The Falcons, for their part, want him to err on the side of caution, to live to fight another day. Says Jones, "He has the skills to catch 100 passes this season, easily, if he stays healthy."
Told that a banner season had been predicted for him, Metcalf responded with a sneer. "That's what I've been hearing all my career," he said. While Metcalf is a cynic and in Cleveland was a bit of a clubhouse lawyer, Milburn is a company man. "It's the story of my life," he said. "Keep the mask on, even when you're irritated."
Milburn spent the summer in Denver lifting, running, posing questions about new coach Mike Shanahan's offense and otherwise trying to gain the favorable attention of Shanahan's staff. Like Metcalf, Milburn has impressive bloodlines—his cousin Rod won an Olympic gold medal in the 110-meter hurdles in 1972—and he is also looking forward to a fresh start in '95. Shanahan, the offensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers for the past three seasons, has brought the West Coast offense to the Rocky Mountains.
It is an offense that has rescued Milburn before. As a junior at Stanford, playing for Dennis Green, Milburn spent much of the season running between the tackles and serving as a decoy for fullback Tommy Vardell. Milburn does not recall the season fondly. Salvation came in the form of a gentleman with a passable football pedigree. When Green was named coach of the Minnesota Vikings, Bill Walsh returned to the Farm, and that season Milburn found himself running draws, sweeps and reverses, catching flare passes and returning kicks. He scored 14 touchdowns and was taken by Denver in the second round of the draft.
Bronco fans enshrined him in Canton after one game. In his NFL debut Milburn accounted for 148 all-purpose yards against the New York Jets. He caught a 50-yard pass, returned a punt 36 yards and scored on a 25-yard pass play in which he beat a linebacker over the middle, deked safety Ronnie Lott out of his girdle pads and outran Eric Thomas—who had the angle on him—to the end zone.
Reality followed. "I started to press," said Milburn. Trying to turn ordinary plays into big ones, he was often stripped of the ball and led all nonquarterbacks that season with nine fumbles.
Last year he cured himself of butterfingers and escaped from a rut. As a rookie Milburn had been primarily a third-down back. However, when Rod Bernstine was hurt in the fourth game of the season, Milburn got more first- and second-down snaps, led NFL running backs with 77 catches and fumbled only four times.
His busy summer notwithstanding, Milburn is unlikely to earn the starting job this season. The Bronco staff's desire to get him the ball is tempered by its desire to keep him out of traction. "He's not the biggest guy in the world," says offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. "We don't want the stuffing beaten out of him."
Noting that he has never missed a game because of injury, Milburn expressed weariness with coaches who use his size as a pretext for keeping him on the bench. He said that after racking up 102 all-purpose yards against the Harris on Nov. 6, "the next week, I was like the forgotten man."
"Tell me about it," replied Metcalf. He noted that after wrecking the Raiders with those four TDs three years ago, "I didn't touch the ball for five weeks." The problem, he said, is that "coaches are too busy trying to outsmart each other." He prefers the approach of the 49ers. 'They line up and say, 'Stop us. If you can, then we'll adjust.' "