Tag Archives: John Elway

Standing Pat

Pat Bowlen card 8.7.01_0005

The card reproduced above was postmarked Aug. 8, 2001, one day after my column on Pat Bowlen’s pursuit of a new stadium for the Broncos was published in the Rocky Mountain News:

“Dear Dave, Thanks for the nice article. I felt good reading something as nice as that this morning with my coffee. Let’s have another run. You will kick my ass! Pat”

The reference was to a run we shared in Greeley 17 years before, in Bowlen’s first summer as Broncos owner and my first as a Broncos beat writer for the Rocky, which I’d referenced in the column. The joke about feeling good when he read it referred back to a part of the interview in which he described his feelings reading the papers during the stadium campaign.

Here’s the column, published in the Rocky on Aug. 7, 2001:

Always Standing Pat

For Broncos owner Bowlen, running from critics or his beliefs hasn’t been his style

Eighteen summers ago, when Pat Bowlen was the 40-year-old rookie owner of the Denver Broncos, I was a rookie beat writer assigned to cover the team.

Competition between Denver’s daily newspapers on all matters Broncos-related was even fiercer than it is now, in part because there were only two big-league teams in town. Without baseball, our football season began about Memorial Day.

I knew two things about Bowlen: He was Canadian, and he’d just finished 135th out of more than 1,400 competitors in Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon, a remarkable achievement for a man his age. I fancied myself in his league, having run a high-altitude marathon a couple of months earlier. I thought I might use this to my advantage in the ongoing beat war.

I invited the new owner to go for a run between practices in Greeley’s stifling midday heat, thinking we would form a bond and I would get an impeccable source of information.

Math was not my strong suit. I hadn’t bothered to figure his likely training pace. He ran me into the ground, to be blunt about it, and the conversation was kept to a minimum, owing chiefly to my struggle for oxygen.

Having watched any number of his players lose their breakfasts doing Dan Reeves’ suicide sprints, I remember thinking the Broncos might be the only team in sports with an owner in better shape than his players. I wondered if Bowlen’s athletic drive would make him a better owner than most of his brethren, whose idea of exercise remains martini curls in the owner’s box.

And I wondered if he meant it when he said he’d be Broncos owner until they carried him out in a pine box.

All these years later, I have my answers. Now 57, running the Broncos is Bowlen’s life. And as popular a target as he has been in the intervening period, it seems to me undeniable that he has grown into a model owner, maybe the best in sports.

***

In less than three weeks, the Broncos will play their first game in the new $400 million, taxpayer-financed stadium Bowlen worked for years to have built.

Everything about it has been controversial, from the enormous cost to the public financing to the corporate name that defrayed not merely taxpayer expense, but also Bowlen’s.

When you consider it from a Broncos fan’s point of view, there is nothing controversial about it, other than maybe the name. The new stadium provides the local franchise with a state-of-the-art venue and, perhaps more important, state-of-the-art revenue.

Whether such extravagance in the service of sport represents a reasonable public priority is a fair question. But Bowlen’s job is not to determine public priorities. Bowlen’s job is to represent the interests of his team. This he did most successfully.

“The process was remarkable when you look back at what happened and where we’re at now,” he told me. “We really started this thing back in the mid-’90s, and here we are a few weeks from playing a game there, and a month from opening up Monday night, in a facility that I believe is the best ever. I really do.

“Of course, everybody laughs, ‘Hey, there’s Bowlen boasting and bragging, self-serving statements,’ but I’ve been in all the stadiums and I think I can have a slightly objective view, and I think history will show it as being one of the better stadiums built, especially for football.”

His role as the point man in a campaign to win public financing made him a lightning rod for criticism.

“When we were going through this, when we were soliciting the taxpayers to continue that tenth of a percent (sales) tax that built Coors Field, I could get up every morning and pick up the paper and somewhere in there there’d be an article about me. None of them would be very good. Some of them would be a little better than others, but most of them would be pretty negative. You know: ‘Bowlen reaching into the taxpayer’s pocket, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’

“I’d read that, drink my coffee and go out to the Broncos facility and forget about it. I think at some stage in my life it would have made me very upset. It’s not that you ignore it, it’s just you say, ‘Well, that’s their point of view. And here’s my point of view.’

“I know I never want to go through it again. I’ve never wanted to be a politician, and I sure as hell was a politician. I might as well have been running for governor during that period of time. So that’s the way you’ve got to approach it: Your opponent is going to say bad things about you. And you just go on and hope that your position prevails.

“It did, and as time goes by, I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of critics of what we did. There will be people that say, ‘I still don’t support a tax-supported stadium.’ But now we’ve got it and it has been supported by the taxpayers. I think they’ll say, ‘This is a great new facility. I still don’t agree that we should have paid for it, but we got our money’s worth.'”

***

Bowlen admits his transition from private businessman to public figure was a rocky one. From the fur coat he brought from Edmonton to a tolerance for players of dubious character, he took plenty of shots.

But he never ran and hid from his critics, as many owners do. And his team has been consistently successful during a period in which he has been the lone constant. The Broncos have been to the Super Bowl five times in the 17 seasons Bowlen has owned them, winning the NFL championship twice.

John Elway and Mike Shanahan get most of the credit, as they should. But Bowlen’s relationship with both men is an underappreciated factor. He let Reeves go when it was either Reeves or Elway. In Bowlen’s office hangs a LeRoy Neiman rendering of Elway — a gift from the quarterback. It is a possession Bowlen prizes.

He hired Shanahan and got out of his way while remaining in daily contact as club president. While we were speaking, Bowlen took a call from Shanahan for a report on that morning’s training camp workout.

“I was very shy of public exposure, and shy, period,” Bowlen said. “So the exposure to Denver and the publicity was initially really a big shock. You can’t explain that to anybody when they’re coming in. But you learn fairly quickly that you’ve got a very short honeymoon period and that ownership is always a pretty easy target. And I think you’ve got to accept that as an owner. If you can’t take that kind of heat, then you shouldn’t be in that position. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Why not hide?

“The more you try to do that, the worse you make the situation,” he said.

Bowlen declines comment from time to time but has remained consistently accessible to the media, no matter how many shots he takes.

“I think that’s important, because we’re in the entertainment business,” he said. “Quite a few owners aren’t actually running their clubs, so they have a president or somebody else that’s doing most of the talking for the club. I choose to have that position, so I’ve got to be prepared to follow through on it. That’s just part of our business.”

***

The lows were more common than the highs in his first decade, despite generally stellar regular season records.

“The toughest times, I know for sure, were losing three Super Bowls. Those are the toughest days that I can remember,” Bowlen said.

The best days are just as obvious. Both of them.

“Especially Super Bowl XXXII,” he said. “Not that XXXIII wasn’t a big thrill, too, but winning your first Super Bowl in that fashion, and being able to hand that trophy to John Elway, that’s the highlight of my career.”

Outside his office is an enormous photo of him in the locker room after that game, orange tie still tight, Vince Lombardi trophy clenched in one hand, mouth open in joy.

Next to it is a similarly sized blowup of Elway under center, calling signals, Terrell Davis in soft focus behind him. At the end of the hall is another, Shanahan in his headset on the sideline.

This is the tradition Bowlen has built.

***

A recent poll commissioned by the Rocky Mountain News and KCNC-Channel 4 confirmed the Broncos’ place atop Denver’s crowded sports scene. More than half of Colorado sports fans identify the Broncos as their favorite local team.

You can attribute that to tradition, but having been around since 1967 didn’t help the Denver Nuggets, who finished behind “None.” Success drives fan loyalty, as the transplanted Colorado Avalanche proves.

Fans and media are reluctant to give Bowlen much credit. He’s not warm and cuddly. It’s easier to like players and coaches.

“To say I didn’t care about it would be a lie,” Bowlen said. “But I know enough about this industry, and Denver’s a pretty fierce place when it comes to its sports teams. So I’m extremely blessed with that, that I have a very solid city here that’s very supportive of the Denver Broncos. We’re No. 1, and that’s where I always want us to be.

“So I can’t get really upset about my image — my good image or my bad image. Because I realize if I do this for the rest of my life and they carry me out in a pine box, that’s when my image will be the best. That’s when they’ll say the best things.”

He laughed, then mentioned the late Art Rooney, who became beloved in Pittsburgh only near the end of his life. Of course, the Steelers were dreadful for a long time under Rooney.

Elway is gone and the Broncos are still Super Bowl contenders. Shanahan runs a tight ship, but someone hired him. Someone sets the tone.

If meddlesome, egotistical, venal owners are responsible for much of sport’s foolishness, then smart, dedicated, competitive owners must be responsible for some of its achievement.

In the past two decades, the Broncos have become a model franchise. That happens to be the Pat Bowlen era. And it ought to be recognized before he has any need of that pine box.

-30-

Much has been and will be written about Bowlen’s contribution to the Broncos’ emergence as NFL royalty during his three-decade run in the corner office. These days, with high-profile owners like Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban running around, it’s no longer remarkable for an owner to act as chief executive of a franchise, but it still was in 1984. This is why the onset of what was today acknowledged as Bowlen’s Alzheimer’s disease presented something of a journalistic dilemma.

As our conversation 13 years ago reflected, Bowlen was his team’s chief spokesman on big-picture issues regarding the franchise for most of his time in charge. Several years ago, he stopped speaking publicly. Broncos fans, naturally, became curious about why. As a local columnist, I got questions about it regularly. Among people in and around the organization, his cognitive issues were an open secret. With Shanahan having consolidated power over all football-related matters, Bowlen’s silence didn’t seem like a big deal from a news standpoint. Shanahan could and would address pretty much anything that came up.

Shanahan’s firing at the end of the 2008 season changed all that. There were legitimate questions about the process that led to the selection of young Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as his replacement, as well as McDaniels’ rapid accumulation of total control of the football operation, something the organization had said would not happen again after Shanahan. These decisions were attributed at times to Bowlen and at times to Joe Ellis, who had become the owner’s right-hand man. Ellis was and is a business guy, not a football guy, a fact he readily acknowledges. After Jeff Legwold and I broke the initial story of Spygate II in the Denver Post on Nov. 27, 2010, I came to the conclusion that disarray in the Broncos organization required a look at the leadership of the franchise.

I told Jim Saccomano, the Broncos’ former head of media relations and by then vice president of corporate communications, that I intended to research a column about Bowlen’s health and the state of the Broncos’ leadership as the club began a new coaching search. Jim referred me to Ellis, who agreed to speak with me on Dec. 1, 2010. Shortly before we were scheduled to talk, I received a call from the media relations staff letting me know the interview was off.

The next day, shortly after noon, I received an email from the sports editor at the Post, Scott Monserud, addressed to all three Post sports columnists — Woody Paige, Mark Kiszla and me. It instructed us not to write about or publicly discuss Bowlen’s health unless Bowlen chose to discuss it. Woody had already written his piece referring to Bowlen’s admission of “short-term memory loss.” We were to go no further. The instructions came from “the top, the very top,” according to Monserud. This was as clear as he could make it that they came from Dean Singleton, then owner and publisher of the Post, who had a close relationship with the Broncos. But just in case, Monserud added that the instructions came “from (editor) Greg (Moore), via Dean, to make sure we’re all on the same page.” I surmised that Ellis had called Dean, who told Moore to squash my inquiry.

I’d known Bowlen a long time and liked him very much. Our shared interest in endurance sports as younger men had created a bond of sorts, even if I couldn’t keep up with his six-minute miles. From a journalistic perspective, there was no question in my mind that he qualified as a public figure. And the many questions surrounding the Broncos following McDaniels’ firing made it seem to me an obvious and necessary avenue of inquiry.

I had no desire to cause Bowlen or his family any more pain than a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s does on its own, but I believed then and still do that the ability of a major business in town to call the local publisher and suppress an uncomfortable story was unhealthy.

Fortunately, Bowlen and/or Ellis salvaged the situation brilliantly by hiring Elway to run the football operation. A year later, Elway signed Peyton Manning to play quarterback and the glory days were back. The questions surrounding Bowlen’s health receded again until today’s announcement.

Until the last few years, Bowlen was as down-to-earth and accessible as any owner in sports. He devoted himself completely to his team’s success, and he achieved it. Thirty summers later, Colorado is poorer for his exit from the stage.


A stunning self-destruction

Image

A Broncos nightmare in New Jersey ended in a Seahawks celebration

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Super humbling of the highest-scoring team in NFL history began on the first play from scrimmage and continued pretty much unabated for the remainder of a deceptively warm and beautiful February evening just off Exit 16W of the Jersey Turnpike.

It was shocking in its suddenness and humiliating in its comprehensiveness. The Broncos played like a pickup squad that met for the first time an hour before kickoff.

The first outdoor Super Bowl in a northern climate turned out to be a travesty all right, but the environmental conditions were the one factor the Broncos couldn’t blame. The temperature at kickoff was 49, fully 10 degrees warmer than the coldest Super Bowl on record, back when they used to play outdoors in New Orleans.

If Mother Nature treated the Broncos well, she was alone. The Seattle Seahawks manhandled and dismantled them in every way imaginable on their way to a 43-8 blowout. Give them credit, as the Broncos kept saying afterward, but blame the Broncos, too. Their early wounds, the ones that set the doleful tone, were self-inflicted.

It began on the first play from scrimmage, when the Broncos’ first snap from their own 14-yard line sailed past Peyton Manning into the north end zone of MetLife Stadium. Somehow, the Broncos were lulled by the neutral site into believing they would be able to convey their signals verbally. Had the game been in Seattle, they would undoubtedly have used a silent snap count. Buried deep in their own end, enveloped by the boisterousness that always accompanies the beginning of a Super Bowl, Manning lined up in the shotgun and called for the ball.

Center Manny Ramirez failed to snap it. So Manning walked toward the line to reset the play. Ramirez, suddenly realizing he was late, chose that moment to snap the ball.

“That was on cadence, so it was about what he was saying,” a miserable Ramirez explained afterward. “It was really loud and I (thought) I heard him. Unfortunately, I was three seconds late.”

“A little bit of a cadence issue,” said head coach John Fox.

“I felt terrible for them,” said Seahawks coach Pete Carroll. “We didn’t deserve that. They just gave it to us.”

Running back Knowshon Moreno hustled back to the ball, turning the faux pas into a safety rather than a touchdown. It was a screw-up, but the damage was minimal. Twelve seconds into the game, the score was 2-0. It was the fastest score in Super Bowl history.

“That’s the way the start of any Super Bowl is,” said receiver Wes Welker, a veteran of three. “It’s going to be loud. The fans are going to be yelling. They don’t really know why they’re yelling, it’s just the start of the Super Bowl. We didn’t prepare very well for that, and it showed.”

Imagine that. A team that prided itself on preparation all season was unprepared for something that seemed obvious to a player who had been there before.

Following the required free kick, the Seahawks’ lightly-regarded offense marched 51 yards on its first possession, converting two third downs along the way. The Broncos again managed to minimize the damage, stopping the Seahawks about six inches short of a first down inside the 10-yard line and forcing a field goal. When Manning & Co. got the ball back, it was still only 5-0.

Following a three-yard gain on a running play, Manning completed the first two passes he threw — for two yards to Demaryius Thomas and three yards to Julius Thomas. Two completions, five yards. They had to punt.

The Seahawks began another march, using up most of the remainder of the first quarter. The Broncos’ defense once again limited the damage near the goal line, forcing another field goal when linebacker Nate Irving knocked an apparent touchdown pass out of the hands of wide receiver Jermaine Kearse.

The first quarter wasn’t over yet and the Broncos had already prevented two touchdowns on hustle plays by Moreno and Irving. Despite a disastrous start, the score was a manageable 8-0.

For the third time, Manning took the controls. For the third time, the crowd waited for the precision passing game that produced a record 606 regular-season points. A five-yard completion to Welker. A three-yard run from Moreno.

But wait. When Moreno was stopped, he was still on his feet. Seahawks defensive end Chris Clemons ripped the ball from his grasp. Guard Zane Beadles made the Broncos’ third fortuitous play of the quarter, falling on the loose ball and preventing a turnover. Instead of third-and-2, now it was third-and-7.

Manning tried to convert it by hitting Julius Thomas, his tight end, up the middle, but Seahawks pass rusher Cliff Avril came around right tackle Orlando Franklin on a speed rush and Manning was forced to step up in the pocket to avoid him. He let loose a throw that wasn’t even close to its mark — a duck, as Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman would call it, both too high and behind the intended receiver. It landed gently in the arms of Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor, a room service interception.

“A poor play on my part,” Manning admitted afterward.

When the first quarter ended, the Seahawks had the ball at the Broncos’ 17-yard line on their way to a 15-0 lead. The Broncos had possessed the ball only momentarily, it seemed, mostly because they were in such a hurry to give it away whenever they did.

Yet another self-inflicted wound contributed to that first Seahawks touchdown. The Broncos defense, again playing damage control near its goal line, forced a third-and-4 from their 5-yard line. It was looking to limit Seattle to another field goal when nickel back Tony Carter face-guarded Seahawks receiver Golden Tate in the end zone while gripping his jersey, possibly the most obvious pass interference call of the season. This resulted in a first down at the 1. It still took the Seahawks two running plays to punch it in.

Three minutes into the second quarter, the most prolific offense in NFL history didn’t have a first down. Credit the Seahawks’ hard hitting or pass rush if you like, but if this was tennis, both the bad snap and errant throw would be ruled unforced errors.

Moments later, the Seahawks lived up to their reputation for creating turnovers. Avril again beat Franklin, this time pushing past him and hitting Manning’s arm as he threw. The ball fluttered like . . . well . . . yes . . . a wounded duck, directly into the arms of Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, whose 69-yard return for a touchdown would be the key to his Super Bowl MVP award a couple of hours later.

Now it was 22-0. Slightly more than three minutes remained in the first half. The Broncos desperately needed a score. Slowly, uncertainly, they began to matriculate down the field, in Hank Stram’s famous phrase from another era. They achieved a first down. Then another. Facing a manageable third-and-4 for yet another, Louis Vasquez, their best offensive lineman, was called for a false start. Yet another error. Maybe Seattle’s fearsome foursome made him do it, but still.

Moments later it was fourth-and-2. Fox decided to go for it.

“I’m thinking that three points wasn’t going to make a big difference in the game, and it proved to be true,” he explained.

At the snap, it looked like an uncovered Julius Thomas signaled to Manning for a simple pitch-and-catch that would move the chains. Instead, Manning looked the other way and threw the ball into the ground at the feet of Demaryius Thomas.

In the press box, in the stands, on social media and in living rooms all over Colorado, people who had watched this offense operate like a jet engine all season watched in astonishment as it sputtered like a lawn mower. Who were these guys?

It wasn’t just that the Broncos had switched hotels the night before the game, they appeared to have switched players, too. The replacements looked a lot like the guys they’d replaced. They even wore the same numbers. But they didn’t play anything like them.

The cherry on top came on the first play of the second half. Matt Prater, the Broncos’ Pro Bowl kicker who led the league with 81 touchbacks, inexplicably pooched the kickoff in an apparent attempt to keep it out of the hands of returner Percy Harvin. Kicking it out of the end zone, which Prater had done more often than any other kicker, would accomplish the same result.

Harvin had rushed twice in the first half for 45 yards. Rather than match strength with strength and let Prater try to boom the kickoff across the Hackensack River, the Broncos got cute. Harvin charged out of the end zone and the pooch bounced directly into his hands. Members of the Broncos’ coverage unit converged and knocked each other down as if playing electric football. Harvin took it all the way for a touchdown, 87 yards in all.

The Seahawks had again scored just 12 seconds into the half. This would converge with the narrative surrounding their 12th man — their fans, who arguably influenced the mistake that led to the first 12-second score — into a sort of mythic sense of numerological destiny.

More to the point, it was now 29-0 and the Broncos had shown themselves to be vulnerable in every phase of the game. No team had overcome a deficit greater than 10 points to win any of the previous 47 Super Bowls. At 2-0, 5-0, 8-0, 15-0, a Broncos comeback still seemed plausible, given their own precedents. Even at 22-0, a miraculous comeback from a team that averaged 37.9 points a game in the regular season seemed possible.

But the Harvin kickoff return dashed whatever hope remained. Not only was a 29-point deficit an insurmountable obstacle against the league’s best defense, the Broncos had shown little sign of even elementary competence. The more pertinent question seemed whether the Seahawks could impose the first shutout in Super Bowl history.

“We just weren’t real sharp executing our offense,” Manning said in perhaps the understatement of the season. “We got ourselves in a hole and we weren’t able to overcome it.”

Once the game was out of hand, the Broncos managed to roll up enough meaningless yards to make the final statistical comparisons look benign. In fact, of the six Super Bowl records set Sunday, four were by the Broncos. Of course, one of them was for most Super Bowl losses (five), which is not a record you want to hold. But Manning’s 34 pass completions were a record, as were Demaryius Thomas’ 13 catches. They were as hollow as any Super Bowl records ever set.

The Seahawks set records for fastest score to start a Super Bowl and most time playing with a lead (59 minutes, 48 seconds).

The cumulative record for losses in the big game might seem fastidious, conflating a 21st century result with games played in the 1970s and ’80s, but this one was eerily reminiscent of those losses in the ’80s, when the Broncos won the AFC in three out of four seasons and were blown out by successively larger margins in the ensuing Super Bowls — 39-20 by the Giants following the ’86 season, 42-10 by the Redskins following the ’87 season and 55-10, the worst blowout in Super Bowl history, by the 49ers following the ’89 season.

In each case, the result was disturbing and dispiriting. The Broncos had gone through a long season and postseason with the look of a champion, only to look utterly overmatched in the most important game of all. It’s hard to know how to react to such a dramatic reversal of fortune.

“I think we were playing a great football team,” Manning said. “I think we needed to play really well in order to win and we just didn’t come anywhere close to that . . . . Give Seattle credit. They’re an excellent football team and they caused a lot of our mistakes. But at the same time, we just didn’t play well tonight.”

Twenty-four hours after winning his record fifth Most Valuable Player award, Manning bristled when asked if the loss was embarrassing.

“It’s not embarrassing at all,” he said. “I would never use that word . . . The word embarrassing is an insulting word, to tell you the truth.”

Welker was not so reticent.

“To get this far and lose like this, it’s embarrassing,” he said.

“They dominated us across the board,” said fellow receiver Eric Decker.

The Seahawks were exuberant, of course, having won so much more powerfully and easily than even they expected. The Broncos needed to credit them to save face, and certainly they kept Manning unsettled in the pocket and hit hard in the secondary, as is their reputation.

Still, the number of self-inflicted wounds made the Broncos look amateurish and unqualified for the game. They finished with four turnovers — two lost fumbles and two interceptions — to Seattle’s none. The third turnover, by Demaryius Thomas following a 23-yard, third-quarter completion deep in Seahawks territory when a comeback was still theoretically possible, verged on slapstick.

Which was a terrible shame, considering how well the Broncos played all season. You could empathize with Manning’s sense of dignity without agreeing with him that this was not an embarrassment.

On any given Sunday, and all that. They just picked the most important game of all to pull out a true stinker.

“We had some chances to get back into it,” said John Elway, the quarterback in those losses of the ’80s and now the team’s executive vice president of football operations. “We just couldn’t get it done.”

“This team used last year’s playoff loss to fuel us; I think it made us a better team,” Manning said. “Hopefully we can use this loss to fuel us and make us better.”

Maybe they will. Elway’s Broncos were unable to bounce back from the Super Bowl blowouts of the ’80s until nearly a decade later, but Manning’s team was so uncharacteristically bad, maybe it can turn this one around much faster.

Asked if the loss reminded him of those blowouts a generation ago, Elway replied: “No. Those are separate.”

Still, for all the praise Manning gets when he’s dominating opponents, it is only fair to point out his mediocre play when opponents dominate him. The Broncos’ oft-maligned defense wasn’t great in this game, but it was required to perform a great deal of damage control for its far more famous offense.

Manning completed 34 of 49 passes for 280 yards, many of them in garbage time, with one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 73.5. His counterpart, second-year Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the former Rockies farmhand, was 18 of 25 for 206 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 123.1. Wilson was clearly the better quarterback in this championship game.

“Offensively, we were clicking on all cylinders,” Wilson said. “That’s what we wanted to be, especially the last game of the season, to finish that way in that fashion. That’s our mindset. We want to be champions every day and bring it every time.”

Credit the Seahawks for playing a very sharp game. They deserve congratulations on winning their first NFL championship in very convincing fashion.

“We ran into a buzz saw,” Fox said.

That’s a little too easy. The Seahawks played very well, but the Broncos took themselves out of the game early by playing very badly. From a vantage point high above the action on a beautiful night for football in the New Jersey Meadowlands, it looked like the highest-scoring offense in NFL history mostly self-destructed.


Coffee with Josh Kroenke

Josh Kroenke is a busy guy. At 33, he’s the top executive of both the Nuggets and Avalanche and, of course, the son of their owner, E. Stanley Kroenke. He’s also coming off a year in which he put his stamp on both franchises, naming new front office executives (Tim Connelly and Joe Sakic) and new head coaches (Patrick Roy and Brian Shaw). He joined me for a cup of joe this morning at a Starbucks not far from his office at the Pepsi Center.

Q: You reset both organizations last year, front office and coaching. Let’s start with the hockey team. How do you think it’s going so far? How do you think, in particular, Joe is transitioning into his new role?

A: I think Joe’s doing a wonderful job. Joe is a great communicator. Obviously, I think that Patrick has done a very good job as well. I think everybody is doing a really good job in their new roles. It’s good to see the cohesion that the organization has. Top to bottom, there’s communication at all different levels, and if someone is doing something that someone else thinks they can do better, or they think they can do differently, no one is afraid to communicate about it. And I think that’s great.

Q: Were you surprised at how fast they got out of the gate?

A: I think we all were. I think that’s a credit to Patrick, but most important that’s a credit to the players. It’s been a rough few years, and we knew when we reset it a few years ago, going young, it was going to take a few years to kind of come together. But I think as fast as it’s come together over these past few months, it’s been great to see, because we knew we had some young talent there. It was just a matter of pointing it in the right direction.

Q: How long did you think it was going to take to be a playoff team?

A: I wasn’t sure, but I was hoping that we had the right guys in charge, and I think with Patrick and Joe, and Greg [Sherman] as well, I think we do. I think that they’re all doing a great job and I think that with the youngsters, seeing everyone buy in, and then the veterans we have on the squad as well, it’s been really rewarding for me to see how quickly they’ve turned it around. It’s a lot of fun for me to be a part of.

Q: Was the Elway model part of your thinking when you decided to go with Joe?

A: I don’t know John very well, but I’ve had the privilege to kind of talk to him here and there and pick his brain a little bit. With guys like John and Joe, guys that have competed so long in their respective sports, and with the kind of people they are, I think it lends very well to leading an organization like they do. I think Joe and John know each other a little bit. I don’t know how well they know each other. But I know that Joe respects John, obviously. As far as the John Elway model, I didn’t look into it too much. I looked at making sure we got the right guy for the job.

Q: Traditionally it sort of defies history because the history of great players as coaches or GMs isn’t great. And yet it seems as though in this town anyway there are now two models where it seems to be working pretty well. Did you go into that, in terms of the history of it?

A: You know, I didn’t go into it too much. I wanted to make sure we had the right people and the right personalities for the job. At the end of the day, you can’t be afraid to put the time in and really put the work in. I think that John and Joe are both spectacular examples of that. Knowing Joe and knowing John a little bit, I know they take what they do very seriously and they’re both winners and they want to win. And until they get to that point, I know that neither of them are happy.

Q: You came to your positions with a lot more background in basketball than hockey. How has your personal evolution gone with the game of hockey?

A: You know, it’s been a lot of fun. I really enjoy the game. To understand it on a level that I do now as opposed to where I was when I first moved to Denver is night and day. It’s a great game. I can see why so many people love it and so many guys want to get into it at a young age. It’s a true team sport. You meet a lot of great people. Throughout the league, in all these organizations that I’ve had the privilege of being around, it’s wonderful people. Very humble people and a lot of hard workers and they love the game just as much as John loves football or Brian Shaw loves basketball. It’s a great sport to be a part of. The individual stars are going to play well, but it’s all about the hockey assist — who can set up their man and who can set up their teammates. I think it’s probably my favorite sport to attend in person. Sitting down on the glass of an NHL game is an unbelievable experience.

Q: What’s been your approach to how close or distant you want to stay from the players?

A: That’s evolved over time. Particularly on the basketball side, when I moved here, I knew a lot of the guys. I played against them. I played with Linas Kleiza in college. That’s kind of evolved over time from a peer-to-peer relationship and now that I’m in kind of a supervisor role in both organizations, I’m still close with the guys, I like to have a relationship with the guys, I think that’s important that they feel that on both teams. Went on a hockey road trip earlier this year. That was so much fun. I went on the early season trip to Toronto and Boston and it was great. Great to be around the guys. At the end of the day it goes a long ways; they know that I’m behind them as well.

Q: Keeping in mind the Daniel Snyder story in Washington, where the owner’s relationship with star players has been a problem for coaches, as an owner in roughly the same age bracket as the players, is there any issue there for you?

A: The locker room is the coaches’ domain. I don’t want to interfere with that at all. Me having a relationship with some of the players on the periphery I don’t think is a problem, and if it ever was a problem I would hope that the coaches would come address it to me right away because I don’t ever want to interfere with anything that they’re trying to do.

Q: You’ve got a member of the Swedish Olympic team [Gabriel Landeskog], a member of the Russian Olympic team [Semyon Varlamov], a member of the Canadian Olympic team [Matt Duchene] and a member of the U.S. Olympic team [Paul Stastny]. Were you disappointed Erik Johnson didn’t make the U.S. team?

A: I was disappointed EJ didn’t make it. I was hoping that Jan Hejda would get a chance at the Czech Republic team. There’s so many different nationalities; it’s one of the cool things about hockey is it brings together people from all over the world. I was hoping that as many of our guys were going to get a shot as they could, but there were a few guys I was hoping were going to get included but didn’t.

Q: So let’s switch gears and talk about the Nuggets. The last time I heard you talk about the state of the team was last year when you did a series of press conferences about organizational changes and free agency, so let’s go back to that point and let me ask you first about the Andre Iguodala deal. When you look back on that, were you disappointed at the time with the outcome? Were you surprised?

A: I was more disappointed than I was surprised. We’d done our diligence throughout the year and throughout free agency. We kind of knew there was a chance that he would come back and a chance that he wouldn’t. In the transition period, Tim Connelly didn’t have to hit the ground running, he had to hit the ground in a full sprint. We were able to have good conversations with Andre and his representation. Ultimately, Andre felt it was best for him to go elsewhere. That’s really all I can say about it. He plays for another team now and we’re looking forward.

Q: So how do you feel about the moves that you made after that and the roster that you have now?

A: I feel pretty good. Andre waited several days into free agency to make his decision and he was our No. 1 priority. We didn’t have any cap space to really use. We were going to re-sign Andre with Bird rights. So there was a different evaluation of players. Looking at our current roster, even without Andre, we felt we were a playoff team. So we wanted to try and bolster our bench and also provide value signings to where we were flexible moving forward.

Q: And do you still feel that way? Do you still feel like you’re a playoff team?

A: I do. The hard part that comes with professional sports and sports in general is you can’t make an honest assessment until you’re healthy and it’s been a rough year in that regard. Obviously, without Gallo [Danilo Gallinari] and without JaVale [McGee], we don’t know really what we have. I think that our guys have done a wonderful job of stepping up to the plate without a full roster.

Q: Speaking of JaVale, I think it’s fair to say there was a widespread perception that you and the organization wanted JaVale to play more and that contributed to the trade of Kosta Koufos. Is that a fair assessment?

A: I don’t know if it’s completely a fair assessment. I think we’re always looking at ways to improve our team. Obviously, with the salary that JaVale commands you hope that you get a lot of production out of it, but we don’t ever try to dictate who plays or who doesn’t play. We want to let the coach set the rotation and if he feels that he’s going to win more games with somebody else, then by all means, we should go with somebody else. But JaVale is a talented guy and I think hopefully with more playing time he gets better, but obviously we’ll never know until he gets healthy.

Q: Do you see him as an enigma as a lot of NBA observers do?

A: He’s an interesting personality. He’s much more intelligent than a lot of people give him credit for. I’ve had the privilege of being around a lot of very intelligent people over the course of my life and sometimes the most intelligent people are the hardest ones to kind of read. And JaVale seems to be that way. I think that the next year or two or three of his career will obviously be very telling — what he wants to do and how he wants to get to the level he wants to be as a player.

Q: With respect to Gallo, there have been a lot of different estimates along the way of when he might be ready. Some of them were a lot earlier than now. Do you have any feel for when he might be back?

A: You know, obviously we want to get Gallo back as soon as we can, but with an injury like that, you never want to rush it. So Gallo is on Gallo’s time frame. He’s been working his tail off on a daily basis with [strength coach] Steve Hess, [trainer] Jim Gillen and our entire training staff. We have a physical therapist on staff now, starting this year, and I know that Gallo and some of the guys are very pleased with the exercises that he’s provided. With an ACL, you’ve just got to be careful. Derrick Rose sat out the entire year last year to make sure he was healthy. We don’t want to rush Gallo back, but obviously, he’s a huge part of our team.

Q: So no specific ETA?

A: No, I can’t give you a specific one. I would love to be able to, but I can’t because I would hate to provide the wrong information.

Q: What did you make of the last week or so, with the losing streak and the turmoil surrounding Andre Miller?

A: You know, I knew there was going to be some ups and downs, and sometimes some of that stuff just has to work itself to the surface. With ups and downs and the transition with the coaching, Andre was somebody that, he thrives in an up-and-down type of pace, but Andre is getting older and we’re kind of in a transition period where we had lost several games in a row and I think Brian was trying different things out. I respect Andre immensely and I respect Brian immensely and I think it was just one of those emotional things that gets the best of people at the time and I don’t anticipate any issues moving forward.

Q: Looking back, did you think that perhaps bringing in Nate Robinson and creating a three point guard situation might at some point have to settle out?

A: I’ll leave that up to Brian and the coaches to figure out. With Nate, I think the idea that Tim and Brian discussed was to provide some scoring punch, and obviously Nate does that here and there. It was a transition for everybody in the organization, let alone the guys that were coming in from a different team. Nate’s had his ups and downs but he’s a fiery competitor and somebody that we hope can provide some additional benefit to us down the road. One thing I thought that we lost a little bit last year was at certain times throughout the year we didn’t look as tough as we needed to be, and Nate’s a tough guy.

Q: You’re about middle of the pack offensively in terms of scoring and in terms of efficiency. Middle of the pack defensively in terms of efficiency. What do you think of the style of play at this point?

A: As far as the style’s concerned, I think we’re doing just fine. I think Brian’s going to get better over time as he continues to experiment with different things that he thinks are best for our team and best for our personnel. We started off kind of slower earlier in the year, and I think that was by design. Then I think we got into running more and more, and our pace continued to improve. With the injuries we just don’t exactly know how everything is going to shake out until we get healthy because we have some talented guys that aren’t playing right now.

I think with a new system and a fresh idea with some of the guys that are kind of entering their defining years on what’s going to happen with them and their careers, it could be all over the place. I don’t know how to exactly answer your question because we’ve done a few different things throughout the year so far. We started off slow and now we’ve kind of sped it up a little bit. We want to get out and run. We’re at the mile-high. That was one of the things that Tim and I talked about initially when I interviewed him, was we like to play fast here. We want to get out and go and take advantage of our natural resources.

Q: It looks like you’re playing about as fast as last year, but your shooting percentage is about four points below where it was last year. Do you think that’s about the people or the mix?

A: I think it’s a combination of everything. We started off 0-3. We played a really difficult game in Sacramento. It was such an emotional night for the city, that was going to be a tough one to win. And then we came back and we got thumped by Portland who, it turns out, is pretty good. And then we had to play San Antonio, who we also know is pretty good. Then we went on a little run, we won seven or eight in a row, and then we were kind of here and there, here and there, and then we lost seven or eight in a row. There’s going to be ups and downs. I think the most difficult part of sports, one is injuries and two is staying patient with the team and the people that you have. Everybody is so competitive and they want to win, but you have to have a much bigger picture in your mind over a period of years. I think we’re right about where I thought we’d be. I think we’re right where we were last year at this time, almost.

Q: I think Brian had it flipped. He said after the win over Memphis that you were right where you were a year ago after 32 games, at 15-17. I think you were 17-15 last year, and you were about to go on that run where you won 16 out of 19 or something.

A: I knew we were right around where we were. But there’s going to be ups and downs. Ultimately, I don’t look for the big swings. I look for a growth chart that has its ups and downs but is steadily improving.

Q: More than a few fans think that a bunch of these guys are pretty much your average, replacement-level NBA players. Whether it’s Hickson or Arthur or Foye or Nate — journeymen, guys who have been around. So when you talk about the people who are about to define who they’re going to be as players, who are you talking about?

A: We have several of those guys, guys in their mid-20s really starting to show if they’re going to take a leap or if they’re going to remain who they are, I think. Those are big-time growth years as a person, and you figure out who you are. I think we have several guys. You can just look at our roster and go down, look at the ages, and we have several guys that are in that time frame. And there’s a couple guys we think have a chance to be pretty doggone good and there’s a few guys we’re still waiting to see who they are and who they want to be.

Q: You don’t want to talk about specific names, I take it?

A: No, but you can look at the roster and look at the ages. We have a lot of guys that are clumped together along with one or two guys, like Randy and Nate and Andre, that are a little bit older. And then we have a couple guys that are younger. But then there’s a stack of guys that are all around the same age there, within a few years of each other.

Q: What’s fair to expect from Ty Lawson? I think there’s some frustration that he looks so good sometimes and then the rest of the time, not so good.

A: You know, Ty’s been through a lot here in Denver. He was somebody we had our sights on in the draft, we were able to get a hold of him through a trade and he’s developed here the whole way. I think Ty has unbelievable potential. I think he can be one of the best guards in the league. It’s a matter of him getting comfortable with the offense and comfortable with himself being an alpha like that. Is he a true alpha? I don’t know. Ty’s as good as he wants to be, I think. He has that type of talent.

Q: If you were talking directly to your fans and addressing the perception that you’ve taken a step back, what would you say?

A: I addressed the team earlier this year and I said, ‘Sometimes, going to a place you’re unfamiliar with can lead you to a place you’ve never been before.’ I think that’s kind of the general message that I tell myself. Sometimes you have to take a slight step back to take a bigger step forward.

With the coaching change, I’m more than happy with Brian. I think he’s doing a great job. George [Karl] did an unbelievable job when he was here. I have the utmost respect for him. I try to tell people how difficult a summer it was for me, but I don’t know if anybody really understands. I think it’s a bright future. We have a lot of very good players, we have a lot of flexibility and I’m really excited. I think it’s going to be a great thing for us moving forward. I understand the hesitation because we had such a great season last year, but I’m really excited about the future.


A rough start for Brian Shaw

I first met Brian Shaw 24 years ago, in October 1989, at a banquet in Rome honoring the Nuggets, that year’s NBA entry in the McDonald’s Open, a four-team bracket during the preseason that passed for international competition at the time.

Longtime Nuggets fans may remember that international road trip — coach Doug Moe stood for most of the trans-Atlantic flight because he hadn’t yet discovered Valium for his flying anxiety — as coinciding with former owner Sidney Shlenker’s increasingly desperate attempts to sell the franchise.

A couple of young American players had taken Italy by storm, choosing the Italian pro league over the NBA. Danny Ferry, the second overall pick in the NBA draft that year, and Shaw, a first-round pick the previous year who spurned the Boston Celtics’ qualifying offer, were instant celebrities. They were validating European basketball.

I got an opportunity to speak with them for only a few minutes at that banquet. Like John Elway six years earlier, Ferry didn’t want to play for the flaky owner who had drafted him, in this case Donald Sterling of the Los Angeles Clippers. Shaw, then 23, had a more complicated tale. Only one quote from our conversation made the Rocky Mountain News on Oct. 22, 1989:

“The chance for security for me and my family was really important. I want to eventually go back.”

Nearly a quarter-century later, Shaw offered more detail on the radio show last summer, just after being hired to replace George Karl as the Nuggets’ head coach:

“When I got drafted by the Celtics the year before that, in ’88, they were over the salary cap and I was only able to make the minimum for a first-round pick. So what I did was I only signed a one-year deal, which everybody kind of said was crazy, but I felt confident in my ability that I’d have a good showing my rookie year and so it made me immediately a restricted free agent my second year.

“So basically the Celtics came back and they just gave me a qualifying offer and they was playing hardball. Fortunately for me, Danny Ferry had just gotten drafted by the Clippers. He didn’t want to go play for them. Our owner over in Italy, a very wealthy man, offered Danny $2 million to come over there and play for a season, which was unheard of over there. I think at the time Bob McAdoo was the highest-paid player in Europe and he was making about $400,000.

“So I was making $150,000, that’s what I made my rookie season. So this owner, he said he wanted to make a splash. At that time, most NBA players only went over there at the end of their NBA careers. He wanted to get some young, first-round picks to come over and kind of change things up. So he offered Danny Ferry $2 million and he offered me a million dollars to come over, which took me over all the guys who were drafted in front of me.” Shaw was the 24th overall pick in ’88, out of UC-Santa Barbara.

“So, 35-game season, as opposed to 82 here, and Boston still was playing hardball with me, so I said, hey, basketball is basketball, and I went over and played a year there as a teammate with Danny Ferry and had a great, great experience. No regrets, learned a lot, and it made Boston, in my mind, come to their senses, and they came back with a fair offer. So I came back the next season.”

Shaw returned to a four-year, $5.5 million contract and played in the association until he was 36.

The point of the story is that Shaw has always been a bright and independent sort, which are excellent qualities in a head coach. It’s beginning to look like he will need all of that and more. His hiring was only one part of owner Josh Kroenke’s deconstruction of a 57-win team.

“I think I called it stupid,” Karl told me after the June meeting with Kroenke at which he was fired. He concluded that the young Kroenke, Stan’s son and the man in charge, thought winning was easy and had come to take for granted the Nuggets’ regular-season excellence. After all, Karl had been the coach throughout the younger Kroenke’s tenure as an executive with the team.

The fact that I disagreed with the decision to fire Karl doesn’t mean I want Shaw to fail. Quite the opposite. There are few people on Earth more willing to engage in conversation about basketball, besides Moe and Karl, of course, especially Moe when trapped on an airplane back in the days before they made you evacuate the galley and sit down.

But the decision to fire Karl was paired with a misread of free agent Andre Iguodala, who Kroenke thought would accept an offer to stay until the day he signed with Golden State. General manager Masai Ujiri’s departure for Toronto just before Karl’s firing left the Nuggets scrambling to adjust to Iguodala’s defection with a front office in flux.

New GM Tim Connelly collected a random sample of the available journeymen free agents, from Nate Robinson and Randy Foye in the backcourt to J.J. Hickson and Darrell Arthur up front, the latter in trade for Kosta Koufos, the center dispatched to make room in the starting lineup for JaVale McGee, who had averaged 18 minutes off the bench for Karl.

It’s been only two games. Last year’s team was not only 0-2 but also 0-3. With a road-loaded front end of the schedule, Karl’s last Nuggets team was 11-12 in mid December before taking off. So, yeah, it’s very early.

Still, a year ago’s 0-2 was a little different. Except for LeBron James and the Heat, the Nuggets won all their early home games. They just didn’t have many of them.

When they lost to Portland 113-98 Friday night, it was their first loss of a home opener in five years and broke a 23-game home regular-season winning streak. It was their first regular-season loss at the Pepsi Center since last January. At 38-3, they were the NBA’s best home team last season.

Like Moe before him, Karl took advantage of the environmental advantage provided by the mile-high elevation, not to mention the time change for visiting teams on back-to-backs from the west coast. So it was strange to see the Nuggets looking exhausted and the visiting Trail Blazers looking invigorated Friday night.

“Our team looked very tired, just to be honest with you, from the jump, especially our bigs,” Shaw said. “They just looked winded. (The Blazers) looked like they’re the team that play in the altitude and we were the team that was coming in on the second night of a back-to-back, the way we came out tonight.”

The rationale for firing the coach of a 57-win team was the history of first-round playoff exits. So Shaw came in with a mandate to coach a style more conducive to postseason success, meaning slower and more half-court oriented, to better suit the style characteristic of the postseason.

The irony is that Karl’s final first-round exit, the one that broke the camel’s back, was to a team that didn’t attempt to slow down the Nuggets at all. The Warriors beat the Nuggets at their own game, mainly because they shot the ball better — .494 from the floor, .404 from three and .785 from the line, compared to the Nuggets’ .438, .311 and .730.

This defeat might have been interpreted as reflecting an overemphasis on athleticism and underemphasis on skills in assembling the roster. Or it might have been interpreted as the consequence of an unfortunate late-season knee injury to forward Danilo Gallinari, one of the Nuggets’ best shooters and a big forward whose ability to shoot from long distance spreads the defense and creates lanes for athletes who want to get to the rim. Or it might have been interpreted as bad luck, running into a hot team.

It wasn’t. It was interpreted as further proof that Karl was not a coach for the postseason. But the question remained: Did the Nuggets overachieve in the regular season or underachieve in the postseason?

When Shaw arrived, he talked about playing inside-out — a more traditional half-court game in which the point guard’s first and preferred option is to toss the ball inside to a big man in or around the low post. He can shoot it or pass to an open man, depending on how the defense reacts. Shaw also talked about making defense the team’s signature.

After leading the association in scoring a year ago at 106 points per game, the Nuggets under Shaw are 22nd through two games at 93 per, consistent with their scoring average during the preseason. They have lost to a pair of teams in Sacramento and Portland that are not expected to make the playoffs this year. And they seem to have lost the high-flying athleticism that made them so entertaining under Karl.

More to the point, a large part of the basis both for firing Karl and Shaw’s new offense — the talented, enigmatic McGee — has so far been pretty much the guy Karl thought he was — not ready for prime time.

Starting at center, he played 10 minutes in the opener, getting in early foul trouble, and 13 on Friday night, finishing with six points, three rebounds and one blocked shot. All six players who came off the bench, in addition to the other four starters, played more minutes than he did.

Why?

“His physicality,” Shaw said. “And part of that is his wind as well. He was one of the guys that at the beginning of the game just looked gassed out there on the floor. We talked about, when the shots go up, he can’t just turn around and go follow the flight of the ball. He’s got to put a body on somebody. The guys that he plays at the center position usually outweigh him. He thinks that with his length he can just go and get the ball, but they just kind of wedge him underneath the basket. We’ll look at film and show him and just keep working with him on it, but his stamina has to get better and his physicality has to raise up a few notches.”

As Karl often pointed out, deploying McGee and power forward Kenneth Faried at the same time is a prescription for defensive chaos, and not necessarily in a good way. So Shaw began the season with Faried coming off the bench as he recovered from a strained hamstring.

“He played with the kind of energy that people around here are accustomed to him playing with,” Shaw said after Faried collected 11 rebounds in 24 minutes off the bench against the Blazers. “He always plays with a lot of heart. That’s what I wanted to see out of him. I talked about before the game, if it looked like he was getting that bounce back into game shape that I would take a look at putting him back in the starting lineup.”

The Nuggets abandoned the inside-out thing early Friday night, in part because McGee was seldom available — although he did hit a sweet left-handed baseline hook shot in one of those flashes that make you yearn for more — and in part because they were behind early. In the fourth quarter, as part of a spirited but futile comeback attempt, Shaw did what Karl did so often: He went small. With guards Ty Lawson, Nate Robinson and Randy Foye on the floor together, his team made a run. Suffice it to say that’s not a lineup that’s going to make defense your team signature.

“You can’t even blame the system, because he’s stepping away from it,” Lawson said afterward. “We’re not going into the post as much as he’s talking about or doing the elbow catch. So it’s all on us. Today we played like we did last year — pick-and-rolls, drags, into the basket. We weren’t hitting shots. It was a tough night for us.”

“We knew this was going to be a process,” Shaw said. “The way we’re playing isn’t the problem, I don’t think. Tonight, defense was the problem. Sixty-four points in the first half. They finished 14 for 22 from the three-point line and I would say probably 16 or 18 of those three-point shots were uncontested. So it’s more a problem of that than I think the style of play that we’re trying to play.”

In fairness, Iguodala, Gallinari and Wilson Chandler were important pieces of last year’s success. Iguodala is gone and neither Gallo nor Chandler has played yet.

“I’m searching for answers,” Shaw said. “I’m trying to patch, mix and match and patch lineups together to try to see who’s going to bring it for us. . . . But together as a team we’ve just got to find a way. We’ve just got to keep plugging away at it. It’s not the way we wanted to start out the season at 0-2, but it’s where we are right now. We’ve just got to continue to work.”

Implementing a new system with four new players would take some time under the best of circumstances. But the impression the Nuggets have left through their first two games is their talent level isn’t particularly high and their style isn’t particularly interesting — at least until they fall way behind.

This is pretty much the worst of both worlds — becoming less competitive and less entertaining at the same time. Fans don’t seem thrilled with the off-season changes. Although the opener was announced as a sellout, there were plenty of empty seats.

The returns of Gallo and Chandler should help, but it will take all of Shaw’s considerable resourcefulness to get this bunch into the playoffs.


The five greatest Broncos ever*

*according to a thoroughly unscientific survey of listeners to the Broncos’ flagship radio station for four hours on a chilly, wet autumn afternoon in Denver.

It started with a Twitter post — a “tweet” — by Roy S. Johnson, one of the better sportswriters of our time. Acknowledging Allen Iverson’s formal retirement the previous evening, Johnson offered his list of the “five greatest 76ers ever.”

His list: Dr. J, Moses Malone, Charles Barkley, Allen Iverson, Wilt Chamberlain.

We substituted “Broncos” for “76ers” and took calls, emails, tweets, whatever, for parts of four hours on 850 KOA.

A margin of error should certainly be built into the results. It’s a small sample size, its demographics unknown, etc. Still . . . here are the five greatest Broncos ever, according to this admittedly approximate methodology:

John Elway

Terrell Davis

Floyd Little

Randy Gradishar

Shannon Sharpe

The results (votes in parentheses):

  • John Elway (47)
  • Terrell Davis (31)
  • Floyd Little (24)
  • Randy Gradishar (20)
  • Shannon Sharpe (18)
  • Steve Atwater (14)
  • Tom Jackson (12)
  • Ed McCaffrey (11)
  • Rod Smith (10)
  • Jason Elam (8)
  • Karl Mecklenburg (7)
  • Louis Wright (7)
  • Steve Watson (6)
  • Otis Armstrong (4)
  • Rich Jackson (4)
  • Dennis Smith (4)
  • Lyle Alzado (3)
  • Haven Moses (3)
  • Lionel Taylor (3)
  • Billy Thompson (3)
  • Al Wilson (3)
  • Gary Zimmerman (3)
  • Champ Bailey (2)
  • Keith Bishop (2)
  • Pat Bowlen (2)
  • Rubin Carter (2)
  • Simon Fletcher (2)
  • Rulon Jones (2)
  • Rich Karlis (2)
  • Gary Kubiak (2)
  • John Lynch (2)
  • Peyton Manning (2)
  • Craig Morton (2)
  • Tom Nalen (2)
  • Matt Prater (2)
  • Tim Tebow (2)
  • Billy Van Heusen (2)
  • Steve Antonopulos (1)
  • Marlin Briscoe (1)
  • Tyrone Braxton (1)
  • Willie Brown (1)
  • Barney Chavous (1)
  • Dave Costa (1)
  • Ken Criter (1)
  • Bucky Dilts (1)
  • Steve Foley (1)
  • Alex Gibbs (1)
  • Tom Graham (1)
  • Bobby Humphrey (1)
  • Mark Jackson (1)
  • Charley Johnson (1)
  • Vance Johnson (1)
  • Dave Logan (1)
  • Tim McKernan (Barrel Man) (1)
  • Red Miller (1)
  • Riley Odoms (1)
  • Trevor Pryce (1)
  • John Ralston (1)
  • Steve Ramsey (1)
  • Bill Romanowski (1)
  • Bob Scarpitto (1)
  • Neil Smith (1)
  • Jim Turner (1)
  • Rick Upchurch (1)
  • Norris Weese (1)
  • Sammy Winder (1)
  • Honorable mention: Darrent Williams

Mike Shanahan’s lead lasted about as long as his tribute video

It’s beginning to look like these tributes to homecoming out-of-towners are a scam, like the email congratulating you for winning the Etruscan lottery. In Indianapolis, they honored Peyton Manning, then beat him. In Denver, they honored Mike Shanahan, then slapped him around for 38 consecutive points, like a barber’s razor on a strop.

I guarantee that somewhere, someone will write this proves Thomas Wolfe right; you can’t go home again. What this will actually prove is that almost no one alive has read this longwinded novel.

In truth, the Broncos did something to Shanahan and his current team from Washington that about half of them have been waiting to do for a long time. Last year’s top-five defense suddenly emerged from behind the curtain and replaced the impostors who ranked 32nd out of 32 teams against the pass coming in. In the process, they gave the Broncos more hope for a happy ending this season than all of Manning’s heroics combined.

“I know they haven’t done some of the things that they would like to do defensively, but I think we all know they were one of the top defenses in the league last year,” Shanahan said afterward. “And this is not the end of the season. This is not even the mid-way point. So you can judge Denver’s defense at the end of the season.”

Actually, it is the mid-way point for the Broncos, who are 7-1 and now get a week off before slogging through their remaining eight games. Shanahan’s team had its week off already, so it is one game shy of the halfway point. But his point is well taken. He used to say you wanted to be in the top five on both sides of the ball to be a true championship contender. There are always exceptions, of course, but it’s as good a way as any to deploy the ruler.

Shanahan’s return made me a little nostalgic, so I retrieved my yellowed Rocky Mountain News clips from 1984, when I was covering the Broncos as a beat writer and head coach Dan Reeves hired Shanahan, then a college assistant, to be his wide receivers coach. Attached to one of my training camp reports from Greeley that summer is a photo by my former colleague George Kochaniec Jr. of Shanahan and the quarterback trio of the day — John Elway, Scott Brunner and Gary Kubiak. They’re all very young and wearing athletic shorts they would find embarrassing today.

Youthful and cool and ready to gamble on Elway in a way Reeves never would, Shanahan is talking about offensive concepts. The three quarterbacks are listening, all eyes on him. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Shanahan and Elway formed an alliance that ultimately cost Reeves his job and set the stage for the Super Bowl championships of the late 1990s.

After Elway’s playing career ended, the relationship frayed. Elway was interested in a meaningful role of some kind with the Broncos. Shanahan had them all and wasn’t surrendering any of them. Elway did not get his current job as executive vice president, running the football operation, until after Shanahan was dismissed. So while everyone said all the right things about the pre-game Shanahan tribute, it was, in fact, about as perfunctory as it could have been. The tribute video lasted 20 seconds. The Manning tribute video in Indy ran 90.

In the 29 years since that first summer in Greeley, Shanahan has lost his reputation for being on the cutting edge. Since Elway retired, following the 1998 season, Shanahan is 114-101 in the regular season and 1-5 in the playoffs.

In Washington, he’s 23-36 over three seasons and seven-sixteenths of a fourth, but the venerable franchise in the nation’s capital has been such a freak show under owner Daniel Snyder that anybody who even vaguely knows what he’s doing gets a long leash. Still, a record of 2-5 in his fourth season, with Robert Griffin III widely considered a franchise quarterback, isn’t a great sign. At 61, Shanahan applies a sharp football mind and deep competitive desire to concepts others are advancing. He’s trying to adapt, but it’s not like the old days, when he knew he knew stuff most other coaches didn’t know.

One minute, the Broncos were behind by two touchdowns and seats on the bandwagon were being auctioned off for beer. The next, they’d rolled up 38 consecutive points without a peep from Shanahan’s team and won going away, 45-21. The bandwagon was full again and it was Washington fans wondering why he didn’t use that famous zone running scheme to keep the ball out of Manning’s hands.

Cornerback DeAngelo Hall put Washington up 21-7 when he intercepted a Manning pass intended for Demaryius Thomas, who fell down, and returned it 26 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter. Manning responded with a 75-yard drive that ended with rookie running back Montee Ball’s first pro touchdown to cut the lead to 21-14. Shanahan’s offense never actually took the field trying to protect a 14-point lead.

To get that responding touchdown, Broncos coach John Fox had to authorize going for it on fourth-and-2 from the Washington 20-yard line rather than kicking a gimme field goal. Knowshon Moreno gained five yards on the fourth-down play and three plays later, Ball was in the end zone.

“Certainly as an offense we like it,” Manning said of Fox’s gamble. “But we feel determined to make him pleased with his call. He’s kind of — he’s giving you that go-ahead because he expects you to do it. So I think there is some real motivation to please him and make it successful so you can do it again.”

Shanahan’s offense got the ball back with a seven-point lead. Of the five plays it ran before punting, three were runs by Alfred Morris, who gained 93 yards on the day, 66 of them in the first half. On those three running plays when Washington was trying to control the ball and protect a lead, Morris gained three, one and two yards, respectively. Washington punted and the Broncos drove for the tying touchdown. They went for it on fourth down again, this time at the 1-yard line. Manning converted it again, this time on a pass to tight end Joel Dreessen.

Now Shanahan didn’t have a lead anymore. Falling further and further behind, his team ran the ball only twice in the fourth quarter. Which should have worked out well, considering the Broncos entered the game ranked last in the league against the pass. But it didn’t. Griffin held the ball too long, missed open receivers and saw the ball dropped when he hit them.

The second pick of the 2012 draft, right behind Andrew Luck, RG III completed 15 of 30 pass attempts for a meager 132 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions and a passer rating of 45.4. He was no factor as a runner, rushing five times for seven yards. Jack Del Rio’s defense took away the read option without compromising the pass defense. Shanahan’s offense looked nowhere near as accomplished as it did a week ago, when it put up 45 points on Chicago.

The Broncos sacked Griffin three times — one each by Derek Wolfe, Terrance Knighton and Von Miller (a sack fumble recovered by Wolfe) — and harassed him countless other times. The sack by Knighton, listed at 335 pounds, frightened Griffin right out of the game, although he said afterward he was fine.

“I’m not sure which D-tackle it was, I think it was Knighton, came in and landed all 300-plus pounds of hisself on my leg, and I think it really just scared me,” Griffin said. “After I got up and the docs checked me, I was fine, ready to go back in the game. Talked with Mike and just the way the game had gone and Kirk (Cousins) was already out there, it was just smart to keep me off the field and be ready to go next week.”

I asked Griffin about his difficulties in the passing game against an apparently vulnerable pass defense.

“We knew that they were going to rely on their back four, the two safeties and the corners, to take away the passing game and really dedicate the rest of the guys to the run,” he said.

“We just had times when we had guys open and we couldn’t make plays. And then there were times when you had to have those tough catches, those tough throws, and we didn’t make those, either . . . . Regardless of what the Denver secondary is ranked in the pass or their defense is ranked in the pass, they have good players back there. That’s what guys have to realize. Every week you step on the field there’s good players on every team. And you have to be better than them.”

Manning had his worst game of the season, committing all four of the Broncos’ turnovers with three interceptions and a sack-fumble, but he still threw for 354 yards and four touchdowns. His passer rating was more than twice Griffin’s (94.3) and he deftly conducted one of the most oxygen-sucking comebacks in NFL history. When I asked Shanahan whether his defense was gassed in the fourth quarter during the 38-point onslaught, which seemed obvious just watching his players gasping and taking turns delaying the game with alleged injuries, he blamed his anemic offense.

“I think what hurt our defense was keeping them on the field as long as we did,” he said. “Offensively, we didn’t get much going, so we gave them a lot of opportunities. You don’t give Peyton that many opportunities because he’s going to take advantage of it. Normally he’s going to figure out what you’re doing and come up with some big plays. That’s what they were able to do today.”

Griffin kept giving the ball back to Manning because of Del Rio’s defense, of course. It may be coming around right on time.

“I think without a doubt that was our best defensive outing,” Fox said.

So the homecoming tour is over for a while. Well, three weeks. The Broncos get a week off, then play division rivals San Diego and Kansas City. It resumes Nov. 24, when they visit New England. That will be Wes Welker’s homecoming. Think Bill Belichick will authorize a tribute video?


Of Jim Irsay, Peyton Manning and playoff football

Kevin Vaughan is an investigative reporter for Fox Sports and a former colleague at the Rocky Mountain News. He’s also a lifelong Broncos fan who has done some number-crunching on the subject of Peyton Manning and the playoffs. We’ll get to that in a minute.

First, though, let’s stop and gawk at the roadside wreck that resulted when Colts owner Jim Irsay tried to pat himself on the back while pointing to his Super Bowl ring while giving an interview to USA Today while driving his team toward Sunday night’s game against Manning and the Broncos.

The son of one of the most reviled owners in the history of American sport, Irsay is perhaps best known for tweeting random song lyrics and his endearing, adolescent way of substituting numerals for like-sounding words.

Last night he tweeted this indignant response to those who thought the effort to pat himself on the back for newfound wisdom in that USA Today interview had the effect of throwing other, more accomplished people under the bus:

Those expressing negatIvity about the concept of building well rounded teams around great QBs 2 achieve Championships have negative agendas

Those expressing negativity would include John Fox, coach of the Broncos, who responded to Irsay’s comments yesterday. Fox is not normally thought of as a nabob of negativity. To see him and other critics of Irsay’s remarks that way, you must put yourself in Jim Irsay’s world, where Jim Irsay is the North Star.

This is the guy who mused during the NFL lockout that his old pal Gene Upshaw wouldn’t have approved of NFL Players Association president DeMaurice Smith’s handling of the dispute. Upshaw was Smith’s predecessor at the NFLPA. He was also dead. So that was classy.

Here’s a passage from the USA Today interview:

“We’ve changed our model a little bit, because we wanted more than one of these,” Irsay says, flicking up his right hand to show his Super Bowl XLI championship ring.

“(Tom) Brady never had consistent numbers, but he has three of these,” Irsay adds. “Pittsburgh had two, the Giants had two, Baltimore had two and we had one. That leaves you frustrated.

“You make the playoffs 11 times, and you’re out in the first round seven out of 11 times. You love to have the Star Wars numbers from Peyton and Marvin (Harrison) and Reggie (Wayne). Mostly, you love this.”

Then Irsay flicks up his right hand again.

Here’s how Fox responded on SiriusXM NFL radio:

“I saw the comments. And to be honest with you, I thought it was a bit of a cheap shot. To me, in my opinion, they were disappointing and inappropriate. Peyton would never say anything. He’s too classy to do that. They sounded a little ungrateful and unappreciative to me. For a guy who has set a standard, won a Super Bowl, won four MVP awards … be thankful of that one Super Bowl ring, because a lot of people don’t have one.”

Irsay’s apologists in the Indianapolis media insist he was actually throwing former general manager Bill Polian under the bus. Everybody seems to agree he left tire tracks on somebody.

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy, formerly considered a paragon of positivity,  apparently has a negative agenda, too, because he not only thinks Irsay’s remarks were directed at Manning, he thinks they were part of an effort to make him angry and distract him from the task at hand.

“Jim is making this personal,” Dungy said in a text message to ESPN. “I’m surprised . . . Without Peyton, there would be no Lucas Oil Stadium. This team would be playing in L.A. right now. I don’t understand Jim saying this.”

Dungy’s attempt to cast Irsay as Machiavelli relies on a rather higher opinion of Irsay’s intellect than is commonly held, but it seems to be the only one he can think of.

“I think that’s what he’s trying to do,” Dungy said. “Have him make it such a big game he doesn’t perform well. I can’t figure any other reason to go this way.”

I am inclined to believe that Irsay was so busy extolling his current, sublime level of football understanding that he was oblivious to other implications. In any case, by this morning, he was in full Twitter back-pedal:

My comments meant if we gave Peyton better SP Teams n Def,we would have won more than 1 Sup/Bowl,instead of asking Peyton 2do too much

Give him this: There is no 54-year-old on Earth who tweets more like a teenager.

So the Colts winning one Super Bowl during Manning’s 14 seasons and 11 playoff appearances was somebody’s fault, he’s not saying whose, but Irsay and his new pals, GM Ryan Grigson and quarterback Andrew Luck, won’t make the same mistake. So good for them, Godspeed, whatever.

As I mentioned, Vaughan did some research on Manning’s postseason numbers, how they came about, and what they could still be by the time he’s finished:

A few random thoughts that I thought you might find interesting.

First, John Elway’s playoff record was 14-7. I’m guessing most people would say that a quarterback who wins twice as many as he loses in the playoffs is pretty special. And yet . . . how many people remember that following the Jacksonville loss at the end of the ’96 season that record was 7-7? It took those two playoff runs to put it where it ended up.

Manning is 9-11 right now, I believe. Let’s say he puts together two Super Bowl wins the next couple years (not a given, certainly, but not out of the realm of possibility, either). That would give him at least 6 postseason wins and as many as 8. So let’s say it’s 7 (he said dreamily), and he retires with a playoff record of 16-11; I’m guessing that, like Elway, no one really remembers the early struggles.

In ’99 (a year in which Manning took the Colts to 13-3 following two seasons of 3-13 and two playoff wins in the previous 28 years), the Colts got beat by the Titans, who, if memory serves, came within a yard of tying the Super Bowl and sending it into overtime.

In ’03, ’04 and ’05, the Colts got beat by the eventual Super Bowl champs (New England, New England, Pittsburgh).

In 2009, he lost in the Super Bowl.

In 2012, the Broncos got beat by the eventual Super Bowl champs (Baltimore).

That means 6 of his 11 playoff losses were to the team that eventually represented his conference in the Super Bowl or won the Super Bowl. Maybe the truth is that in those six years he lost to better teams.

While it is critical to have a very good or great quarterback to win a Super Bowl, it’s equally true that you need a lot more than that. How did John Elway do in the playoffs before Terrell Davis arrived? (Answer: .500.)

So, some “ifs” that could have changed everything for Manning.

What if Mike Vanderjagt doesn’t miss a 46-yard field goal by about 30 yards that would have tied the game at the end against the Steelers in 2005?

What if the Broncos defense doesn’t give up a conversion to Baltimore last year on a third-and-13 from its own 3-yard line in overtime?

What if the Colts had been a more balanced team all those years (rushing yardage in Manning’s 11 losses — 78, 99, 52, 98, 46, 58, 44, 64, 99, 93, 152; rushing yardage in Manning’s 9 wins — 85, 142, 76, 188, 100, 125, 191, 101, 42)?

What if Tony Dungy’s son hadn’t taken his own life near the end of the 2005 season? I can’t imagine how that affected Dungy, and how that, in turn, affected the team.

What if the Colts’ special teams aren’t asleep when the Saints open the second half of the Super Bowl with an onside kick — and recover, and go on to score a touchdown (swinging the momentum, in my humble opinion)?

And, finally, I looked at some stats from those 11 losses. Did Manning have some bad games? Yes — three stinkers where his completion percentage was in the mid- and high-40s. But also eight games in which the lowest completion percentage was 53 percent — and the others were 69, 69, 60, 69, 58, 64 and 65. I’d take those numbers all day long.

Overall in the playoffs, in games he lost — 257 of 436 (59 percent) for 2,833 yards, 12 TDs and 12 interceptions. If there’s a knock there, I’d say it’s the TD-to-INT ratio, though 10 of his 12 interceptions came in four of the games.

Total playoff numbers: 481 of 761 (63 percent) for 5,679 yards, 32 touchdowns, 21 picks.

John Elway’s total playoff numbers (22 games, including mop-up in Seattle in 1983): 355 of 651 (55 percent) for 4,964 yards, 27 touchdowns, 21 picks.

OK, that’s lots of stats, and, in the end, there’s only one stat that matters — the numbers up on the scoreboard. The current debate seems to me lacking in nuance and understanding of the fact that the quarterback is just one player and little things that have nothing to do with him change games.

Even without Vaughan’s research, Broncos fans old enough to use words rather than numbers to express words remember the long-time indictment of Elway: Can’t win the big one. Years later, Elway would grin and reflect on the fact that after the back-to-back championships to close his career, memories were seemingly wiped clean of the earlier stuff, as if zapped by Will Smith’s Neuralizer.

Manning has the same opportunity. In the end, it will depend upon the Broncos’ ability to do a better job than the Colts did building a team around him. But give Irsay credit: He may have given Manning more motivation as a Bronco than he ever did as a Colt.