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Still the No. 1

Broncos bypass QB, stick with Griese ... but Young lurks

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Posted: Sunday April 16, 2000 12:13 AM

  Brian Griese Brian Griese will enter the Broncos' first minicamp as the starting quarterback. Brian Bahr/Allsport

By John Donovan,

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- For now, anyway, Brian Griese is the man in Denver. He is the Broncos' quarterback both of the future and of the present and, for right now, his coach is showing all the belief in him that a coach can publicly show.

For now, anyway.

There's always that Steve Young thing.

The Broncos, a dismal season removed from back-to-back Super Bowl wins, could have gone a lot of ways with their No. 1 pick (the No. 15 selection overall) in Saturday's NFL Draft. They certainly could have gone quarterback. They certainly gave it some thought.

But when push came to pass, coach Mike Shanahan picked Cal cornerback Deltha O'Neal, even when the best-rated quarterback in the draft, Marshall's Chad Pennington, dropped into his lap.

The Broncos went defense with their two picks in the second round, too, and took a wide receiver with their third-round pick.

Somewhere, young Mr. Griese is letting loose one huge sigh of relief.

"It should. It should," Shanahan said when asked if the decision not to go with Pennington said anything to Griese. "If you bring a guy in, what you're doing is you're saying you're not happy with your quarterback situation.

"Brian is our No. 1 quarterback...We have all the confidence he'll do the job."

There had been a lot of talk about the Broncos taking Pennington. Griese hardly set the NFL afire in his first season as a starter in 1999, and Shanahan surely likes Pennington, the only quarterback taken in the first round (the New York Jets snapped him up three picks after the Broncos passed).

"Chad Pennington is a heck of a quarterback. But, at the same time, you have to evaluate your situation. I have a lot of confidence in Brian and [free-agent signee and new No. 2] Gus Frerotte," Shanahan said. "So our need wasn't there."

The Broncos needed O'Neal, who steps in as the starting kick returner and, perhaps, could fill in for troubled cornerback Dale Carter, who may miss the 2000 season if his drug-related suspension holds up.

The selection of O'Neal was hardly a surprise. The Denver Post trumpeted the likely pick in Saturday morning's paper, so hardly anyone was caught off guard.

With the possible exception of O'Neal.

"This was a shocker to me," he told the Denver area media on a conference call immediately after being selected. "I didn't expect anything."

There were more reasons to pass on Pennington than just the clear need for someone like O'Neal, a player the Broncos had targeted for that spot.

For the kind of first-round money the Broncos would have had to pay Pennington, Shanahan would have felt compelled to start him right away. "You're not going to take a guy with the 15th pick and put him on your bench for two years," Shanahan said.

And, yes, Shanahan really likes Griese.

The Broncos took the former Michigan star in the third round (91st overall) in 1998, figuring to bring him along slowly and eventually make him the starter. He spent his rookie season watching John Elway's swan song, playing in only one game.

After Elway's retirement, though, Shanahan stunned the league by naming Griese as the starter, leapfrogging veteran Bubby Brister at the beginning of the season.

Griese responded -- kind of -- with a 4-9 record as a starter, and the Broncos slid to 6-10.

He completed almost 58 percent of his passes and threw for more than 3,000 yards. He also had 14 touchdown passes to go with 14 interceptions -- not bad for a first season as a starter, especially considering Pro Bowl running back Terrell Davis blew out his knee in the fourth game of the season and did not play again.

Still, by Denver standards, Griese's season was so-so at best.

And that's where Steve Young comes in.

Folks started wondering whether Young, the San Francisco 49ers' Pro Bowl quarterback who missed most of last season recuperating from another concussion, would be willing to hook up with Shanahan in Denver for another shot at a Super Bowl.

Shanahan, clearly, relishes the possibility. In fact, he encourages talk of it. Someone asked him Saturday to rate his quarterbacks after he bypassed Pennington.

"Well, Brian, obviously, No. 1. Gus, No. 2," said Shanahan, who was the 49ers' offensive coordinator from 1992-94. "And Steve, No. 3 ..."

He waited a beat or two in perfect standup style.

"That's Steve Buck," he finished. Buck is an free-agent out of Weber State.

Ultimately, whether Young is an option remains largely up to Young, who has been incommunicado while on a globe-trotting honeymoon. The 49ers seem willing to let him go, and Shanahan seems more than willing to give him a go.

Until Young makes a decision, though -- and there's a strong possibility he will retire -- the Broncos will go into minicamp April 28 with Griese, free-agent signee Frerotte and Buck. Jeff Brohm, a free-agent at the end last season who hasn't taken a snap since 1997, also lurks on the roster.

With that group, of course, Griese is clearly the man in Denver.

For now, anyway.

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