He had a gun for an arm, a sniper's eye and a silver and black jersey. If he only had a brain. An hour before the Oakland Raiders' game against the Denver Broncos last Oct. 10, a spectator with severe anger-management issues stood up in his seat behind the south end zone and fired a battery at Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. The Energizer sailed 15 yards and smacked Shanahan in the back of the head, and though the blow nearly knocked the coach unconscious, he continued to supervise his team's pregame warmups. "I was seeing stars," Shanahan recalled last week as he prepared to return to the scene of the crime. "But I knew that if I would've turned around, the Raiders fans would've gone nuts, so I waited awhile and then casually picked up the battery. Luckily it was only a double A, or I might not have been in such great shape."
That cowardly act wasn't enough to short-circuit the NFL's resident mastermind, and conventional methods aren't doing the trick, either. On Sunday, Shanahan strode back onto the Oakland turf and did what he always does against the Raiders—mess mercilessly with their heads. Following their coach's strategic blueprint to perfection, the Broncos rolled to a 33-24 victory that reestablished the former NFL kingpins as, at the very least, the class of the AFC West. Shanahan, an erstwhile Oakland coach and a Raider hater of the first degree, is 10-1 against the team from which he was divorced bitterly 11 years ago, but he's focused on bigger and better things. "I've got the same goals I've always had," says Shanahan, who led Denver to Super Bowl triumphs following the 1997 and '98 seasons. "We've had a lot of people question us the last couple of years, but these players have responded to the challenge, and they're thinking big."
While Shanahan's bunch hasn't yet regained the swagger it had in the waning years of John Elway's career, the spring in the Broncos' step is increasing by the week. When you're scoring 36.3 points a game without your best player (injured halfback Terrell Davis), and when his replacement ( Mike Anderson, a rookie who began the season as a third-stringer) ransacks Oakland for 187 yards on 32 carries, you have ample reason to believe. One other number stood out after Sunday: The Broncos (2-1), who dropped a 41-36 thriller to the Rams in their opener, are above .500 for the first time since Super Bowl XXXIII in January 1999. "We're good, bro," defensive lineman Mike Lodish said after the game. "Just because John Elway's not here and we've lost some other All-Pros, it doesn't mean we're going away. Even against St. Louis, we didn't feel the Rams were that much better than us—if at all."
If the fact that a Denver team run by Shanahan is a bona fide Super Bowl contender seems like less than startling news, consider how dramatically the Broncos' fortunes have changed in 11 months. When they last visited Oakland, the battery that caromed off Shanahan's noggin was a harsh metaphor for the fire he was under in Denver. His first post-Elway season had been one giant headache from the outset, what with Davis's season-ending knee injury in the fourth game, new quarterback Brian Griese's shakiness and an 0-4 start that caused major locker room dissension.
Now the Good Ship Shanahan is back on cruise control. With three AFC West teams—the Kansas City Chiefs (1-2), the defending division-champion Seattle Seahawks (1-2) and the San Diego Chargers (0-3)—seemingly dead in the water, Sunday's showdown with the undefeated Raiders had strong ramifications. "This was big, and our coaches deserve a lot of credit, because in our organization they're almost more important than the players," said Broncos wideout Rod Smith, who caught seven passes for 63 yards. "The game plans this season have been nearly perfect. All week [the coaches] talked about how we'd wear them down in the fourth quarter, and that's exactly what happened."
Siphoning the will out of Oakland used to seem like stealing to Shanahan, but these are not your big brother's Raiders, who for much of the '90s were a talented ensemble that too often played like the Tin Man. Since Jon Gruden took over as coach in 1998 and began weeding out me-first players—and especially since last season, when fierce veteran Rich Gannon stepped in at quarterback—Oakland has developed a commendable comeback spirit. "Pretty freaky, huh?" fullback Jon Ritchie said last Friday as he sat in his Berkeley home strumming the Guns 'N Roses tune Patience on an acoustic guitar. "It all stems from Rich Gannon and his relentless pursuit of perfection. I liken it to the movie Alien. Let's just say the big mother alien, who we'll call Rich Gannon, has implanted all these little aliens, us, with an overwhelming sense of positivity."
But on Sunday these extraterrestials were spacey beyond belief. The Raiders alienated their first home sellout crowd in three years by fumbling on their first two plays from scrimmage and falling behind 17-0. When Griese lofted a one-yard touchdown pass to fullback Howard Griffith on the second play of the second quarter, the Broncos looked capable of scoring 24/7. Which was precisely what the scoreboard said at the time. But Oakland had entered the game fresh off an amazing comeback in Indianapolis the previous week—having overcome a 21-0 deficit to beat the favored Colts 38-31—and the Raiders seemed determined to repeat the feat. They roared back and drew even midway through the second period when Randy (Air) Jordan blocked Tom Rouen's punt, recovered the ball on the run and flopped into the end zone.
Gannon marched Oakland to the Denver six on the opening possession of the third period, but linebacker John Mobley intercepted his pass to Andre Rison, and the momentum shifted. Three short field goals by Joe Nedney provided the victor margin, but this game was won at the line of scrimmage, just as Shanahan had planned it. Shortly after taking over as coach in '95, Shanahan, noting Denver's 1-11 record against Oakland over the past six seasons, told his startled players, "These guys think you're a bunch of pansies"—actually, he used a stronger p word. Now it's clear who the aggressors are. "We took the heart from them when it counted," Lodish said, "on both sides of the ball."
Though they have one of the NFL's lightest offensive lines, the Broncos have been clearing out real estate like ambitious Denver-area developers. The Broncos have plenty of talent up front—Tom Nalen may be the league's best center, left tackle Tony Jones is an underrated standout, and right tackle Matt Lepsis is a nimble-footed technician—but the unit's unlikely star is left guard Mark Schlereth, who might as well have a hospital bracelet permanently affixed to his wrist. After experiencing soreness and swelling in his left knee during training camp, Schlereth, 34, had arthroscopic surgery. If the first cut is the deepest, the 27th incision of Schlereth's career (and the 13th on his left knee) was the sweetest. "They removed a piece of bone the size of my thumb, and my range of motion improved drastically," Schlereth says. "The last seven years it's been at about 85 percent, but now it's like 105, or 110 if someone's pushing it. I can take a more balanced stance, and I'm probably playing better than I have in a long time."
Throw in Griffith's punishing lead blocks, Griese's pinpoint passing, the acrobatic athleticism of wideout Ed McCaffrey (seven catches for 92 yards and a touchdown) and righteous play-calling by Shanahan and offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, and the Broncos are tough to stop. Having a star running back doesn't hurt, either. But even without Davis, who missed his second consecutive game after spraining his left ankle in the loss to the Rams, Denver is running wild. Stud halfbacks don't grow on trees, but apparently they roam the Rocky Mountains in significant numbers. When Davis, a former sixth-round draft pick, went down last season, Olandis Gary, a rookie fourth-round selection, emerged as a 1,000-yard rusher. After Gary tore the ACL in his right knee against St. Louis, Anderson, a sixth-round pick, stepped in and has rambled for 318 yards in two starts.