1999 NFL Preview
Weekly lineup

 Tuesday, September 7
No one can take Duke's throne
By Buddy Martin
Special to ESPN.com

  DENVER -- Maybe there was just no way to make the transition from "Duke" to Bubby. Perhaps it was a leap of faith that not even Rev. Billy Graham could have made, let alone the coach of the NFL champion Denver Broncos.

 Bubby Brister
Bubby Brister could not run away from the lasting legacy of John Elway.

Therefore, the would-be heir to John Elway's position got the gate before he ever got the job. And Mike Shanahan rocked the Rockies.

This week, the Mile High City has been ablaze with opinions about Shanahan's controversial, knee-jerk decision to bench Bubby Brister in favor of Brian Griese. After six weeks of denying any quarterback controversy and hailing Brister as his No. 1 man, Shanahan pulled the plug on Bubby, sparking a media frenzy.

That frenzy was fueled even further when Brister bitterly expressed his anger in a press conference, implying he had been betrayed. "I'm still 5-0 as a starter around here," he said Wednesday, "in the regular season where it counts. And I've earned the right to start opening day, in my opinion. Obviously Mike doesn't feel that way, but I disagree with him."

So the story is back on the front burner again.

Radio talk shows are feasting and most of the sentiment is for Brister.

All three of Denver's major TV stations led Monday's 5 p.m. newscasts with the Brister benching. It was the lead story in Tuesday's Denver Rocky Mountain News. The Denver Post also elected to play it high up on page one.

Three of the city's highest-profile sports columnists roundly criticized the Broncos coach for not keeping his word to Brister. Around here, questioning of Shanahan, alias "The Mastermind,"is like telling Einstein his theory on relativity is bogus.

The Broncos changing quarterbacks is rarer than a mid-summer snowstorm. Since Elway took office in 1983, America has seen three sitting presidents. The Nuggets' then-star player, Dan Issel, retired, came back as coach, quit to go in private business, and is now the team's general manager. Denver has picked up a Stanley Cup-winning NHL franchise and a Major League Baseball team. And, of course, the Broncos have attended five Super Bowls, winning the last two.

This, after all, is now Titletown USA, the football capital of North America, home of perpetual 75,000-plus sellouts. And the home of Denver's "Duke," the John Wayne of NFL quarterbacks. No wonder a successor named Bubby feels like a typographical error.

For 16 years Broncos fans were treated to a quarterbacking concerto. Then the maestro arrived at that historical precipice with a chance to accomplish something no other NFL quarterback ever has. Surprisingly, "Duke" walked away from the gunfight and a chance for a Super Bowl threepeat.

May 2, 1999 became "The Day The Music Died" for Broncos fans. It was exactly 16 years to the day that the Broncos signed Elway. Many Bronco fans are still grieving over Elway's departure. Enter Bubby.

In relief as a starter last season, Brister had actually posted excellent stats in four games and wound up with a better quarterback rating than Elway for '98. Solid enough to be penciled in as the starter.

Brister played the good soldier, showing up to pay his respects at Elway's tearful news conference. When the news conference ended, the media turned around only to discover that Brister had split, although many of his teammates talked on. He hadn't wanted to detract in any way from John Elway's day.

Shanahan sold Bubby as his man. But opening the first two games with interceptions on the first play didn't exactly endear Brister to the coaches or his teammates. Clearly, Elway's replacement was feeling the heat. Brister's ineptitude seemed contagious to the rest of the Bronco offense.

It's not totally Bubby's fault he didn't measure up, although somebody must be blamed for those three interceptions and failing to throw a touchdown pass in four preseason games. Next to a Monet or a Picasso, however, Brister was always going to look like Andy Warhol.

Just shy of four months after grabbing the torch, Brister was burned by it. The job has now been promised to a redshirt freshman. But Brian Griese, the son of quarterbacking legend Bob Griese of the Miami Dolphins, has to battle against the ghost of Elway while trying to fulfill his father's legacy.

Brian will make his NFL debut on Monday night, Sept. 13 -- which, incidentally, also happens to be the night Elway's No. 7 will be retired.

A large segment of media pundits had projected Chris Miller as the starter by no later than midseason. Staging a comeback after a three-year absence from football following serious head injuries, Miller posted an impressive half against San Diego. But Miller suffered tendinitis in his throwing arm and the former Pro Bowler missed the next three preseason games.

Meanwhile, Griese came on in the second half of those games and immediately moved the team, throwing for four touchdowns. Even though he did it against mostly scrubs, Griese made Brister's shaky preseason look even shakier. Shanahan moved swiftly.

Now it's a game of Quarterback Roulette in Denver. Was this another ingenious stroke by Shanahan, or a panic move? Now that Bubby has been exiled to the bench, can Shanahan ever go back to him for relief help?

After all, there is the fairness issue. If it's true that preseason games really don't count, as NFL coaches swear, then how can you lose your job before the season starts?

We hear so much about "The Mastermind" and "The System." We were led to believe you could plug in somebody from the World League at quarterback and the Broncos would automatically march to a threepeat.

They had discounted the aura of greatness. Elway's absence impacts his former teammates in more ways that just his lack of physical presence. It's a the mystical thing, too. One day they looked up in the huddle and saw No. 6 instead of No. 7. Superman didn't live there anymore.

Bubby Brister was the sacrificial lamb.

The myth of John Elway has taken wings, and he will be even larger in mythology than he was in real life. Nobody will ever replace him. So far nobody's even been able to succeed him. His apparition still dominates Mile High.

For whatever reason the Broncos have yet to officially put Elway's name on the retired list with the NFL. This is only perpetuating more fantasies. "No chance," said owner Pat Bowlen when asked about Elway coming back.

Still, there are those who will hold out for the fictional ending. Like John Wayne, Denver's "Duke" always found a way to win at the end.

They can see it now: It's a Sunday in late November, and the snow is flying at Mile High Stadium. The Broncos need just a couple of more wins to make the playoffs and challenge for the threepeat. The p.a. announcer is reeling off the names of the starting lineup and 75,000 are waiting for the identity of the starting quarterback.

When he gets to that final name, it's not Brister or Miller or Griese.

Who will it be? Suddenly the doors below the South stands swing open and a great white horse rears. The pale rider is wearing No. 7. "Duke" has come back to save the city.

Bubby Brister just couldn't win against that kind of fantasy.

Buddy Martin is a contributor to ESPN.com.


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