyond belief.
The Raiders alienated their first home sellout crowd in three
years by fumbling on their first two plays from scrimmage and
falling behind 17-0. When Griese lofted a one-yard touchdown pass
to fullback Howard Griffith on the second play of the second
quarter, the Broncos looked capable of scoring 24/7. Which was
precisely what the scoreboard said at the time. But Oakland had
entered the game fresh off an amazing comeback in Indianapolis
the previous week--having overcome a 21-0 deficit to beat the
favored Colts 38-31--and the Raiders seemed determined to repeat
the feat. They roared back and drew even midway through the
second period when Randy (Air) Jordan blocked Tom Rouen's punt,
recovered the ball on the run and flopped into the end zone.

Gannon marched Oakland to the Denver six on the opening
possession of the third period, but linebacker John Mobley
intercepted his pass to Andre Rison, and the momentum shifted.
Three short field goals by Joe Nedney provided the victory
margin, but this game was won at the line of scrimmage, just as
Shanahan had planned it. Shortly after taking over as coach in
'95, Shanahan, noting Denver's 1-11 record against Oakland over
the past six seasons, told his startled players, "These guys
think you're a bunch of pansies"--actually, he used a stronger p
word. Now it's clear who the aggressors are. "We took the heart
from them when it counted," Lodish said, "on both sides of the
ball."

Though they have one of the NFL's lightest offensive lines, the
Broncos have been clearing out real estate like ambitious
Denver-area developers. The Broncos have plenty of talent up
front--Tom Nalen may be the league's best center, left tackle Tony
Jones is an underrated standout, and right tackle Matt Lepsis is
a nimble-footed technician--but the unit's unlikely star is left
guard Mark Schlereth, who might as well have a hospital bracelet
permanently affixed to his wrist. After experiencing soreness and
swelling in his left knee during training camp, Schlereth, 34,
had arthroscopic surgery. If the first cut is the deepest, the
27th incision of Schlereth's career (and the 13th on his left
knee) was the sweetest. "They removed a piece of bone the size of
my thumb, and my range of motion improved drastically," Schlereth
says. "The last seven years it's been at about 85 percent, but
now it's like 105, or 110 if someone's pushing it. I can take a
more balanced stance, and I'm probably playing better than I have
in a long time."

Throw in Griffith's punishing lead blocks, Griese's pinpoint
passing, the acrobatic athleticism of wideout Ed McCaffrey (seven
catches for 92 yards and a touchdown) and righteous play-calling
by Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, and the
Broncos are tough to stop. Having a star running back doesn't
hurt, either. But even without Davis, who missed his second
consecutive game after spraining his left ankle in the loss to
the Rams, Denver is running wild. Stud halfbacks don't grow on
trees, but apparently they roam the Rocky Mountains in
significant numbers. When Davis, a former sixth-round draft pick,
went down last season, Olandis Gary, a rookie fourth-round
selection, emerged as a 1,000-yard rusher. After Gary tore the
ACL in his right knee against St. Louis, Anderson, a sixth-round
pick, stepped in and has rambled for 318 yards in two starts.

"I don't think you can be a bum and walk in off the street and
get 131 yards," Davis said after watching Anderson scorch the
Atlanta Falcons in Denver's 42-14 romp on Sept. 10. "Mike's a
good back, and people aren't giving him enough credit." That
Anderson flew under the radar is not a total shock, considering
that he is a 27-year-old rookie who eschewed high school football
to be a drummer in the Fairfield (S.C.) Central marching band.
"We were one of those wild bands that did those crazy dance
routines at halftime--to M.C. Hammer, Bobby Brown and whatever
else was popular," Anderson says. "I'd gone out for football in
ninth grade, but I was a bit on the heavy side, and the coaches
put me at offensive line, which I wanted no part of. So I just
walked away."

After high school Anderson spent four years in the Marine Corps,
including a two-month stint in Somalia in 1994. "All the other
[peacekeeping] troops had pulled out, but some of us stayed in
case anything came about," Anderson recalls. "It was hostile over
there, and I didn't know if I'd make it back. We'd go on night
patrols, and we didn't know who was an enemy and who wasn't. I
ended up talking to a lot of [Somalians], and I felt so sorry for
them. They had no running water or adequate medical facilities.
They were relying on survival instincts and living day-to-day."

Upon his return to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, Calif., Anderson
joined the base's football team and caught the eye of Bob Turley,
a retired Marine colonel who coached at Mount San Jacinto Junior
College, 70 miles away. Turley asked him to enroll and come out
for football, but, Anderson says, "I didn't think I could compete
at that level. After I was discharged, I went home to South
Carolina, but he kept calling. Finally, I just looked at it as a
chance to get an education and flew back out." Anderson
ultimately earned a scholarship to Utah, where he became an
all-conference back in '98 and '99.

The 6-foot, 235-pound Anderson lacks the burst and brilliant
cut-back ability of Davis, but he's a powerful, decisive runner
who does not lack for toughness. He was unperturbed by Sunday's
withering heat, flashing back to his boot camp days on Parris
Island, S.C., where, he says, he "used to go on 25-mile walks
when it was hot and muggy with 60 pounds of gear on my back,
chanting the whole time." Anderson also shrugged off the split
lip he suffered on a first-quarter tackle, which made him the
day's second-bloodiest Bronco, behind Griese. The third-year
quarterback completed 21 of 31 passes for 213 yards and two
touchdowns, impressing his teammates by hanging tough after
suffering a gash to the chin (requiring 10 stitches after the
game) in the second period. On the next play Griese botched a
handoff, and defensive end Regan Upshaw recovered the fumble,
producing Denver's lone turnover of 2000. But at game's end, as
he walked off the field with his neck and jersey smeared with
blood, Griese, once dismissed by some teammates as aloof, was
clearly the guy in charge--not to mention the league's
highest-rated quarterback.

"The dude's amazing," Smith said of Griese. "The way he dedicated
himself this off-season, I wouldn't be surprised if he threw for
5,000 yards. When Ed [McCaffrey] and I worked out with him this
spring, he had a twinkle in his eye, and he won everybody's
respect with the way he asserted himself in minicamps." Added
Lepsis: "Compared to the way Brian was last year, it's like night
and day."

Night and day blended into one in the wee hours of Sunday morning
when the Broncos were rousted by a 1:30 a.m. fire alarm at their
hotel near the San Francisco airport. "I'm sure Al Davis set it
off," one Denver player said jokingly, referring to the Raiders'
owner and Shanahan's longtime nemesis.

Whoever was responsible for the false alarm, it turned out to be
a futile gesture. The Broncos' wake-up call came long ago.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK UP AND RUNNING Brian Griese (right) and the Broncos have reversed their fortunes by Michael Silver [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAD MANGIN NEW HORSES Anderson and Griese (14) have taken over where Davis and Elway left off.COLOR PHOTO: BRAD MANGIN HIGH-RISE McCaffrey was up to his old tricks, with seven catches for 97 yards and a score.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK LATE BLOOMER Anderson chose the band over football in high school, and then spent four years in the Marine Corps.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH BLINDSIDED Linebacker Al Wilson (56) and the Broncos roughed up Gannon, who has brought a never-say-die attitude to the Raiders.
Anderson was unperturbed by the withering heat, flashing back to
his boot camp days on Parris Island, S.C.
"Compared to the way Brian was last year, it's like night and
day," Lepsis says of Griese, once considered aloof by some
players.