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Denver BRONCOS
Austin Murphy
August 30, 1999
To get an idea of the array of talent available to the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, just check them out from one end of the line to the other
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August 30, 1999

Denver Broncos

To get an idea of the array of talent available to the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, just check them out from one end of the line to the other

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A CHANGE FOR THE WORSE?

This year the Broncos will become the seventh Super Bowl team—and just the third Super Bowl champion, along with the 1970 Colts and the 1971 Cowboys—to open the next season with a different starting quarterback. The last five such teams made it back to the playoffs, but none returned to the Super Bowl.

Super Bowl team

Super Bowl QB

Reason for absence

Next year's opening same QB

Regular-season W-L, how fared in playoffs

1998 Broncos

John Elway

Retired

?

?

1995 Steelers

Neil O'Donnell

Left as free agent

Jim Miller

10-6, lost divisional playoff

1979 Rams

Vince Ferragamo

Coach's decision

Pat Haden

11-5, lost wild-card game

1971 Cowboys

Roger Staubach

Injured

Craig Morton

10-4, lost NFC Championship Game

970 Colts

John Unitas

Injured

Earl Morrall

10-4, lost AFC Championship Game

1969 Vikings

Joe Kapp

Contract dispute

Gary Cuozzo

12-2, lost divisional playoff

1968 Colts

Earl Morral

Coach's decision

Jolin Unitas

8-5-1, did not qualify for postseason

The king is retired and peddling automobiles; long live the king. With John Elway an ex-Bronco, the question is not whether Terrell Davis is ready to carry the team to an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl. (TD had a perfect attendance record at off-season workouts, and he says he's in the best shape of his life.) The question is, can the guys in front of him keep opening the holes?

Are the men behind the Man up to the job? We turn our attention to one Matt Lepsis, a mild-mannered 25-year-old from Frisco, Texas, in whose crew cut the odd gray hair can already be discerned. You would age prematurely, too, if you were seen as a potential weak link in an otherwise airtight unit; if you came to work every day for Alex Gibbs, the Broncos' line coach whose motto is: Dumb guys get you fired.

The NFL's best offensive line relies heavily on timing, synchronization and communication. That's why Gibbs professes to dislike playing a tenderfoot, grumbling, "Let somebody else get them through their growing pains." Perhaps Denver fans should be less concerned about how Bubby Brister will fare in Elway's stead and worry more about the fact that last year's starting right tackle, Harry Swayne, signed a free-agent contract with the Ravens. His replacement is the callow Lepsis, a third-year player and former Colorado tight end who sat out his rookie season with a knee injury and has never started an NFL game. Will Swayne's departure become an obstacle to the three-peat?

The truth is, the Broncos' brass is looking forward to seeing the gifted Lepsis in action. While it was the pass-protection skills he demonstrated in college that caught the attention of Denver coach Mike Shanahan, the ex-Buffalo can also open holes. Filling in at right tackle for 2½ quarters against the Dolphins in last year's divisional playoff, Lepsis helped pave the way for 250 rushing yards in the Broncos' 38-3 rout. If Lepsis falters, Gibbs can plug in Trey Teague, a second-year tackle out of Tennessee the club is also high on.

It seems almost unfair that at the same time it has the NFL's finest running back, Denver should be so loaded on the line, for now and seemingly well down the road. The Broncos have four returning starters in center Tom Nalen, 28; right guard Dan Neil, 25; left guard Mark Schlereth, 33; and left tackle Tony Jones, 33. The newcomer, Lepsis, is only one of a half-dozen immensely talented young linemen the organization has stockpiled since '94, when it drafted Nalen. He became a starter a year later, played in the last two Pro Bowls and has emerged as the leader of this unit. In April '97 the Broncos gave up four picks (a third-rounder, two sixths and a seventh) for the right to select Neil in the third round; the former Texas lineman was superb in starting every game last season. Gibbs, who even raves about backups Teague and K.C. Jones, predicted last January that his group could turn out to be the best offensive line of all time.

However, Nalen somewhat irreverently suggests that Gibbs enjoys a bit of turnover in his core group. "I think it keeps things interesting for him, challenging new players," Nalen says.

Shanahan disagrees. "There's nothing boring about returning five starters," he says. "It's just that nowadays it's hard to do."

Which leads to the larger question looming over the defending champs: Will success on the scale Denver has enjoyed lead to complacency? Not if Shanahan has anything to say about it. In the victorious Super Bowl locker room last January, Shanahan's final words to the team were, "Off-season workouts start tomorrow, 'cause we're going for three!"

Attendance at those workouts was better than ever. "You've got to give Mike credit," says offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. "He signs a guy like Dale Carter"—the former Chief was the finest cornerback on the free-agent market—"which tells our guys, we're not interested in being as good as we were last year, we want to be better."

Schlereth, who continues to play at a Pro Bowl level despite undergoing his 23 rd and 24th surgeries in the off-season (both were on his left elbow), says complacency isn't an issue. "John's not here, that's a challenge. Three in a row, that's a challenge. We've got new challenges," he says. "It's not like we're sitting around saying, 'Oh yeah, we've won two Super Bowls, been there, done that.' "

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