Broncos camp: Home to second (or third or fourth) chances
The names stick out on the roster like Martha Stewart would stick out if she were in prison. Oops, bad analogy.Um, a few new names on the Broncos training camp roster this summer stick out like Paris Hilton at bingo night. Yeesh.OK, you get the point. How about this?On Friday, the Denver Broncos will begin auditions for an experimental form of live theater in Englewood. Mike Shanahan is again directing, and his newly madeover cast has chosen the working title of “Secondchanceville” for this season’s play, slated for a 17-week run starting in September, with the option of encore performances beginning in January.Playing the role of the washed-up, slow-as-a-Yugo, 42-year-old greatest receiver of all time will be Jerry Rice, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders and most recently of the Seattle Seahawks. Maurice Clarett, previously of Ohio State infamy, is slated for the role of the little rookie that could – as in could run, could catch, could lie, could cheat on exams and could run a 40 slower than “The Fridge” and still get drafted in the third round.There’s also former Heisman winner Ron Dayne, playing the role of a never-was to complement Rice’s has-been performance. Supporting roles include Todd Sauerbrun, whom you may know as the punter who took steroids, and the former Cleveland Browns defensive line, including letdowns Courtney Brown, Ebenezer Ekuban, Gerard Warren and Michael Myers.Broncos fans, are you ready for some Paxil? Are you ready for the weirdest training camp in NFL history?Somebody check Mike Shanahan’s blood temperature, I think he’s gone warm. The guy who mercilessly pulled the plug on Bubby Brister in the preseason after the Bubster helped his team to a second Super Bowl win the year before, and who sent packing, in succession, 1,500-yard rushers Olandis Gary, Clinton Portis and Reuben Droughns – and was thinking of trading Mike Anderson! – has suddenly developed a soft spot for the discarded and the passed over. Shanahan has famously made a reputation of finding talent in odd places (see Terrell Davis), but this offseason supercedes that.Last offseason, the Broncos made headlines by trading Portis, a franchise running back, for a franchise shutdown corner in Champ Bailey. The trade, so far, looks to have gone in Denver’s favor. So, one point for Master Mike.This year, however, it’s still up in the air as to whether Big Mike’s Bargain Basement Blowout – a fire sale in which the Broncs seemingly picked up every big name under the sun who, aside from Rice, hasn’t lived up to big expectations – will pan out and propel Denver to its first playoff win in the post-Elway era. With Elway, Shanahan went 47-17 and earned two Super Bowl rings. Since Lucky No. 7 rode off into the sunset, coach Shanahan has gone 54-42, which includes a pair of embarrassing losses in the playoffs to the Indianapolis Colts in the past two seasons.
With the Raiders adding the league’s most dangerous weapon, Randy Moss, and the bruising running of tailback Lamont Jordan, and the Chiefs finally shelling out some money on defense, a number of NFL pundits have dubbed the AFC West as the toughest division in football. The Chargers return virtually the same team that won the division last year, and the Broncos return all 11 offensive starters from last season’s 10-6 team.Questions abound throughout the division, but Denver is undoubtedly the toughest team to diagnose, and for good reason. Who knows what to make of these Broncos? Will this team finally make a postseason run? Or, will it miss the playoffs for the first time in two years and cost Shanahan his job?Here are five questions that hang heavily in Bronco Nation’s hearts as the dog days of summer begin:1. Will Jerry Rice make the roster?Yes, most likely. Although to think that there’s a possibility that Jerry Rice, the NFL’s all-time career leader in any receiving category that matters, could possibly lose a spot to no names like Triandos Luke, Charlie Adams or Romar Crenshaw is reason enough to convince Rice that he should have retired as early as 2000.Rice said he signed with the Broncos because he wanted to go out on his own terms. Jerry, please, if you get cut, how is that your own terms? That’s football’s terms, telling you the game has passed you by. Rice might have a season to make us all bite our tongues and savor his greatness. As it looks now, however, this has MJ in Washington, or Joe Namath with the Rams written all over it. To think that the divine No. 80 will be wearing No. 19 because another receiver on the roster has less to prove than Rice does is a sad state of affairs in itself. Shanahan might be having visions of 1994, when he and Rice won a Super Bowl in San Francisco, but this is 2005 and Rice is 42 – yes, 42 – years old.2. Will the Cleveland Four make a difference?There’s no denying that these Browns were in The Doghouse before they came to Denver, especially former No. 1 pick Brown. With the signing of Brown, Warren, Ekuban and Myers, and the resigning of Trevor Pryce, the Broncos begin training camp with 18 defensive linemen on the roster. Competition for the eight or nine spots available should arguably be the most intense in camp, aside from the traffic jam in the backfield.Hopefully, the Cleveland Four will make an immediate impact. One of the most glaring weaknesses in the playoff loss to Indy last year was a nonexistent pass rush.
Denver needed to improve up front, but as to whether this is the answer – that remains to be seen. Denver did get the Cleveland Four for a bargain price via free agency, so that’s good. This also bodes well – each player knows, considering how much they underachieved in Cleveland, that this may be their last shot to prove something in the NFL.Shanahan likes guys on the ropes who have something to fight for, like Davis, Droughns and Rod Smith, so this could be a good fit. Defensive coordinator Larry Coyer even went so far as to compare Brown to a young Trevor Pryce.Let’s just hope he doesn’t continue to play like a young Courtney Brown. 3. Is Sauerbrun a distraction or a good pickup?This is the most telling stat as to why Denver picked up the oft-maligned punter from Carolina. The Broncos opponents’ average starting field position was the 32-yard line last season. In Carolina meanwhile, Sauerbrun placed 25 punts inside the 25. Also, of his 21 kickoffs, opponents averaged 21 yards per return.The thin air at Invesco Field should give Denver fans reason enough to believe that Sauerbrun can help the team this season, even if he is off the juice, and even if he is a jerk.If Sauerbrun doesn’t squirm at the end of Shanahan’s leash and says all the right things, he should make a good addition. Field position is one of the most critical stats in the parity ridden NFL, and Shanahan made the move because he thought Sauerbrun could give his team a leg up.4. Which running back will get cut?As of right now, the player most likely to get axed by Shanahan in the preseason is former starter Quentin Griffin. The former Oklahoma standout, despite a few solid games last season, displayed a chronic case of fumblitis at times and has often been injured.
He has a chance of latching on as a kick returner, but that’s still a big question mark. Griffin is fun to watch with a running style reminiscent of another great back who played college ball in Oklahoma, Hall-of-Famer and Heisman winner Barry Sanders. If he wants to keep running like Barry, Griffin needs to have a big preseason. Want more proof? The Broncos are going to give Maurice Clarett every chance to succeed in the NFL, even if that means he only makes the practice squad this season. Also, Ron Dayne is supposedly more svelte than he’s ever been, and there’s reason to believe the former Heismann winner could be a great change-up to slasher Tatum Bell in the backfield. The Great Dayne likes to run north and south, which is a perfect fit for the system in Denver. As for Mike Anderson, he’ll make the roster, just because he’s proved to Shanahan before that he can be effective as a tailback or as a mauler at fullback. 5. Will the Broncos make the playoffs?The fan in me says yes, but the realist says no. Despite the high-profile acquisitions, the Broncos still don’t have an answer for Jake Plummer – the generic version of John Elway. Having been in the system for three years, Plummer should feel more comfortable than ever running Shanahan’s offense. Every starter on offense returns, too, which means that the Broncos should be in synch coming out of the preseason, while the Raiders will still be ironing out the kinks.That doesn’t mean that Plummer won’t throw 20 interceptions again, which more than anything was Denver’s demise last year. If he threw the same number of picks last year to the same guys, common sense suggests that Plummer’s bad habits will show up again – probably during Denver’s stretch run. If the Broncos make the playoffs and win for the first time since 1999, Shanahan may well earn his moniker of Mastermind back. If the Broncos fail to do so, the ringmaster might be sent packing – possibly with the rest of his newly formed traveling circus.Nate Peterson can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.Vail, Colorado