| ||For years, the Broncos fretted about the time when the only No. 7 in Mile High Stadium would be the one displayed in the Ring of Fame. Now the time is here. No. 7 is out pushing beer while his former teammates are thinking about season-ending champagne.
BRONCOS AT A GLANCE
Last year: 14-2, first place in AFC West. Beat
Atlanta 34-19 in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Key returnees:: RB Terrell Davis (NFL MVP, 2,008 yards); WR Rod
Smith (86 rec., 1,222 yards, 6 TDs); TE Shannon Sharpe (64 rec., 768
yards); LB Bill Romanowski (95 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 3 FF)
New faces: CB Dale Carter (UFA, Chiefs)
New places: QB John Elway (retired), S Steve Atwater (Jets), RT
Harry Swayne (Ravens), CB/PR Darrien Gordon (Raiders), LB Keith Burns
Watch out: QB Bubby Brister was intent on proving he won't crash
Mike Shanahan's Ferrari of an offense. That didn't last the preseason, and now kid Brian Griese gets the keys.
Better than '98: Added speed on special teams and defense and more
depth make this a better overall team.
Worse than '98: There's only one way to go after reaching the top,
especially with a tough schedule.
-- Scripps Howard News Service
And even without No. 7, they do not sound particularly worried.
"People are going to be focusing to see, 'What are the Broncos going to be like without John Elway?' " linebacker Bill Romanowski said. "I think they're going to be surprised. A lot of people are saying, 'Well, they're not going to be as good without John.' Well, I'll tell you what: They've got another thing coming, because we're going to be a great football team."
Of course, it is easy to sound that way when the football season has not yet kicked off, and the Broncos have not yet been pinned deep, and facing fourth-and-game. But this team truly believes it is just as talented without Elway. And there is a reason.
During the offseason, the Broncos signed one of the game's premier cornerbacks, former Chief Dale Carter. They drafted two budding stars in linebacker Al Wilson and cornerback Chris Watson. And amazingly enough, even with two straight Super Bowl victories, this team still has not lost a position coach or coordinator to another team since Mike Shanahan came back to Denver in 1995. Continuity counts.
Now, the Broncos did lose some continuity. Gone are Elway, veteran safety Steve Atwater, play-making cornerback Darrien Gordon, kick returner Vaughn Hebron, crafty right tackle Harry Swayne and inspirational special-teams leader Keith Burns.
But what else is gone? The nervousness the Broncos had about life after Elway.
Here's a position-by-position look at Denver's roster:
After Elway retired, it was assumed in most quarters that Bubby Brister would take over under center. But he had a shaky preseason while second-year man Brian Griese looked sharp.
So, before Denver's final preseason game, Shanahan inserted Griese as the starter. The former Michigan QB, who led the Wolverines to a share of the national title in '97, has picked up the system well but is unproven, having thrown just three regular-season passes. Brister now returns to the backup role in which he excelled last season. The question is still open on whether his confidence is intact. Former Pro Bowler Chris Miller is the No. 3 quarterback after three-plus seasons away from the game. His concussion problems seem to be under control, but elbow tendinitis has kept him off the field for much of the preseason. Grade: B-
There's only one real issue facing the Broncos: Can the quarterback, from a mental standpoint, back off enough from thinking he has to replace John Elway? Simply, no one can replace Elway.
Sure, the Broncos have big shoes to fill. But Brian Griese, who's now the starter, needs to just let the other 10 players make the plays on the field for him. Elway had the ability to carry the Broncos, especially in the final two minutes, but one player shouldn't have to carry the other 10. It should be the other 10 players carrying the quarterback.
The Broncos are still strong at every position. They have improved their defense, have a great running game and a wonderful receiving corps. As the two-time champions, they should be thinking threepeat, with or without Elway, and they are a team that should win 11 games with anyone at quarterback.
More and more, NFL MVP Terrell Davis is going to be seeing eight- and even nine-man defensive fronts. Of course, this is nothing he hasn't seen before, and it hasn't slowed him much yet. Davis returned to training camp this summer in as fine shape as he was last season, when he rushed for 2,008 yards.
Davis still has the underrated Howard Griffith blocking for him at fullback, still has the underrated Derek Loville backing him up and still has defenses looking for ways to bring him down before he brings them down. Grade: A
There aren't two harder-working, more unselfish receivers in the league than Rod Smith and Ed McCaffrey. Both receivers are workout junkies, terrific and underappreciated blockers and capable of going to the Pro Bowl. While McCaffrey went to Honolulu last season after totaling 1,053 receiving yards and 10 TD catches, it was Smith who actually had the better statistical season. Smith finished second in the AFC in both catches (86) and yards (1,222), yet he did not get selected to the Pro Bowl.
The big question is who the No. 3 receiver will be. Through the early part of camp, it appeared Andre Cooper was outplaying '98 first-round pick Marcus Nash. Now that TE Shannon Sharpe has taken a vow of silence, he is no longer a reporter's best friend. However, Griese still can count on him as a go-to guy. Grade: A-
No line in the NFL works better as a unit than Denver's. None of the starters weighs more than 300 pounds, making them both the best and the lightest. The line's emerging leader is center Tom Nalen, who was selected to the Pro Bowl last season. On the left side, with Tony Jones at tackle and Mark Schlereth at guard, Denver has strength and experience.
On the right side, with Daniel Neil at guard and either Trey Teague or Matt Lepsis at tackle, the Broncos have youth and talent. Thanks to OL coach Alex Gibbs -- a man dubbed "Napoleon on speed" by his players -- it is an ideal mix. Grade: A
The Broncos are expecting more production out of their defensive ends this season. In each of the past two years, Maa Tanuvasa has finished with 8½ sacks. This season, the Broncos intend to give him more opportunities to rush the passer. At the other end, Alfred Williams has finally recovered from the torn triceps that sidelined him for most of the first half of last season.
There might be better individual defensive tackles in the league than Keith Traylor and Trevor Pryce, but the Broncos believe no tandem is better. Both Traylor and Pryce are underrated.
Denver's defensive front has good depth, allowing the Broncos to rotate eight linemen. Also expected to see some action are second-round pick Montae Reagor, Harald Hasselbach, Cyron Brown and Mike Lodish. Grade: B+
In his new motivational book of business strategy, "Think Like a Champion," Shanahan says that John Mobley has the talent to become the finest linebacker who has ever played the game -- if he is willing to work as hard as strong-side LB Romanowski. Mobley is a skilled weak-side linebacker who has had some off-field struggles to go along with his on-field success.
Romanowski, 33, seems to get better every year, and the Broncos signed him to a five-year contract extension in July. MLB Glenn Cadrez missed three preseason games after undergoing knee surgery, but he is expected to reclaim his starting job from impressive rookie Wilson, a natural-born leader and playmaker. Grade: A-
As is the case at wide receiver and defensive tackle, the Broncos have a fine tandem at cornerback in Carter and Ray Crockett. In the past, opposing quarterbacks would throw away from Crockett. Now, with Carter covering the opposition's top receiver, Crockett is likely to get more action and more interceptions.
There is talent at safety, but there are also questions. The Broncos are counting on FS Eric Brown to fill the void left by Atwater. If Brown can stay healthy, he certainly has the talent to do it. Tyrone Braxton, Darrius Johnson and George Coghill battled for the starting SS job throughout the preseason. Braxton is the incumbent, but Johnson, who put on 19 pounds of muscle during the offseason (without losing any speed) to help his move from cornerback to safety, could supplant him.
The Broncos also are especially deep at cornerback, with third-round pick Watson winning the team's nickel-DB job and Tory James expected to be even better-recovered from the knee injury he suffered before the 1997 season. Grade: A-
Jason Elam and Tom Rouen resume their roles as the Broncos' steady placekicker and punter, respectively. The one special-teams concern the Broncos have this season is return men. Denver elected not to re-sign Hebron or Gordon and went into camp hoping for somebody to emerge. Somebody did -- Watson. He stepped up and was the Broncos' biggest surprise of training camp. The Broncos thought he could play; they just didn't realize he would be ready to do it so soon. Still, he has not returned either a punt or kickoff during a regular-season NFL game, and the one thing the Broncos have been emphasizing to him is holding on to the ball. Grade: B
Material from Pro Football Weekly.
Visit their web site at http://www.profootballweekly.com
Garber: Threepeat quite a feat
The day that rocked the Rockies
Focal Point: Is Griese good enough?
Focal Point: Who will ruin threepeat?
A second shot at three in a row
AFC: A Furious Chase
Six have tried, all have failed
Malone: Ten things to watch in '99