- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

DENVER — Maybe it’s true that the Denver Broncos have been a team playing under the radar this season. At the beginning, though, they were drawing some attention — and lighting up the laugh-o-meter.

That’s what happens when a coach who insists his team is close to the Super Bowl tries to take the next step by:

• Drafting a malcontent running back.

• Trading for a punter with purported steroid issues.

• Signing an aging superstar receiver.

• Making a variety of moves to bring in the entire set of defensive linemen, along with the position coach, from a team that ranked last in the league in rushing defense.

Indeed, Denver’s locker room resembled a three-ring circus five months ago. But now, the Broncos are a win away from going to the Super Bowl. Mike Shanahan is looking like a genius for the chances he took.

And, not surprisingly, the snickering has stopped.

“It’s taking chances,” Shanahan said in a recent interview. “What I do is, if someone’s got a checkered past, I’m not afraid to talk about their checkered past. I let them know I don’t care about their past, I just care about what they do when they come to this football team.”

Some guys made it, some didn’t.

Jerry Rice got his tryout, but couldn’t beat out Darius Watts, who has since fallen to fifth on the Denver depth chart. Rice announced his retirement and is now appearing on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars” and will be a judge in this weekend’s Miss America Pageant in Las Vegas.

Maurice Clarett got his chance, too. A surprise third-round pick, Clarett was a bust pretty much from the day he reported to Dove Valley. Hurt, not able to fit in with the team, the high-profile running back didn’t make it through the first round of cuts. Clarett is waiting to see if a grand jury will indict him on aggravated robbery charges.

Did the coach feel silly for making these moves?

“You can’t worry about what people say about you,” he said. “You do what’s in the best interest of your organization. Sometimes, it’s taking chances and sometimes when you take chances you make mistakes. You just can’t be afraid to say you made a mistake and you’re going in a different direction.”

But for every mistake Shanahan made this season, there was a success — or two, or three.

Start with punter Todd Sauerbrun.

He was considered poison after his final season in Carolina. Accused of using steroids, in trouble for drunken driving, ridiculed for his running feuds with the Gramatica brothers, he looked like the kind of guy to avoid, no matter how strong his leg.

The Broncos actually went out of their way to get him. They traded their own punter, Jason Baker, and a seventh-round pick and spent more than a few weeks negotiating a contract. This season, Sauerbrun has been solid and quiet. He came in second in team voting for special teams captain. The biggest news he has made came last week, when he made a tackle on a kickoff and forced a fumble that led to a field goal against New England.

“I gave him the guidelines of what was expected here,” Shanahan said. “And he’s been perfect since the day he got here.”

Nearly lost in all the laughter was Denver’s low-profile decision to sign Ron Dayne to a free-agent contract.

A bust with the Giants, he only made third string in Denver. But he had a key role in winning two of the team’s 13 games this regular season — in Week 2, when he ran for 38 yards during a late, game-winning drive, and on Thanksgiving Day, when his 55-yard run in overtime set up the winning score against Dallas.

Then, the crown jewel: The decision to bring on — in four separate transactions — all four starting defensive linemen from last year’s Cleveland Browns, along with the man who coached them, Andre Patterson.

The Browns were ranked last in the NFL in rush defense in 2004. In the preseason, Patterson and the linemen — Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Ebenezer Ekuban and Michael Myers — kept insisting there was more to those stats than meets the eye. Over 17 regular- and postseason games, it turned out they were right.

“Sure, I heard it and you take it personally,” said Warren of the jokes the Denver moves engendered. “But you don’t let it get to you. In Denver, they were willing to give us another chance. You use it as a motivator.”

While their stats have not been overly impressive — Denver’s 28 sacks were third-fewest in the league — their overall production has. With the line creating pressure, if not sacks, the Broncos created 36 turnovers this year, fourth most in the league and 16 more than in 2004.

Now, thanks to all these changes, the Broncos are the envy of the league — one of only four teams left.

That’s hardly something to laugh at.

“In Cleveland, we were always talking about rebuilding, winning the next game,” Warren said. “Here, they talk about winning a championship from Day 1. That’s a big difference, and it’s why I like being here.”

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