In Good Hands
Brian Griese has the tools, and the moxie, to help Broncos fans forget John Elway
During three days at Broncos training camp in Greeley, Colo., which included several hours listening to Denver sports talk radio and 12 hours interviewing almost two dozen players and coaches, you would think you'd hear John Elway's name mentioned at least once. After all, since Elway retired after winning his second straight Super Bowl in January 1999, the Broncos are 16-16 and haven't won so much as a playoff game. So why isn't anyone pining for one of the greatest playmakers in NFL history?
The answer was sitting on a couch outside the Broncos' training camp dining hall one afternoon in the person of Brian Griese. The heir to Elway's throne, Griese thought for about a minute before offering a more expansive explanation. "I saw an interview with Reggie Jackson not long ago," said Griese, 26. "He said when Babe Ruth retired, people wondered what the Yankees would do without him. Then Joe DiMaggio came along. When DiMaggio retired, Mickey Mantle came along. And when Mantle retired, it took a while, but Reggie came along."
Griese, the son of former Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese, went on. "I've been following a Hall of Famer my entire life," he said. "So maybe I was ready for everything mat came after John retired. I wanted to prove he's not the only one who could win in this offense."
The mediocre post-Elway record is due largely to a spate of injuries in 1999 and Griese's separated throwing shoulder last year, which caused him to miss five games (including a 21-3 playoff loss in Baltimore). When he did play, Griese was the cool, efficient customer whom coach Mike Shanahan envisioned when he picked the Michigan quarterback in the third round of the '98 draft. Last season his 102.9 rating led all NFL passers, as did Iris 19-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. It helps that Denver's offense is as deep and talented as any that Elway ran. Only once in 16 seasons did an Elway-led offense produce as many points (485) as Denver's put up last year.
Griese is more of a loner than Elway was. He doesn't mind eating by himself at camp. There were six empty seats between him and his nearest teammate, wide-out Ed McCaffrey, at a meeting one night last week. Like Elway, however, Griese has plenty of grit. After being slammed to the turf on the second series of a game against the Raiders last Nov. 13, Griese returned to play the final three quarters with the separated shoulder. He completed 14 of his last 16 passes in a 27-24 win.
Griese had surgery on the shoulder last January and has had no problems. "It's pain-free," he says. "I haven't iced it once in camp." He's throwing free and easy, ending one drive early in camp with a 45-yard touchdown pass to wideout Rod Smith.
Shanahan knows he has something special, though when he compares Griese with another quarterback, it's not Elway. "If we can keep a solid supporting cast around Brian and he stays healthy? says Shanahan, "I think he'll have the same kind of career Joe Montana had."
Considering Griese has made all of 23 starts, that comparison seems lofty. Still, in putting such a weight on Griese's shoulders, Shanahan is showing he trusts him the way he's trusted few players he has coached.
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