The Broncos have replaced their fallen players without missing a step
Last Saturday night an elevator carrying Broncos coach Mike Shanahan from his suite on the 23rd floor of the Sheraton Seattle to the lobby got stuck just south of the 22nd floor. One of the four other hotel guests on board, a woman who was about 20, started to panic. "Oh, no," she announced to the group, grabbing her male companion. "I'm very claustrophobic!"
Buttons were pushed. A cellphone call was made to the hotel operator. The elevator inched downward, but not far enough to reach the next floor. Minutes passed. While the rest of the group fidgeted, Shanahan struck up a conversation with a reporter. "Hey, you talk to Jeff Fisher lately?" he asked, referring to the Titans' coach. "How's he doing?" The woman seemed to calm down, and a few minutes later the elevator was moving again.
The Broncos see that side of Shanahan every day. We will get through the bad times. We have the best system in the NFL, and we will succeed. In training camp he told his players they should all consider themselves starters and prepare accordingly.
One of the players in the room that day wasn't worried so much about starting as he was about simply making the team. Running back Mike Anderson, a rookie sixth-round draft pick, was third on the depth chart, behind 1,000-yard rushers Terrell Davis and Olandis Gary. "But I bought it," Anderson said on Sunday, after Denver had pulled out a 38-31 victory over the Seahawks. "Coach told me I was a starter, and I prepared like one. Then, boom, after one game, Terrell and Olandis go down and I'm the starter, just like he said. There's no way I'm going to be the one to screw it up."
Ever since he lost a trio of key players in a Nov. 13 win over the Raiders, Shanahan has had to be at his tactical best Lost for at least five weeks: AFC passing leader Brian Griese, with a severely separated shoulder. Lost for the season: left guard Mark Schlereth, with a left knee injury. Lost for an indefinite time: Davis again, this time with injuries to his left calf and shin that continue to confound medical specialists.
Stepping into their respective places were unspectacular 54% career passer Gus Frerotte; second-year man Lennie Friedman, who'd made two NFL starts; and Anderson, the 19th back taken in the 2000 draft. Against the Chargers on Nov. 19, the offense produced 536 yards, came back from a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit and won 38-37. So the Broncos arrived in Seattle confident that no matter who played, the job would get done. "They buy our system," Shanahan had said before getting stuck in the elevator, "because they see Gus throw for 462 yards against the Chargers. They see Mike Anderson run for 180 yards against the Raiders [on Sept 17]. They believe we're going to score every time we touch the ball. Why wouldn't they believe, with what they've seen?"
Against Seattle, in rainy, windswept Husky Stadium, the offense generated 538 yards. Three times Shanahan lined up wideout Rod Smith at tailback, and Smith took pitches for runs of seven, 50 and 21 yards. The 50-yarder went for a touchdown that tied the score at 24 in the fourth quarter. "I had never taken a pitch in the back-field," Smith said, shaking his head. "But that's what we've got to do to win right now. We've got to create. We're surviving on adrenaline and the belief that whoever goes in will get it done. Look at Mike Anderson. Who'd have figured that?"
With the game on the line, Frerotte had one more pitch to make. Four minutes remained with the score tied 31-31, and Denver had the ball at its 20. The Seahawks blitzed three men as Frerotte pitched to Anderson running left. The 230-pounder cut through the first line of defense untouched and took off down the sideline. Shawn Springs, one of the league's fastest corner-backs, came flying from the middle of the field and appeared to have an angle on Anderson. But as Springs dived to make an ankle tackle near the Seattle 30, Anderson shifted into overdrive and jetted into the end zone.
"Did you see Mike outrun Shawn Springs?" Shanahan said. "At 230 pounds? Unbelievable!" The rookie back finished with 195 rushing yards. The journeyman quarterback passed for 244 yards and a touchdown. The wideout who'd never run a play from the backfield ran for 78 yards. The Broncos were 8-4 and in the thick of the AFC playoff race. "And how-abut Lennie Friedman?" Shanahan said. "That guy's a player."