Inside The NFL

December 04, 2000

Interchangeable
The Broncos have replaced their fallen players without missing a
step

Last Saturday night an elevator carrying Broncos coach Mike
Shanahan from his suite on the 23rd floor of the Sheraton Seattle
to the lobby got stuck just south of the 22nd floor. One of the
four other hotel guests on board, a woman who was about 20,
started to panic. "Oh, no," she announced to the group, grabbing
her male companion. "I'm very claustrophobic!"

Buttons were pushed. A cell-phone call was made to the hotel
operator. The elevator inched downward, but not far enough to
reach the next floor. Minutes passed. While the rest of the group
fidgeted, Shanahan struck up a conversation with a reporter.
"Hey, you talk to Jeff Fisher lately?" he asked, referring to the
Titans' coach. "How's he doing?" The woman seemed to calm down,
and a few minutes later the elevator was moving again.

The Broncos see that side of Shanahan every day. We will get
through the bad times. We have the best system in the NFL, and we
will succeed. In training camp he told his players they should
all consider themselves starters and prepare accordingly.

One of the players in the room that day wasn't worried so much
about starting as he was about simply making the team. Running
back Mike Anderson, a rookie sixth-round draft pick, was third on
the depth chart, behind 1,000-yard rushers Terrell Davis and
Olandis Gary. "But I bought it," Anderson said on Sunday, after
Denver had pulled out a 38-31 victory over the Seahawks. "Coach
told me I was a starter, and I prepared like one. Then, boom,
after one game, Terrell and Olandis go down and I'm the starter,
just like he said. There's no way I'm going to be the one to
screw it up."

Ever since he lost a trio of key players in a Nov. 13 win over
the Raiders, Shanahan has had to be at his tactical best. Lost
for at least five weeks: AFC passing leader Brian Griese, with a
severely separated shoulder. Lost for the season: left guard Mark
Schlereth, with a left knee injury. Lost for an indefinite time:
Davis again, this time with injuries to his left calf and shin
that continue to confound medical specialists.

Stepping into their respective places were unspectacular 54%
career passer Gus Frerotte; second-year man Lennie Friedman,
who'd made two NFL starts; and Anderson, the 19th back taken in
the 2000 draft. Against the Chargers on Nov. 19, the offense
produced 536 yards, came back from a 17-point fourth-quarter
deficit and won 38-37. So the Broncos arrived in Seattle
confident that no matter who played, the job would get done.
"They buy our system," Shanahan had said before getting stuck in
the elevator, "because they see Gus throw for 462 yards against
the Chargers. They see Mike Anderson run for 180 yards against
the Raiders [on Sept. 17]. They believe we're going to score
every time we touch the ball. Why wouldn't they believe, with
what they've seen?"

Against Seattle, in rainy, windswept Husky Stadium, the offense
generated 538 yards. Three times Shanahan lined up wideout Rod
Smith at tailback, and Smith took pitches for runs of seven, 50
and 21 yards. The 50-yarder went for a touchdown that tied the
score at 24 in the fourth quarter. "I had never taken a pitch in
the backfield," Smith said, shaking his head. "But that's what
we've got to do to win right now. We've got to create. We're
surviving on adrenaline and the belief that whoever goes in will
get it done. Look at Mike Anderson. Who'd have figured that?"

With the game on the line, Frerotte had one more pitch to make.
Four minutes remained with the score tied 31-31, and Denver had
the ball at its 20. The Seahawks blitzed three men as Frerotte
pitched to Anderson running left. The 230-pounder cut through the
first line of defense untouched and took off down the sideline.
Shawn Springs, one of the league's fastest cornerbacks, came
flying from the middle of the field and appeared to have an angle
on Anderson. But as Springs dived to make an ankle tackle near
the Seattle 30, Anderson shifted into overdrive and jetted into
the end zone.

"Did you see Mike outrun Shawn Springs?" Shanahan said. "At 230
pounds? Unbelievable!" The rookie back finished with 195 rushing
yards. The journeyman quarterback passed for 244 yards and a
touchdown. The wideout who'd never run a play from the backfield
ran for 78 yards. The Broncos were 8-4 and in the thick of the
AFC playoff race. "And how abut Lennie Friedman?" Shanahan said.
"That guy's a player."

In Denver's system, everyone is.

Aaron Brooks Takes Off
A Star Grows In New Orleans

Here's all you need to know about Saints quarterback Aaron
Brooks, who in his first NFL start engineered a 31-24 upset of
the heavily favored Rams: He backs up his promises, and he has
fun doing it. Last week Brooks told friends that New Orleans
would score 30 points against St. Louis. Then, facing a
third-and-eight from the Saints' 28 in the fourth quarter of a
24-24 game, Brooks stepped into the huddle and cracked a smile.

A second-year player acquired in a July 31 trade with the
Packers, Brooks rolled right on the play and completed a
nine-yard sideline laser to wideout Robert Wilson, who was
blanketed by cornerback Taje Allen. The 6'4", 205-pound Brooks
capped the 85-yard drive by leaping the final yard for the
winning score, his second touchdown run of the day. He completed
17 of 29 passes for 190 yards and a touchdown. "To see him
smiling in such a big situation," said New Orleans wideout Joe
Horn, "that showed us his poise. And he can play."

Viking Nears 1,000 Catches
One Phone Call Changed His Life

On Labor Day 1990, following three mediocre seasons as a pro,
Cris Carter sat in his apartment in Cherry Hill, N.J., having
just been cut by the Eagles. The phone rang. It was Giants coach
Bill Parcells, who said his team had claimed Carter on waivers.
"How soon can you be up here?" Parcells asked. Carter said it
would take him 30 minutes to pack up the apartment and a couple
of hours to drive to the Meadowlands. "Good," Parcells told him.
"As long as no one else claims you, you're ours."

A half hour later Carter recalled last week, Vikings coach Jerry
Burns phoned to say that his team had claimed him, too. NFL rules
state that when more than one team makes a waiver claim before
the start of the season, the player goes to the club that had the
poorest record the previous year. The Giants had finished 12-4 in
1989, the Vikings 10-6. So Minnesota picked up Carter for $100.

"I've thought about what that meant to my career," Carter said
with a chuckle. "If I'd gone to the Giants, I'd have a Super Bowl
ring and probably 600 fewer catches."

Born again athletically and spiritually after the move to
Minnesota, Carter entered this Thursday's game against Detroit
with 995 receptions. He said he's "totally in awe" when he
contemplates his 1,000th catch, considering that on the day he
joined the league, he hoped to catch 500 balls. The 35-year-old
Carter seems to be getting better with age. In his first seven
seasons he averaged 47 receptions for 654 yards and six
touchdowns. Since the start of the 1994 season, his annual
averages are 95 receptions for 1,151 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Also impressive is Carter's durability. Since turning 30 he
hasn't missed a game. "That's the amazing thing about my career,"
he said. "I've played 14 years on artificial turf, and I feel
good. I'm just put together well."

Breaking the Passer Mold
The Numbers Don't Compute

Through Sunday five of the nine quarterbacks who had a passer
rating of at least 90 had been picked in the third round or
later. Two weren't even drafted--top-rated Kurt Warner (111.6) of
the Rams and No. 4 Jeff Garcia (98.7) of the 49ers. How can we
explain that?

"Fifteen years ago there were 28 teams, and if a quarterback
didn't make one of those teams, with the exception of an
occasional guy going to Canada, that was the end of his
opportunity to play or develop," says Colts offensive coordinator
Tom Moore. "Now there are 31 NFL teams [going on 32], there's NFL
Europe, there's the Arena league. It used to be, when we cut a
quarterback, he'd go to grad school. Now there are about 40 more
opportunities for 80 more guys, two for [each of those extra
teams]. The more people working, the more chances teams have of
finding a diamond in the rough."

A quarterback also had to be 6'4" with a strong arm and decent
mobility to get a real chance. But Garcia is only 6'1" and
doesn't have a cannon. Warner and the Broncos' Brian Griese,
rated second at 102.8, are about as mobile as a right guard.
"There's no blueprint for the perfect quarterback," says Seahawks
signal-caller Brock Huard. "You're not guaranteed success by
getting drafted high, and you're not eliminated by getting
drafted low or not getting drafted at all." Adds Miami offensive
coordinator Chan Gailey, "It's almost an advantage to get drafted
in a middle round. Mid-round guys can learn without the pressure
of playing."

The End Zone
Brownout

In the last two years Lomas Brown, Orlando Brown and James Brown
have played tackle for the Browns. At practice James Brown blocks
defensive end Courtney Brown. As they walk through the Browns'
facility and past the office of security chief Sam Brown, James
Brown and Courtney Brown can reminisce about Browns founder Paul
Brown and Hall of Famer Jim Brown, two of the 17 men named Brown
who have played for or coached the Browns.

Send your pro football questions for Peter King's mailbag and
read more from Paul Zimmerman at cnnsi.com/football.

COLOR PHOTO: BILL CHAN The versatile Smith caught four passes for 82 yards and picked up another 78 on the ground.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Carter ranks second alltime in receptions and touchdown catches, behind Jerry Rice.

Dispatches

Buffalo's playoff hopes took a hard hit during one Tampa Bay
scoring drive on Sunday. Star linebacker Sam Cowart and free
safety Keion Carpenter suffered high ankle sprains, and
linebacker Sam Rogers tore a groin muscle. Rogers is out for
three to four weeks, Cowart and Carpenter for up to six weeks.
The Bills outgained the Bucs 433-180 and still lost by two
touchdowns. Turnovers and special teams did them in....

There's a wide range of opinion in NFL circles about where
28-year-old Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke will be taken
in the draft. "My guess is he'll go between 10 and 15 in the
first round," says Broncos director of college scouting Ted
Sundquist. "His age isn't that big a deal, because he doesn't
have much wear and tear on his body." Falcons scout Mike Hagen
calls Weinke "a mature, quality Number 2 guy," projecting him to
go in the third round, while Rams general manager Charley Armey
labels him "a middle-round guy."...

The Broncos and Seahawks praised FieldTurf, a grasslike
artificial surface, for how well it held up during a gamelong
rain at Husky Stadium. "That grass was incredible--the best
field I ever played on," said Denver wideout Rod Smith. "It's
better than grass. No ruts. They ought to install that field at
every stadium." The FieldTurf base is a combination of graded
silica sand and ground rubber.

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)