Some players would like to see more fire from Lepsis, whom Shanahan promoted after veteran Harry Swayne signed with the Baltimore Ravens in the off-season. Early in the fourth quarter of Kansas City's 26-10 win over Denver on Sept. 19, 6'4", 328-pound Chiefs defensive tackle Chester McGlockton became enraged after being chop-blocked by Lepsis. According to witnesses, McGlockton approached the 6'4", 290-pound Lepsis in the Broncos' huddle and slapped him. One Denver player says he was stunned that neither Lepsis nor any of the other Broncos retaliated.
Lepsis and his fellow linemen have had trouble opening holes. Before he went down with ligament and cartilage damage to his right knee, Davis had gained 211 yards on 67 carries, compared to the 526 yards (5.5-yard average) and 489 yards (5.2 yards) he ran for in the first four games of 1997 and '98, respectively. And though Lepsis can't be blamed for his role in the collision that ended Davis's season, Shanahan's critics will seize on the play as a symbolic snapshot: With the Broncos leading 10-7 in the first quarter and facing third-and-nine on their own 23, Griese floated a 10-yard pass that New York safety Victor Green snagged on the run. As Green reached the 20, Davis angled in to make the tackle, but he was knocked off his feet by the diving Lepsis, and all three players ended up sprawled out-of-bounds. Davis stayed down; so did what remained of Denver's swagger.
The Broncos got no sympathy from the Jets, their victims in last season's AFC Championship Game. New York was well aware that one player's absence can cause a team to unravel, having lost its first three games in the wake of quarterback Vinny Testaverde's season-ending Achilles tendon tear in Week 1. Spurred by a defense that forced six takeaways and by a solid effort from fill-in quarterback Rick Mirer (17 completions in 28 attempts for 242 yards and two touchdowns), the Jets kept hope alive.
While New York's coach and de facto general manager Bill Parcells has barely been criticized for leaving the Jets without a proven backup quarterback, Shanahan, despite his 39-9 record over the previous three seasons, has absorbed a public pounding. Last week alone an editorial cartoon in the Rocky Mountain News and a column by The Denver Post's Jim Armstrong each suggested that Shanahan's ego had influenced his decision to stick with Griese. Last Friday, when Shanahan received an office visit from his wife, Peggy, he said jokingly, "She's the only friend I've got left." Later he said, "You would think I might've earned a little slack," and it was tough to argue.
Not everyone pins the Broncos' collapse on Shanahan. "Everybody has his theory," Davis says, "and even in this locker room you hear the damnedest things." Here are two credible theories: Opponents devoted large chunks of their off-seasons to figuring out ways to beat Denver, particularly the Dolphins, who were vexed by their 38-3 defeat in an AFC divisional playoff game last season. One of Miami's innovations during its Sept. 13 win over the Broncos—a set featuring two running backs, two tight ends and one wideout—was copied by each of Denver's subsequent foes. The other theory revolves around injuries, which Joe Montana used to say are the toughest obstacle in repeating as Super Bowl champions. After three years of good health the Broncos lost standout linebacker John Mobley to a season-ending knee injury in the game against Kansas City; now they must try to survive without the league's premier runner.
Even without Davis, Denver is talented enough to rebound toward respectability—but it faces some hellacious obstacles. The Broncos' next four games are against the Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings. Already the Broncos' locker room is filled with finger-pointing and second-guessing. Spoiled Mile High fans are even more negative than the players. Griese was booed late in Sunday's game, and when Brister replaced him and ran for 17 yards on his first snap, several spectators behind the Denver bench yelled, "See that, Griese? You suck. Wake up, Shanahan." On the next play Brister threw an interception. "Bubby," a fan screamed, "you suck, too!" Another bellowed, "It's Miller time!"
When the heckling was recounted at the Chop House, it drew chuckles from all three quarterbacks. As Brister raised his glass and toasted Griese, another Bronco said, "Throwing Bubby in at the end wasn't fair to him, and it wasn't fair to Brian. Mike made his decision, and he should live with it. He can't have it both ways."
Brister took a sip of his cocktail and then stood up and poured the rest of his drink into Griese's glass. Behind him the silvery beer tanks gleamed. Bending his Louisiana drawl into an impression of Al Pacino in Scarface, Brister proclaimed, "I share it wit chu," and everyone busted up.
For a few seconds the Broncos in attendance seemed bubbly, almost unburdened. They may be headed into the tank, but they'll go as a team.