The mastermind faced this conundrum on Sunday night: So many milestones to acknowledge, so little time. After handing a game ball to running back Terrell Davis following the Denver Broncos' seventh straight win, a 37-24 thrashing of the Jacksonville Jaguars, coach Mike (the Mastermind) Shanahan turned to do his postgame radio show. Class dismissed. As the Broncos drifted to their lockers, John Elway hissed a reminder: "Psst, Mike! Jason!"
"Oh, jeez," said Shanahan. "Sometimes you forget about kickers." Jason Elam's 63-yard field goal on the last play of the first half had capped a 24-point quarter for Denver and tied Tom Dempsey's 28-year-old record for the longest NFL three-pointer. After belatedly giving Elam his props, Shanahan shouted, "What do you think, guys?" A roar arose; Elam got his game ball.
Like Elam, Davis had cozied up to some exalted company. His 136 rushing yards on 31 carries gave him 1,001 on the season, making him the third player in NFL history, along with Jim Brown and O.J. Simpson, to crack four figures in just seven games. In discussing this milestone, Davis displayed all the exuberance of Deputy Dawg. "I'm not really a record guy," said the guy who, after 3½ seasons, holds or shares 51 Broncos records. "I'd exchange every record I have right now for another Super Bowl."
The way Denver is playing, Davis might end up with both more records and another ring. As the midpoint of the season approaches, 1998 looks like the Year of the Bronco. By keeping its coaching staff intact and avoiding key free-agent losses, Denver has avoided the hangover that defending Super Bowl champs sometimes suffer. "In fact," Shanahan said on Sunday night, "we're playing better than we did last year."
The Jaguars were expected to provide a barometer as to just how good the Broncos are, but the keenly anticipated showdown turned into a showcase for Davis, who also scored three times and caught five passes for a career-high 76 yards. He has now out-rushed 27 teams and is on pace to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards, set in 1984. As a reward to those teammates he deemed integral to his success last season, when he ran for 1,750 yards and was named Super Bowl MVP, Davis handed out nine Rolex watches before Saturday's walk-through. Let us take his cue, then, and sing the praises of those unsung Broncos to whom he is always snapping off crisp salutes.
Meet Howard Griffith, the best blocking fullback in football, bar none. Against the Jaguars he touched the ball twice, on a pair of receptions, which is a lot for him. (Going into Sunday's game, he had two carries and six catches.) But he steamrollered one Jacksonville defender after another with his blocks. Griffith, a points machine as a senior at Illinois in 1990, when he had an NCAA-record eight touchdowns in one game, has scored seven times in his five-year pro career. He could care less about not getting the ball. A free agent who left the Carolina Panthers to sign with the Broncos before the '97 season, he embraces his role in Denver. "The accountability factor is incredibly high here," he says. "No one wants to be the reason a play didn't work."
Certainly not McCaffrod. Forget the 64 catches and eight touchdowns for which Denver's starting wide receivers, Ed McCaffrey and Rod Smith—Rolex recipients both—have combined this season. No wideout tandem does a better job of down-field blocking. "We never take a play off," says Smith. "We're busting our butts on the backside. If we go get that safety, there's a chance of Terrell breaking it every time."
Like virtually every Bronco, Smith was extra ornery going into Sunday's game. Unpleasant memories of Jacksonville's epic 30-27 upset of Denver in a 1996 AFC divisional playoff game still rankle. "Damn right, I remember," says Smith. "I lost about 30 thousand dollars [in playoff money]. I figure somebody owes me."
Smith prefers to hit opposing defensive backs up high, with exceptions. "If a guy is going to take a full-speed run at me or if he's jaw-jacking, well, he's going to get cut. He's running his mouth, I'm busting him on the knees," he says. "He keeps talking, I'm going to keep cutting him. That way, when I come down the field, he's leery. He's asking himself, Is this guy going to cut me, or is he going to run a route?"
McCaffrey, likewise, goes against the grain in the generally effete fraternity of wideouts: He likes the rough stuff. On the first play of the second quarter on Sunday, Elway faked a handoff to Davis—free safety Chris Hudson bit hard—and hit McCaffrey in stride on a 41-yard touchdown pass. Instead of trying to outrace cornerback Aaron Beasley, the 6'5", 215-pound McCaffrey turned into him at the three and stiff-armed and bulled his way into the end zone.