First they lost their leader, then they lost their luster, but even in their darkest hour the Denver Broncos retained their levity. In a remarkable display of gallows humor, a dozen members of the two-time defending Super Bowl championship team gathered on Sunday night at the Chop House, a downtown Denver eatery, and took turns goofing on their stunning, mile-high free fall. One fresh-faced player yelled, "We're done!" as he picked up a salad fork and stuck it against his chest. Four veterans eyed a row of massive metal vats containing microbrewed beer. "See that big tank on the right?" one Broncos starter asked. "That's exactly where I'm headed." After a short pause everyone broke into giddy laughter.
Sometimes, when your faith is gone, there's nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile. A few hours earlier, in the wake of a 21-13 loss to the New York Jets, the Broncos retreated to their locker room, said all the right things to the press, then poured out of Mile High Stadium and essentially gave up on their season. Instead of striving to make history, they are history—and they know it. Saddled with an 0-4 record, a quarterback controversy and a season-ending knee injury to its best player, running back Terrell Davis, Denver is mired in the most bewildering nosedive a Super Bowl champion has experienced. "We could very easily go 0-8, maybe finish 3-13," one veteran defender said after the game. "I hate to say it, but we're finished."
The Broncos have as much chance of becoming the first team to win three consecutive Super Bowls as Davis does of earning a second straight league MVP trophy. "We're all dumbfounded," said left guard Mark Schlereth, an 11-year veteran. "I've never experienced anything like it. We've got to do something to get out of this, but I have no idea what that something is."
Even Denver's all-seeing savant, coach Mike Shanahan, is out of answers. Riding high after his Super Bowl triumph over former boss Dan Reeves and the Atlanta Falcons last January, Shanahan, who doubles as the Broncos' front-office chieftain, has recently been torn down by media critics, fans and, most significant, some of his players. Suddenly, unceremoniously, the man Coloradans call Mastermind is being depicted as a master of disaster: Shanahan's prized free-agent signee, cornerback Dale Carter, has been beaten regularly; his new starter at right tackle, undrafted third-year veteran Matt Lepsis, has struggled; and, worst of all, his stylish offensive scheme is in a shambles without a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback. The Broncos are adjusting to life without John Elway, who retired in May after 16 seasons, about as smoothly as the Chicago Bulls handled the departure of Michael Jordan.
Though Shanahan was close to Elway during his two stints as a Denver assistant in the 1980s and early '90s, their relationship suffered in recent years. Shanahan held all the organization's nominal power after being hired as the Broncos' coach before the '95 season, but sources say Elway felt comfortable skirting Shanahan's rules. "If you were out with John," says one player, "curfew didn't apply." Elway occasionally adjourned quarterbacks meetings and reconvened them in a bar near Denver's training facility.
When Elway left, Shanahan became the unquestioned king of the Broncos. On Aug. 31 he made a move some players viewed as heavy-handed, benching popular veteran Bubby Blister without warning and handing the starting quarterback's job to second-year player Brian Griese. Had Denver gotten off to a good start, the decision would have been heralded as another sign of Shanahan's genius. Instead, Griese's struggles—and Shanahan's insistence on keeping him in the lineup—have served as a lightning rod for all the frustration surrounding the loss of a legend. Shanahan concedes that it's "human nature" for players to ascribe their struggles to Elway's absence, "but you just hope they have enough character to overcome it."
"Mike might argue with me on this, but I have to feel there's a psychological effect as a result of not having John here," says Broncos owner Pat Bowlen. "You hear about chemistry all the time, and a lot of people scoff at it, but I think we're struggling with it now. Can not having John Elway affect an entire team? Yes, because of all the intangibles and because he was this team's identity for so long. We can form a new identity, but that takes time. It's like breaking up with your girlfriend. Unless you find a prettier one right away, the devastation can linger for months."
Griese played well in Denver's season-opening loss to the Miami Dolphins, but in the past three games he has interspersed effective stretches with the type of mistakes common to young quarterbacks. On Sunday his first throw was a sweet sideline pass to wideout Rod Smith for a 71-yard gain, but he later served up three interceptions. For the second time in four games Shanahan pulled Griese in favor of Brister, who threw a pair of interceptions to Jets nickel-back Marcus Coleman in the final 3:12.
Privately, many Broncos would like to see the outgoing Brister, who won all four of the games he started for an injured Elway last season, get another shot. Some Denver players are even pining for veteran Chris Miller, who hasn't played since he suffered a series of concussions in 1995. The quiet Griese hasn't yet been embraced by teammates but says he has no plans to "turn into a rah-rah guy, because I don't think that's what this team needs. It's tough, because we're losing. I don't know how much they're listening to me, to tell the truth."
Denver's leadership void extends to the absence of two other 1998 team captains-veteran free safety Steve Atwater, jettisoned to help make room under the salary cap for Carter (four years, $22.8 million), and special teams standout Keith Burns, who left after receiving a bigger contract offer from the Chicago Bears. Atwater, who signed with the Jets, came back to sting the Broncos, stopping running back Derek Loville on fourth-and-one from the Denver 36 with 4:49 to go. Meanwhile Carter, a physical corner who was a four-time Pro Bowl selection with the Kansas City Chiefs, had another horrendous afternoon of missed tackles, blown coverages and costly penalties. Carter's season has been marred by family trauma: His 34-year-old aunt died of cancer, and a niece was assaulted recently during a break-in at her home in Atlanta. After the game he cried in the locker room. "At least now we know he cares," one teammate said. Carter, however, may have been crying over one fan's unconscionable behavior. While walking off the field, he was hit near his left eye by a metal object.