The king is retired and peddling automobiles; long live the
king. With John Elway an ex-Bronco, the question is not whether
Terrell Davis is ready to carry the team to an unprecedented
third straight Super Bowl. (TD had a perfect attendance record
at off-season workouts, and he says he's in the best shape of
his life.) The question is, can the guys in front of him keep
opening the holes?
Are the men behind the Man up to the job? We turn our attention
to one Matt Lepsis, a mild-mannered 25-year-old from Frisco,
Texas, in whose crew cut the odd gray hair can already be
discerned. You would age prematurely, too, if you were seen as a
potential weak link in an otherwise airtight unit; if you came
to work every day for Alex Gibbs, the Broncos' line coach whose
motto is: Dumb guys get you fired.
The NFL's best offensive line relies heavily on timing,
synchronization and communication. That's why Gibbs professes to
dislike playing a tenderfoot, grumbling, "Let somebody else get
them through their growing pains." Perhaps Denver fans should be
less concerned about how Bubby Brister will fare in Elway's stead
and worry more about the fact that last year's starting right
tackle, Harry Swayne, signed a free-agent contract with the
Ravens. His replacement is the callow Lepsis, a third-year player
and former Colorado tight end who sat out his rookie season with
a knee injury and has never started an NFL game. Will Swayne's
departure become an obstacle to the three-peat?
The truth is, the Broncos' brass is looking forward to seeing
the gifted Lepsis in action. While it was the pass-protection
skills he demonstrated in college that caught the attention of
Denver coach Mike Shanahan, the ex-Buffalo can also open holes.
Filling in at right tackle for 2 1/2 quarters against the
Dolphins in last year's divisional playoff, Lepsis helped pave
the way for 250 rushing yards in the Broncos' 38-3 rout. If
Lepsis falters, Gibbs can plug in Trey Teague, a second-year
tackle out of Tennessee the club is also high on.
It seems almost unfair that at the same time it has the NFL's
finest running back, Denver should be so loaded on the line, for
now and seemingly well down the road. The Broncos have four
returning starters in center Tom Nalen, 28; right guard Dan
Neil, 25; left guard Mark Schlereth, 33; and left tackle Tony
Jones, 33. The newcomer, Lepsis, is only one of a half-dozen
immensely talented young linemen the organization has stockpiled
since '94, when it drafted Nalen. He became a starter a year
later, played in the last two Pro Bowls and has emerged as the
leader of this unit. In April '97 the Broncos gave up four picks
(a third-rounder, two sixths and a seventh) for the right to
select Neil in the third round; the former Texas lineman was
superb in starting every game last season. Gibbs, who even raves
about backups Teague and K.C. Jones, predicted last January that
his group could turn out to be the best offensive line of all
However, Nalen somewhat irreverently suggests that Gibbs enjoys
a bit of turnover in his core group. "I think it keeps things
interesting for him, challenging new players," Nalen says.
Shanahan disagrees. "There's nothing boring about returning five
starters," he says. "It's just that nowadays it's hard to do."
Which leads to the larger question looming over the defending
champs: Will success on the scale Denver has enjoyed lead to
complacency? Not if Shanahan has anything to say about it. In
the victorious Super Bowl locker room last January, Shanahan's
final words to the team were, "Off-season workouts start
tomorrow, 'cause we're going for three!"
Attendance at those workouts was better than ever. "You've got
to give Mike credit," says offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
"He signs a guy like Dale Carter"--the former Chief was the
finest cornerback on the free-agent market--"which tells our
guys, we're not interested in being as good as we were last
year, we want to be better."
Schlereth, who continues to play at a Pro Bowl level despite
undergoing his 23rd and 24th surgeries in the off-season (both
were on his left elbow), says complacency isn't an issue.
"John's not here, that's a challenge. Three in a row, that's a
challenge. We've got new challenges," he says. "It's not like
we're sitting around saying, 'Oh yeah, we've won two Super
Bowls, been there, done that.'"
With all due respect to Elway, his former teammates seem poised
to go there and do that again.
COLOR PHOTO: JEFF CARLICK/ENDZONE The benefactor Behind a wall of the ablest blockers in the NFL, Davis has rushed for 5,296 yards over the past three seasons.
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO
Sept. 13 MIAMI (Mon.)
19 at Kansas City
26 at Tampa Bay
Oct. 3 N.Y. JETS
10 at Oakland
17 GREEN BAY
24 at New England
Nov. 7 at San Diego
14 at Seattle
22 OAKLAND (Mon.)
28 Open date
Dec. 5 KANSAS CITY
13 at Jacksonville (Mon.)
25 at Detroit (Sat.)
Jan. 2 SAN DIEGO
1998 Record 14-2 (1st in AFC West)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 2/7/3; defense 3/26/11
1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 4 (tie) Opponents' 1998
winning percentage: .535 Games against playoff teams: 6
A CHANGE FOR THE WORSE?
This year the Broncos will become the seventh Super Bowl
team--and just the third Super Bowl champion, along with the
1970 Colts and the 1971 Cowboys--to open the next season with a
different starting quarterback. The last five such teams made it
back to the playoffs, but none returned to the Super Bowl.
Super Bowl team Reason for Next year's Regular-season W-L,
Super Bowl QB absence opening game QB how fared in
John Elway Retired ? ?
Neil O'Donnell Left as free agent Jim Miller 10-6, lost
Vince Ferragamo Coach's decision Pat Haden 11-5, lost
Roger Staubach Injured Craig Morton 10-4, lost NFC
John Unitas Injured Earl Morrall 10-4, lost AFC
Joe Kapp Contract dispute Gary Cuozzo 12-2, lost
Earl Morrall Coach's decision John Unitas 8-5-1, did not
PLAYER TO WATCH
Steve Atwater is with the Jets in part because the Broncos'
brass felt it had a capable replacement in Eric Brown, the
latest in Denver's line of molar-rattling free safeties. The
six-foot, 210-pound, second-year pro out of Mississippi State is
a former high jumper who now specializes in jumping receivers
who encroach on his turf. "This guy blows people up," says
defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. Brown started 10 games at
strong safety last season, then disappeared from the lineup
after annoying coach Mike Shanahan. Brown came back from a groin
pull too soon and reinjured himself but didn't tell Shanahan,
who benched him for the rest of the season. Now Brown's back in
the lineup, drilling opponents like a young Atwater.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS
Coach: Mike Shanahan
Fifth season with Broncos (55-29 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Bubby Brister 31
131 att. 78 comp. 59.5% 986 yds. 10 TDs 3 int. 99.0 rtg.
RB Terrell Davis 1
392 att. 2,008 yds. 5.1 avg. 25 rec. 217 yds. 8.7 avg. 23 TDs
RB Derek Loville 245
53 att. 161 yds. 3.0 avg. 2 rec. 29 yds. 14.5 avg. 2 TDs
FB Howard Griffith 305
4 att. 13 yds. 3.3 avg. 15 rec. 97 yds. 6.5 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Rod Smith 24 86 rec. 1,222 yds. 6 TDs
WR Ed McCaffrey 46 64 rec. 1,053 yds. 10 TDs
WR Marcus Nash 178 4 rec. 76 yds. 0 TDs
TE Shannon Sharpe 26 64 rec. 768 yds. 10 TDs
K Jason Elam 58 58/58 XPs 23/27 FGs 127 pts.
PR Travis McGriff (R 288 21 ret. 6.9 avg. 0 TDs
KR Derek Loville 245 6 ret. 17.5 avg. 0 TDs
LT Tony Jones 6'5" 295 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Mark Schlereth 6'3" 278 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Tom Nalen 6'3" 280 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Dan Neil 6'2" 283 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Matt Lepsis 6'4" 290 lbs. 16 games 0 starts
LE Maa Tanuvasa 45 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
LT Keith Traylor 32 tackles 2 sacks
RT Trevor Pryce 43 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
RE Alfred Williams 13 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Bill Romanowski 72 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
MLB Glenn Cadrez 76 tackles 4 sacks
OLB John Mobley 112 tackles 1 sack
CB Ray Crockett 51 tackles 3 int.
SS Tyrone Braxton 39 tackles 1 int.
FS Eric Brown 31 tackles 0 int.
CB Dale Carter 39 tackles 2 int.
P Tom Rouen 66 punts 46.9 avg.
New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 122)