McCaffrey's touchdown catch was his fifth this season but only his second from Elway. The other scoring throws were slung by backup Bubby Brister, who completed 43 of 71 passes for 561 yards and eight touchdowns subbing for the hamstrung, sore-backed Elway earlier this season. Brister, who sports a gaudy 111.3 quarterback rating, also kept things light in the huddle during his appearances, periodically drawling, "All right, m——, I'm not John, so get your asses in gear."
So smoothly is Denver's offense running that tight end Shannon Sharpe aptly likens it to a Ferrari. During a 41-16 win over the the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 4, Smith says, the Broncos used 13 formations in their first 15 plays: "We know it gets in their heads, because it gets in our heads during practice. That's when we have our problems." Executed to perfection, Shanahan's offensive system is a defensive coordinator's daymare. Brister's success at the wheel of the Ferrari suggests that the Mastermind's system is as important as or more important than its parts.
Ask Alex Gibbs. (If he answers, would you mind telling us what he says? Like most of his mesomorphic pupils, the Broncos' superb offensive line coach doesn't speak to the press.) The single biggest threat to a Denver Super Bowl repeat was the off-season upheaval on the offensive line. Pro Bowl left tackle Gary Zimmerman retired; right guard Brian Habib signed with the Seattle Seahawks as a free agent; and David Diaz-Infante, slated to replace Habib, tore the ACL in his right knee on Aug. 19 and didn't return until Sunday, albeit in a backup role.
We imagine Gibbs, who has a master's in European history from North Carolina, staring down these obstacles and exclaiming, "Nuts!" Former right tackle Tony Jones shifted to left tackle; 33-year-old Harry Swayne, benched two years ago by the San Diego Chargers, stepped in at right tackle. Second-year guard Dan Neil, whose name became synonymous with inactive last season, when he played sparingly in three games, replaced Diaz-Infante. The other guard remained Mark Schlereth, who spent the Broncos' recent bye week recovering from arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. It was the King of Pain's 22nd operation—his 12th on that joint.
From this chaos Gibbs has salvaged order. In Gibbs's scheme, Davis picks his own hole. "It's a zone-man system," says Diaz-Infante. "We believe in giving the back a two-way go. Never decide for the back, just stay on your man, stay square and let the back cut off you."
"It's almost like a nonverbal communication Davis has with [his linemen]," says Jaguars defensive tackle John Jurkovic, who describes a kind of Mile High entropy that afflicts visiting defenses. (Jurko was on the sideline with a broken leg when number 30 gashed the Jaguars for 184 yards, and the Broncos ran for 310 in Denver's 42-17 wild-card playoff victory last season.) "Guys try to do too much, things get a little helter-skelter," he says. "Davis is a great cutback runner. If you flow to the ball too quickly, if you leave your area, the next thing you know, you've got a gaper."
Though he's now running behind a less-talented, less-experienced line, Davis is seeing more gapers this year than last. What's more, Denver quarterbacks have been sacked a league-tying-low eight times. That's less surprising. Quarterbacks with the five NFL teams that Gibbs has coached have rejoiced, because sacks have come way down. "It doesn't matter to me whether it's the right tackle, the fullback or the tight end; somebody's ass is going to be accountable for [not keeping the quarterback] well," Gibbs told the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph in 1995—the last time, as far as we know, that he sat for an interview. "I will not allow those people to shirk their jobs."
"He's totally different from any coach I've ever had," says Diaz-Infante, who talked last week because the Orange Hush has been urged to designate a spokesman each week. "In meetings he calls us up to the board and quizzes us. He connects you to the system, to the guy next to you. He wants you to be more involved than in just your little world. He wants us to know why we do things."
In that case Diaz-Infante and the other Orange Hush members must have been wondering, What the hell was going on in the final minute of the first half? On a fourth-and-three at the Jacksonville 40, the Broncos' punt team stood idly by while the clock ticked down to four seconds. The Broncos were flagged for delay of game.
Why get penalized and then send out the field goal unit? Why not try a 58-yarder? Because, Shanahan explained afterward, if Elam had missed the field goal attempt, Jacksonville would have had the ball near midfield with three timeouts. As the penalty was being stepped off, the Mastermind asked his kicker, "Can you make it?"