The argument goes like this: Mike Shanahan must have been out of his mind in March when he traded second-year running back Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins for fifth-year cornerback Champ Bailey. It was the first time in 32 years that two players who had just appeared in a Pro Bowl were exchanged for each other. (The Chargers sent defensive tackle Coy Bacon to the Rams for quarterback John Hadl in 1972.) Conventional wisdom says you don't trade a healthy, 22year-old back with a pair of 1,500-yard seasons on his résumé, no matter how successful your organization has been at replenishing the position. Yes, Bailey will make quarterbacks think twice about throwing to his side of the field, but he can't have as much impact on a game as Portis, who averaged 5.5 yards a carry and scored 14 touchdowns last season.
But that's not all that matters anymore, and here's the other side of the argument: The game has changed. Look at the last four Super Bowl winners: Only one had a standout running back (Jamal Lewis with the Ravens in 2000), but each team had a superior cornerback (Ty Law with the Patriots in '03 and '01, Ronde Barber with the Buccaneers in '02, and Duane Starks and Chris McAlister with the Ravens in '00). After Denver acquired Bailey, Shanahan asked the team's media information manager, Mark Cicero, to do some research. It seemed to Shanahan that the teams that marched through the playoffs did so not because they had the most offensive firepower but because they played good defense.
Cicero discovered that no Super Bowl winner in the last 15 years had ranked lower than eighth in the league in scoring defense. (Last season Denver was ninth in fewest points allowed.) In fact, the last four Super Bowl champs ranked first, first, sixth and first, respectively, in scoring defense while standing only 12th, 18th, sixth and 14th, respectively, in scoring offense. Shanahan used those stats to get his players' attention at the start of training camp. "But then he gave us one that really opened my eyes," says wideout Rod Smith, "and it says everything about what it means to be a good team." Each of the last 15 Super Bowl winners had a plus turnover margin over the regular season, with the past four listed at +17, +17, +7 and +23. (Denver, on the other hand, had a league-low nine interceptions in 2003 and finished 22nd in turnover margin, at --4.)
The Broncos think Bailey can help rectify that by denying opponents a chunk of the field in man coverage, thus freeing a hard-hitting safety, such as free-agent signee John Lynch, to provide additional run-stopping support. "I always try to push my coaches to let us play man-to-man," Bailey says. "I love to cover guys one-onone."
As for giving up Portis, Denver also factored in the back's penchant for burning the candle at both ends and his desire for a big new contract. Portis, who enjoys the nightlife, was about to enter the third season of a four-year, $2.5 million deal. Shanahan feared that if he didn't give Portis an extension and make him the highest-paid runner in the NFL, the back's unhappiness would be a distraction all season. A Portis-for-Bailey swap straight up would have been a good trade for Denver. When the Redskins threw in the 41st pick in last spring's draft--Shanahan insisted he wouldn't do the deal without it--the trade became a gimme. The Broncos spent that pick on Oklahoma State's Tatum Bell, who, like Portis, is a powerful juking back.
"In the end I just knew we could find a back--we always have," says Shanahan, who in nine years as Denver's coach has drafted four backs after the first round who each went on to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a season (Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Olandis Gary and Portis). "But you look at history, and the corner has made a difference. Look at the 49ers a decade ago: Deion Sanders made all the difference when they brought him in; he was the missing piece. After the way our season ended last year [a 41--10 strafing by the Colts in the wild-card round], we felt we needed a corner."
Bailey is not the shutdown corner Sanders was, but he's more physical. On the day Bailey arrived in Denver, he said, "I won't be a disappointment. I guarantee that." --P.K.
> Third-year wideout Ashley Lelie has yet to become the impact player Denver expected, but rookie DARIUS WATTS, a 6'2" burner from Marshall, might provide the motivation he needs. Early in camp Watts juked his way out of bump coverage and beat corner Champ Bailey. "No one," coach Mike Shanahan says, "will be able to cover him one-on-one."
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
I really like this team on both sides of the ball--if they can develop a receiving threat to help Jake Plummer. Jake's perfect for Mike Shanahan because he knows when to run and he's a more accurate passer than he was in Arizona. But Rod Smith is a possession receiver now, and if Ashley Lelie doesn't become a downfield threat, the offense will struggle.... Maybe they won't be as explosive without Clinton Portis, but the running game will be just as productive because Quentin Griffin and Tatum Bell are capable backs.... The offensive line might fall off a bit because assistant coach Alex Gibbs is now with Atlanta. But as long as the refs let Dan Neil hold on every play--which they do--the interior of that line will be strong.... Trevor Pryce is my favorite defensive lineman in the league, quick enough to get to the quarterback, strong enough to play the run well.... The underrated guy on that defense is corner Lenny Walls. He battles receivers.... I like their defensive speed, and [coordinator] Larry Coyer's schemes fit this unit much better than Ray Rhodes's did.
As long as the refs let Dan Neil hold on every play--which they do--the line will be strong.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 10--6
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Mike Shanahan; 10th season with Denver (99--65 in NFL)
12 KANSAS CITY
19 at Jacksonville
26 SAN DIEGO
3 at Tampa Bay
17 at Oakland
25 at Cincinnati (M)
14 Open date
21 at New Orleans
5 at San Diego
19 at Kansas City
25 at Tennessee (S)
NFL rank: T-23 Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .488 Games against playoff teams: 6