This has not been a typical football season in Denver. The 5-4 Broncos, Super Bowl winners in 1997 and 1998 and playoff participants in 1996 and 2000, are tied with upstarts New England and San Diego for the AFC’s final postseason berth. Denver, 29-11 against AFC West rivals the previous five seasons, is 2-3 in division play.
The once-feared Denver offense ranks 12th in passing and rushing and is tied for 18th in sacks per pass (with a new left side of tackle Trey Teague and guard Lennie Friedman replacing the retired duo of Tony Jones and Mark Schlereth).
The defense, which added four free agent starters during the offseason, is 25th in sacks per pass and has allowed more points and passing yards than all but 11 teams. Coach Mike Shanahan, an offensive specialist, was so upset with the defense after a 38-28 loss to archrival Oakland on Nov. 5 that he announced that he would spend more time with that unit.
That was hardly a vote of confidence in first-year coordinator Ray Rhodes, who replaced longtime defensive boss Greg Robinson, whom Shanahan fired after last season.
“Most teams would be happy at 5-4, but for us, it’s a big disappointment,” said wideout Rod Smith, who leads the NFL with 72 catches and 923 receiving yards despite constant defensive pressure as the Broncos’ only downfield threat. “We expect perfection. We know we’re not going to get it, but we strive for it. If we were 9-0, we would still be disappointed in the way some of us are playing. That’s just the way it is around here.”
Smith, center Tom Nalen and linebackers Bill Romanowski and John Mobley are the only healthy starters left from the 1997-1998 champions, so he knows all about the Mile High standards forged during that magnificent 33-6 run.
“We’ve taken our turns, offensively, defensively and on special teams, where we didn’t step up,” Smith said. “We lost division games at Oakland, Seattle and San Diego, games we felt we should have won. Those teams played better than us, and we had to figure out why. We’ve done that and we’re playing better [they avenged the loss to the Chargers last Sunday], but we’re nowhere close to where we should be. If we want to be there in January, we have to step it up now [beginning with tomorrow’s home game against Washington].”
Shanahan is less concerned than Smith about Denver’s situation, perhaps because his team has won two of its last three or because the coach knows the Broncos face just two winning teams (Miami and Oakland) in their final seven games and will have two weeks to prepare for the Raiders because Denver’s bye precedes the rematch.
“Right now the season can go either way,” Shanahan said. “We were 10-1 [in 1996] and Jacksonville was 4-7, and they beat us in our backyard [in a divisional playoff game]. It’s not how you start; it’s how you finish. This is a 16-round fight.”
Despite the loss of standout receiver Ed McCaffrey to a season-ending knee injury in the opener and yet another injury to Super Bowl XXXII MVP Terrell Davis, the Broncos have weapons other than Smith.
Brian Griese is one of four NFL quarterbacks with over 2,000 passing yards (although his career record as a starter is 16-16 compared to sure Hall of Fame predecessor John Elway’s 148-82-1). Davis’ replacements, Mike Anderson and Olandis Gary, have combined for 660 yards. Jason Elam and Tom Rouen are one of the top kicker/punter tandems. Cornerback Deltha O’Neal leads the AFC in interceptions and punt return average. And then there are the Denver fans, who have sold out the past 253 non-strike games.
“We’ve got to overcome a good team, and we’ve got to overcome their crowd,” said Washington coach Marty Schottenheimer, who went home a loser after 10 of his 12 visits to Denver while coaching Cleveland and Kansas City.
Whether it’s the thin air, the fervent fans or the players, the Broncos have been the NFL’s best home team (171-55-1) since 1974. That legacy of success seems to have been transferred from venerable Mile High Stadium next door to spanking new Invesco Field at Mile High, where Denver is 4-1 so far, losing only to Super Bowl champion Baltimore by a touchdown.
“Mile High was special,” Smith said. “But Invesco is going to be just as great. It comes down to winning games. When you’re winning, it doesn’t matter where you play.”