Shanahan outcoaches Martz in Broncos' 23-16 winPosted: Monday September 09, 2002 1:09 AM
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
DENVER -- Mike Martz is a daredevil, and everybody in the NFL knows it. He proved it again Sunday, bypassing a chip-shot, game-tying field goal in the third quarter in order to go for the kill on a fourth-and-2 from the Denver 10.
That ploy failed, and the Rams never did tie the score. Instead, it was a rare bit of risky coaching turned in by Denver head coach Mike Shanahan on Sunday that proved to be the difference-maker in the Broncos’ 23-16 season-opening upset of St. Louis.
Clinging to a 16-13 lead with just about eight and a half minutes remaining in the game, Denver opted to go for a fourth-and-1 from its own 38, even though failure would have given the Rams an excellent chance to either tie or win a game they once trailed 16-3.
The Broncos called a pitch to rookie running back Clinton Portis, flipping him the ball in what almost looked like the old-fashioned option play. Untouched, Portis scooted around left tackle for 15 yards and the key first down on Denver’s eight-play, 71-yard game-clinching touchdown drive.
What in the world was Shanahan thinking? Mostly that the Broncos couldn’t punt and shift the burden onto their superb defense to once again keep the Rams out of the end zone. It was time to turn Denver’s offense into its own best defense.
"I just felt at that time we just couldn’t get anything going," Shanahan said. "And they’re a very explosive football team. If you give them too many chances, I think you’re making a mistake. I was just going with a gut feeling; 'Hey, we’re going to try and win it right here.' I thought we had a play we hadn’t shown in a long time and might catch them off balance.
"Luckily it worked, or I surely would be getting second-guessed right now with the way our defense played. But I thought we needed it, and I’m glad our players bailed me out from a bad call."
Shanahan said the Broncos haven’t used the pitch play since sometime in the middle of last season, long before Portis was on hand. But with the former Miami Hurricane’s speed to break it outside, he was the perfect choice to get the ball.
"I thought it was a great call," Broncos quarterback Brian Griese said. "We had run a few up the middle, and then to give Clinton a chance to use his speed on the outside, it was a great call."
The run by Portis, the team’s second-round pick, was Denver’s game-high rush, and was more than twice as long as the next longest gain by a Bronco (Griese had a 13-yard scramble). Portis finished with five carries for 34 yards in making his NFL debut, which was just three yards fewer than starter Olandis Gary’s 37 yards on 11 attempts.
Inspired by Shanahan’s moxie and Portis’ execution, the Broncos needed just four more plays for Griese and receiver Ed McCaffrey to hook up on the 23-yard scoring pass that handed St. Louis its first opening-day loss since 1998. The Rams had started each of the past three seasons 6-0.
"The fourth-and-1 call was huge," Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith said. "Things like that, with the game on the line, your coach has to have a lot of trust in the guys he has. And Mike has a lot of trust in every guy on this team. He puts it on us to make those type of plays."
The Broncos made one. And the Rams didn’t. Score one for Shanahan at Martz’s expense.
Don Banks covers pro football for CNNSI.com