Updated: July 28, 12:59 PM ET
Griese shouldering plenty of pressure in Denver
By John Clayton
GREELEY, Colo. -- Rod Smith, as one of the emotional leaders of the Broncos, knew his task. He had to put a smiley face on Brian Griese's troubled offseason. Sure, Griese fell face first in Terrell Davis' driveway during a party. Sure, Griese had a minor fender bender during a funeral procession.
So Smith came to Griese with a couple of requests. Smile. Laugh. Have some fun. Based on the opening of camp, Griese listened. Asked about being under as much pressure as any player in football, Griese laughed. "Like there could be more?" he said. Questioned about his interesting offseason of public snafus, Griese snickered.
Robin Williams, he isn't but he's the franchise quarterback on a franchise that has the highest of standards. All Broncos eyes look to him for leadership. John Elway he isn't. Shannon Sharpe said it best. Elway would come over to every competition going on in the locker room and see if he could get in on the action. Griese would rather stay to himself, read the playbook or read a book.
Here's the dilemma. The Broncos strive for Super Bowls, year in and year out. They have 100-catch, 1,000-yard receivers. They have more 1,000-yard running backs than any other team. They have an offensive line designed to be the best. Griese is a 60 percent thrower, but he has just a 50 percent record as a starter (19-19). He's never won three in a row.
"He has no choice," Smith said of Griese. "He has to enjoy himself. The only way you can take the pressure off is by laughing and enjoying yourself. All of us are going to make mistakes. But if you sit there and dwell on it, you are going to make another one. You are going to make the same one you just made."
Smith would have been proud hearing Griese's interview. He mouthed the words that Smith preached. This is a kid's game. Years ago, Smith said, you wanted just to be in the NFL. Now, you are there. Have fun. Enjoy it. Griese is playing under a $39 million contract. Don't forget the days when football was a game played by teammates whose jerseys weren't uniform and the sport was fun.
Don't worry, be happy.
"I take it day by day and focus on what I have to do," Griese said. "Some of the things that happened were mistakes on my part. Some weren't as bad as they were made out to be. So, I keep my head down and work hard."
From the sounds of his teammates, they don't care about his asphalt pratfalls or driving mistakes. They want a leader. They want efficiency on offense, things that Griese displayed at times throughout his career. Before suffering a third-degree shoulder separation during a Raiders victory in 2000, Griese played as well as any quarterback in the NFL that year. No one questioned his personality or lack there of. In the NFL, it's all about winning.
"Brian came into a situation where he replaced not just a franchise quarterback, but the franchise quarterback, John Elway," Sharpe said. "The one thing that I stressed to Griese is that you have got to be Brian. You can't be coaxed into being something you are not. If you are not a raw-raw guy or not a guy that slaps players on the butt after a touchdown, then don't do it. You have to be who you are. You have to be the best Brian Griese there is."
That's where the Broncos believe they have hope. Adding Sharpe back to the mix, Griese doesn't have to worry about butt slaps or high fives. Sharpe's personality carries a locker room. The mention of Sharpe even brought out a little humor in Griese.
So far, Sharpe hasn't verbally harassed the Broncos starting quarterback.
"He better not, or I'm going to throw high over the middle," Griese said.
Don't discount that statement. Griese gets the advise of Smith. Griese talked about being fortunate to be playing a kid's game and getting paid. Those were Smith's thoughts, but Griese was willing to share them with newcomers to the offense.
"Brian's never going to be the guy who jumps into a guy's arm after a touchdown," Sharpe said. "That's just not who he is. But if he goes out and methodically does his job, I think he's going to be fine. He understands that he is being paid like a franchise quarterback. Mike Shanahan has a lot of faith in this year. He believed in him when no one else did. One year, it really worked great for us (in 2000). Last year, things kinda regressed. But I think he understands what he has to do and what is expected of him. I think he's going to do a really good job for us this year."
Because of Griese, the Broncos are the most difficult team to figure out in the NFL. They have the talents of a top-five offense and a top-five defense. Yet the record since the Elway left has been average. Is it all about the quarterback?
"On paper, we're pretty good," Griese said. "We have some older guys who have been around and some younger guys who have a lot of talent. But we have to come together as a team. You look at New England. They didn't have as much talent as some of the teams they beat, but the deciding factor is being there for each other on every play."
Shanahan still comes to the defense of Griese, but he knows that it's time for the quarterback to perform like a $39 million asset.
"It's like Baltimore last year, " Shanahan said. "Everybody blamed Elvis Grbac, but they lost two offensive tackles and their running back. Tennessee, weren't they the No. 1 defense two years ago? They finished something like 28th. There's a reason for those things. Sometimes, you've got to be lucky."
The Broncos haven't been lucky with injuries of late. Halfback Terrell Davis has battled knee and foot problems for three seasons. Wide receiver Ed McCaffrey is coming off a horrible broken leg. Rod Smith is about 90 percent while recovering from a stress fracture in a leg. Despite that, Shanahan has assembled his deepest set of receivers and backs in his eight years as head coach. And the defense is loaded with big defensive linemen, big, quick linebackers and tall, angular cornerbacks.
"There is no question we're going to be a top five offense," Sharpe said. "There is no reason for us not to be a top five defense. We've got to take better care of the ball. Brian admits he made mistakes last year. You've got to look at the play and it's not there, you've got to live to see another day. Sometimes, a quarterback gets caught up thinking, `Let me try to make this play."'
Griese threw 19 interceptions last season. That can't happen again. He's a $39 million quarterback, and impatience is growing to a point that he must step up or the organization will start thinking change after this season.
"Brian Griese has got to play better," Shanahan said. "He's got to pick up his game. When you lose players because of injury, a quarterback has to get the players to come in to play well. When you lose players, there is no complaining about the players you lose. What you try to do is encourage the players."
Shanahan remains supportive because Griese did play Pro Bowl ball two years ago and he started last season with two three-touchdown games. He's mingling more with his teammates, and he's following Smith's advice -- he's laughing more.
Smith even vowed to hire a comedian to follow him around if Griese looks down. In fact, Smith told Griese not to have a frown even if he throws five interceptions in a game.
"As a quarterback, you can be a lightning rod for your team in a positive way, but also in a negative way by putting them in a bad situation," Griese said.
Whether the Broncos finish 8-8 or 12-4 will depend on which lightning rod Griese becomes.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.