3 Denver Broncos The team's future and Jake Plummer's career hinge on how he performs in a talented lineup

August 31, 2003

For the past four years the question about Jake Plummer has been,
Is he really that bad, or is quarterbacking the bungling
Cardinals an excuse for even the most scatter-armed passer? Last
March, having missed the playoffs for the third time in four
seasons, Broncos coach Mike Shanahan gambled on the latter. In
cutting the inconsistent Brian Griese and signing the free agent
Plummer to a seven-year, $40 million contract, Shanahan made a
move he believes can return his talented team to the elite status
it enjoyed while winning back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and
'98.

"There are a lot of people in football, including some guys I
respect, who've told me, 'Hey, you're crazy,'" Shanahan says.
"They're not high on Jake, but I'm convinced he'll play at a high
level here."

Think mile high, which is the standard that was established by
Shanahan and John Elway, who has been retired for five years.
That would be a drastic change for Plummer, who, at 28, has
already experienced a career's worth of low moments. He had four
stellar years at Arizona State, and the 49ers' Bill Walsh
compared him with Joe Montana. A second-round pick by the
Cardinals in 1997, Plummer was spectacular in his second season,
defeating the Cowboys in a wild-card game to give the franchise
its first postseason victory in 51 years. From then on his
Arizona experience was mostly miserable: four consecutive losing
seasons, including one in which Plummer threw 24 interceptions
and only nine TDs.

Still, thanks to Plummer's scrambling ability and penchant for
comebacks--in six seasons he directed 21 game-winning drives in
the fourth quarter or overtime--Denver fans were intrigued by
him. Last December, as the Broncos were beating the Cardinals
37-7 to close out a 9-7 season, some of the spectators at Invesco
Field at Mile High made their feelings known. "They were
chanting, 'We want Jake!'" Plummer said after signing with the
Broncos. "And I was thinking, I want you."

Plummer had plenty of reasons for wanting them. Shanahan, despite
his failure to develop Griese into a worthy successor to Elway,
remains the game's top quarterback guru, and the stable of skill
players he has assembled helped Denver rank third in the NFL in
offense last season. Halfback Clinton Portis, a second-year
speedster, gained 1,508 yards to earn NFL Offensive Rookie of the
Year honors--an award won two years earlier by Mike Anderson, who
is the Broncos' starting fullback. Crafty veterans Rod Smith and
Ed McCaffrey have been one of the league's best receiving tandems
for six years, and downfield threat Ashley Lelie, a first-round
pick in 2002, appears on the verge of stardom. Oh, there's also
future Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, who has more career catches
(753) and receiving yards (9,290) than any other tight end in NFL
history. Can Plummer, whose poor career numbers (90 touchdowns,
114 interceptions and a 69.0 passer rating) point to impatience
and poor decision-making, parlay these riches into a career
revival?

Already, most Denver players have been won over by Plummer's
outgoing, unpretentious manner, a stark contrast to Griese's
aloof, detached persona. "I like Brian, but he wasn't as
player-friendly," says center Tom Nalen. "Jake is one of the
guys. You can make fun of him and not worry about it because
he'll give you crap right back."

So far Plummer has gotten grief for his undistinguished wardrobe
("He's a Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Old Navy kind of guy," says
Sharpe) and his proclivity for cackling. Nalen describes him as
yappy, and backup quarterback Steve Beuerlein says, "Sometimes
you want to slap him around and tell him to shut up."

If Plummer doesn't win in Denver, no one will say that the sorry
state of the Cardinals was responsible for his disappointing
performance. "We'll see who was to blame," Sharpe says. "He's
removed from that now, so there are no more excuses. I like to
think it was Arizona that was causing his problems, but I'm not
going to get on a soapbox and say we've got Johnny Unitas. He has
to show us, and everyone else, when he steps on the field." --M.S.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO PET PROJECT Shanahan wants Plummer, who has directed 21 come-from-behind wins as a pro, to be more consistent. COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS WILSON COLOR PHOTO

UNDER THE GUN

Two years ago right cornerback DELTHA O'NEAL intercepted nine
passes and went to the Pro Bowl. Last season he was moved to the
left side and, despite five interceptions, lost his starting job
and much of his confidence. To revive O'Neal's career, new
defensive coordinator Larry Coyer switched him back to right
corner, where he's more comfortable.

ENEMY LINES
An opposing scout's view

"This team has a lot of talent, especially on defense. Al Wilson
is underrated--he gets to the ball and delivers big open-field
hits. They have three four-down linebackers in Wilson, Ian Gold
and John Mobley.... I'm not high on Daryl Gardener; he's a name,
but he doesn't produce. Trevor Pryce is good, but they'll miss
Montae Reagor, who came hard on every play.... Deltha O'Neal
could be special; he's a solid cover guy who makes plays. I love
Kenoy Kennedy; you can suspend him, fine him, and he still blows
people up.... Bringing in Jake Plummer was a good move. He's got
the ability to be a Jeff Garcia type, who can run and throw down
the field.... Rod Smith is sneaky fast, and Ed McCaffrey finds
separation. I like Ashley Lelie--he runs good routes, has the
speed to get vertical and has the size to catch the fade or deep
out. He needs to work on his blocking.... Putting Mike Anderson
at fullback was smart. He can open holes, and when you put him in
as a split back and run misdirection plays--watch out.... No one
on the offensive line stands out. They're well coached, and they
work as a unit. Even their cut blocks are timed."

SCHEDULE

Sept. 7 at Cincinnati
14 at San Diego
22 OAKLAND (Mon.)
28 DETROIT

Oct. 5 at Kansas City
12 PITTSBURGH
19 at Minnesota
26 at Baltimore

Nov. 3 NEW ENGLAND (Mon.)
9 Open Date
16 SAN DIEGO
23 CHICAGO
30 at Oakland

Dec. 7 KANSAS CITY
14 CLEVELAND
21 at Indianapolis
28 at Green Bay

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: 18
Opponents' 2002 winning percentage: .494
Games against playoff teams: 6

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2002 statistics

2002 RECORD: 9-7
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
OFFENSE 5/8/3
DEFENSE 4/17/6

COACH: Mike Shanahan; ninth season with Denver (89-59 in NFL)

CLINTON PORTIS

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
RB 5 273 1,508 5.5

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
33 364 11.0 17

JAKE PLUMMER[1]

POS. PVR ATT. COMP. %
QB 61 530 284 53.6

YARDS TDs INT. RATING
2,972 18 20 65.7

MIKE ANDERSON

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
FB 111 84 386 4.6

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
18 167 9.3 4

ROD SMITH

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 49 89 1,027 5

SHANNON SHARPE

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
TE 129 61 686 3

EPHRAIM SALAAM

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LT 6'7" 295 lbs. 16 16

BEN HAMILTON

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LG 6'4" 283 lbs. 16 16

TOM NALEN

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
C 6'3" 286 lbs. 7 7

DAN NEIL

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RG 6'2" 285 lbs. 16 16

MATT LEPSIS

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RT 6'4" 290 lbs. 16 15

ED MCCAFFREY

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 86 69 903 2

DEFENSE

RE BERTRAND BERRY 12 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
RT DARYL GARDENER 52 tackles 4 sacks
LT DORSETT DAVIS 0 tackles 0 sacks
LE TREVOR PRYCE 46 tackles 9 sacks
OLB JOHN MOBLEY 97 tackles 1 sack
MLB AL WILSON 132 tackles 5 sacks
OLB IAN GOLD 99 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
CB DELTHA O'NEAL 69 tackles 5 int.
SS KENOY KENNEDY 67 tackles 0 int.
FS SAM BRANDON 17 tackles 0 int.
CB LENNY WALLS 0 tackles 0 int.

SPECIAL TEAMS PVR

K JASON ELAM 173 42/43 XPS 26/36 FGS 120 PTS.
PR DELTHA O'NEAL 446 30 RET 8.4 AVG. 0 TDS
KR REUBEN DROUGHNS 356 20 RET 25.8 AVG. 0 TDS
P MICAH KNORR 24 PUNTS 37.8 AVG.

[1]New acquisition
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 89)

"I love Kenoy Kennedy. You can suspend him, fine him, and he still
blows people up."

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)