1999 NFL Preview
Weekly lineup

 Tuesday, September 7
Threepeat an incredible feat
By Greg Garber
Special to ESPN.com

 The Denver Broncos are walking around these days with new Super Bowl rings featuring 120 diamonds and two horse's heads, representing their back-to-back victories in the NFL's ultimate game.

 Terrell Davis
Terrell Davis is one reason the Broncos have a chance to repeat.

Head coach Mike Shanahan, however, is not blinded by the glitter and gold. After the Broncos' 27-12 preseason loss to Green Bay on Aug. 23, he went ballistic, complaining about a general lack of concentration and too many mistakes. Quarterback Bubby Brister's very first pass was intercepted by the Packers, which is hardly the way to set the tone for a game.

On Sunday night, the Broncos fell into a 22-0 hole to the Dallas Cowboys before losing 22-12. Imagine Shanahan's fury after the Broncos' second consecutive preseason stinker.

Wide receiver Rod Smith has felt Shanahan's wrath before.

"You've got to deal with it because his standards are high," Smith said after the loss to the Packers. "That's the whole thing. The standards are so high around here, it's hard to live up to them on a day-to-day basis."

Added fullback Howard Griffith, "One of the worst things ... we were on national television, and we didn't play well at all, and probably everybody's going to be fired up for us. A lot of people saw that performance, and a lot of people already thought we were a pretty beatable team, especially not having John Elway. I think we gave them more ammo."

Like the NFL's other teams needed any more. The rest of the league has grown tired of watching Denver dominate the recent postseason and with the departure of their Hall of Fame quarterback, there is a feeling that someone else, anyone else -- perhaps Minnesota or Jacksonville or the New York Jets -- will walk away with the Vince Lombardi Trophy next January.

Still, the Broncos have a chance to do something no team has done in XXXIII years of Super Bowls. They have a chance to threepeat.

Six teams have tried. Six teams have failed: Green Bay 1966-67, Miami 1972-73, Pittsburgh 1974-75, Pittsburgh 1978-79, San Francisco 1988-89, Dallas 1992-93. Denver is the seventh. Be advised that not one of those teams even made it back to the Super Bowl the next year.

Of course, the Buffalo Bills played in an unprecedented four consecutive Super Bowls from 1990-93. In some ways, that consistent excellence is just as remarkable. Or more.

"The key," says ESPN analyst Jim Kelly and the quarterback of those Bills teams, "is forgetting your accomplishments of the year before and refocussing on getting back. You can't live in the past.

Monday, Aug. 30

The Broncos look a little bit sloppy right now. Although their sloppiness is uncharacteristic of a Mike Shanahan-coached team, I realize how overrated the preseason can be.

I believe in Bubby Brister, but I think he might be trying too hard to replace I don't ever question the Broncos' hunger or preparation, but they might be scrambling around saying, "I don't see No. 7's jersey out here." All Brister has to do is manage the team and try not to make mistakes. I think he can do that and be a quarterback who can perform all season.

But Brian Griese is hanging around. He's doing what Brister is not -- managing the offense and making the plays without any pressure. The quarterback controversy will fester unless Brister wins early. If the Broncos are 1-1 or 2-2, that will be a distraction.

Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak will find a way to push the controversy aside, but there are only two ways to end the controversy: winning games and Brister playing good consistent football. For the rest of Brister's career in Denver, Griese's presence will hover. Brister knows and understands that, but I expect Brister to do well and go back to playing like he did last year.

They might be sloppy now, but I still think the Broncos will win 11 games or more because their defense will be improved. Something seems to be missing, though. They can get it back, but if you're going to beat the Broncos, do it early while they are struggling.

Eventually, with Terrell Davis in the backfield and the addition of Dale Carter to the secondary, the Broncos will be fine. Right now, though, there are three or four teams better than Denver.

"I think it can happen, but will it? No. It's a slim chance because everybody's gunning for them."

There is further evidence that it is possible. The 1990 San Francisco 49ers came thisclose to threepeating.

"When we beat the 49ers in the 1990 NFC Championship Game, they were so much on the brink of doing it," says George Young, the longtime Giants general manager and now the NFL's senior vice president for football operations. "If Roger Craig doesn't fumble, if we don't get to the quarterback (Joe Montana) and almost cripple him, it might have happened."

Indeed, the Giants might have been the third-best team in the league that year, behind the 49ers and Bills, who they beat 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV when Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal with just seconds left.

"It makes you think," Young says, "that it's not impossible."

Can Denver do it?
All six teams that repeated returned for the threepeat attempt with their star quarterback under center. Bart Starr was the Packers' Super Bowl MVP both times they won, as was Terry Bradshaw when the Steelers repeated in 1978-79. San Francisco's Joe Montana and Dallas' Troy Aikman were also Super Bowl MVPs. So was Elway, and then he retired to play golf and do beer commercials.

In Elway's place are two journeyman signal-callers, Bubby Brister and Chris Miller, and second-year man Brian Griese, whose father was Miami's starter in 1972-73. Not one of them can adequately replace Elway, a certified Hall of Famer and one of the best to play the position.

"Bubby Brister has a lot of good qualities," Kelly says. "But he's not John Elway. I just hope he doesn't go in thinking he has to carry John's sword into battle. I think all the players realize they'll have to play a little harder, and that will help the Broncos."

For the first time since 1983, Denver has the potential for a quarterback controversy, which can tear the fragile fabric of a team. That prospect and the reduced productivity at quarterback, plus the loss of leadership leaves Denver vulnerable -- no matter how many times Terrell Davis carries the ball.

The Broncos have had remarkable luck with respect to injuries the last two years. Can they stay healthy again?

"We couldn't," says Manny Fernandez, who played defensive end for the Miami Dolphins from 1968-75. Fernandez says injuries cost the Dolphins a chance to threepeat when they lost to the Raiders 28-26 in a first-round playoff game.

"Mentally, that team was sharp enough and smart enough to do it," Fernandez says, "we just weren't physically able to do it. We had only five healthy defensive starters in the Oakland game. We were going with a lot of second-year backups. Doug Swift had a broken arm, Jake Scott and Dick Anderson had bad knees. I played the game with a completely separated shoulder and shredded cartilage in my left knee. Bill Stanfill played with two neck harnesses.

"Today there are more games. Staying healthy for 16 games plus playoffs, there's a little luck involved."

Third time always a charm
It's hard to win anything three years in a row -- a club tennis title or a bowling league, for example -- but championships in the major sports are exceedingly difficult.

Michael Jordan was able to carry the Chicago Bulls to threepeat heights, but he was the best player in the game's history, and he was one of only 10 men on the floor. In football, it is harder to dominate with 22 on the field.

History tell us that championship teams suffer from inertia. While their collective resolve tends to wane with time, another team, gaining resilience in defeat, will eventually end the reign.

"Hungry guys," Young says, "are better soldiers. There are an awful lot of outside influences.

"A lot of it is keeping players at that (high) level. They may be the same people, but they're not the same people. The name is the same on the jersey, but sometimes success makes a player a fat cat."

Clearly, the restrictive salary cap makes it harder for teams to stay great.

"I think the free agency system today hurts the teams on top," Fernandez says. "The players that have been through this great run are making a tremendous amount of money through new contracts. So, you can't really afford to carry quality backups. It happened to Green Bay, it's bothering Dallas and San Francisco. Denver? It's hard to know, they came out of nowhere."

The Broncos' company line is that they are deeper than ever. With the exception of the quarterback position, it might be true.

But there is a brutal schedule to consider. The Broncos play non-division games against the best division in football, the AFC East, as well as games on the road against Jacksonville, Tampa and Detroit, which can be difficult places to win. There are also games against Minnesota and Green Bay.

This is not news to Shanahan and his Broncos. They understand the difficulty of their mission. They are embracing the quest for a third consecutive Super Bowl title.

Just before the Broncos were awarded their newest rings at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs in early June, Shanahan challenged the players to win a record third title.

As Rod Smith says, "We know what it takes to win. It's not just about winning on this team. It's about winning it all."


Focal Point: Who will ruin threepeat?

A second shot at three in a row

Focal Point: Is Griese good enough?

The day that rocked the Rockies

Broncos preview

AFC: A Furious Chase

NFC: Success is fleeting

Oates: Taking a power trip

Passing the torch

Malone: Ten things to watch in '99