After spending a week at the Pro Bowl in February 2006, the Denver Broncos' coaching staff returned to the Rocky Mountains with more than a late-winter Honolulu tan.
They came back with a plan to solve their pass-rush issues: Go small.
Mike Shanahan's staff was given a Hawaiian consolation prize for losing the AFC Championship Game to the Pittsburgh Steelers to end their 2005 season. The staff made the best out of the situation. Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer and Shanahan were smitten by Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney. The pair was amazed at how Freeney was such a dominant force as a pass-rusher despite being a smaller player. Freeney is listed as 6-foot-1, 268 pounds. He's probably smaller, though.
With Freeney serving an inspiration, the Broncos' staff became more open-minded about finding a pass-rusher. Then, studying prospects for the upcoming draft, the Broncos became smitten again.
Elvis entered the building.
The Broncos drafted Elvis Dumervil out of Louisville in the fourth round. A prolific sack master in high school and college, Dumervil was shunned by most teams because of his small stature. Dumervil is listed as 5-foot-11 and 248 pounds. However, that 5-11 claim should be investigated. He doesn't appear to be a shade over 5-10.
Still, the Broncos were not deterred.
“We think he could be another Freeney,” Coyer said then. Ironically, Coyer is now Freeney's defensive coordinator in Indianapolis.
So, if Coyer's quarterback, Peyton Manning, becomes another name on Dumervil's long list of sack victims Sunday when the 8-4 Broncos visit the 12-0 Colts, it will be partly Coyer's fault.
Dumervil, drafted in the same round as Denver star receiver Brandon Marshall, has been a major reason for the Broncos' success in the first year of the coach Josh McDaniels era.
Dumervil leads the NFL with 15 sacks. He needs one more sack to tie Simon Fletcher for the Denver season record of 16 sacks, which Fletcher set in 1992. Dumervil is on pace for 20 sacks. Only seven players have registered at least 20 sacks in a season since the NFL began to recognize the sack as an official statistic in 1982. Dumervil is eight sacks from breaking Michael Strahan's season sack record of 22.5 set in the 2001 season.
“ 'Doom' " is amazing,” said Denver linebacker Andra Davis, calling his teammate by his nickname. “God has blessed him with an incredible ability to sack the quarterback.”
While breaking the record this season might be a long shot, Dumervil has thrived against long odds.
“He's a guy you root for but then you ask yourself how he'd fit in the defense,” Gary Horton of Scouts Inc. said. “But he is just a natural pass-rusher. He may be small, but he engages. He knows how to use his pads and get leverage. He plays much bigger than he actually is.”
Dumervil showed sparks of becoming a high quality NFL pass-rusher in his first three NFL seasons. He had 26 sacks in three seasons entering this one, including 12.5 in 2007. However, Dumervil is having his best season, Horton believes, because he is playing the position that best suits him.
When McDaniels took over the Broncos in January, he hired former San Francisco head coach Mike Nolan to be the defensive coordinator and to run a 3-4 defense. Dumervil was a situational defensive end in the 4-3 for the past three seasons in Denver.
Now, though, he is an outside linebacker in the 3-4. Dumervil is an every-down player. When he isn't rushing, he darts back into coverage.
“He's a rugged player,” Horton said. “He can play every down.”
Dumervil, 25, said he feels at home in the new scheme. Despite his size, Dumervil said he knows he belongs on the field at all times. Speaking as if he were well aware of the pun, Dumervil said he prides himself on being on the field for “big-boy downs.”
“I'm still learning this defense and I think I have a long way to go,” Dumervil said. “But it fits me. I'm comfortable with this defense.”
While he is on the cusp of becoming an NFL household name because of his huge sack numbers this season, Dumervil said he is not overly enamored with collecting sacks. He enjoys getting sacks, but he enjoys the process better.
Dumervil had 78 sacks in high school. He set the NCAA single-game sack record with six and broke former Syracuse star Freeney's Big East single-season sack total as a senior. Now that's he is on pace to become part of the elite 20-sack club, Dumervil isn't going to stray from the process.
“I just enjoy playing well and the fact that I'm getting the opportunity to get to the quarterback,” Dumervil said. “Our defense is doing well (Denver's defense is ranked third in the NFL overall and second against the pass). That's what is satisfying. If I had all these sacks and we were ranked 30th, it wouldn't mean much. But I'm excited that my sacks are helping this team win. That's why I'm here.”
It all began with a trip to the beach.