No matter how hard they try, the Broncos will never turn Brian Griese into the life of the party. The man is private and serious. You can't change him. One day this summer at training camp, locker-room leader and top receiver Rod Smith said, "I've told Brian if I see him with a frown on his face, I'm going to slap it off him. Have fun, man." That same day, outside the cafeteria, defensive lineman Trevor Pryce playfully shoved Griese. "Greaseball!" Pryce said jocularly. "Get outta here!" Male bonding stuff. This team is trying to make the quiet Griese one of the boys.
Why bother? When Griese led Michigan to a share of the national championship in 1997, he was a private guy. When Griese led the NFL in passing in 2000, he was a private guy. Lighting a firecracker under him is not going to make him play better. Staying injury-free, not forcing balls to inexperienced receivers in tight coverage and leading the offense like a general—those are the things that will make him a better quarterback. Make no mistake, Griese, the late bloomer drafted 89 spots after Ryan Leaf in '98, will be on trial this year. Early. His breakout 2000 season (19 touchdowns, four interceptions) fell between two mediocre ones; he's only 19-19 as an NFL starter.
An abrupt quarterback change isn't out of character for coach Mike Shanahan, who stunned the football world when he picked Griese to start over veteran Bubby Blister in 1999. So if Griese struggles early—the tough defenses of St. Louis, Baltimore, San Diego, Miami and New England dot the first-half schedule—don't be surprised if he gets the hook. Backup Steve Beuerlein was Shanahan's first NFL quarterback when he coached the Los Angeles Raiders in '88, and, playing for the Carolina Panthers in '99 and 2000, Beuerlein threw for an NFC-high 8,166 yards. Beuerlein had two elbow surgeries in the past 18 months, but if he's healthy he's a threat to Griese.
"Brian has proven he can play, and play at a very high level, when we're healthy," Shanahan said during training camp. "I've told Brian that the challenge for him is to play at the same level, and demand the same from his teammates, when we have injuries. That's what separates the good NFL quarterbacks from the great ones."
Taking a break from working the coach's clicker on the video screen in his room, Shanahan paused for a full five seconds after being asked if his confidence in Griese was shaken. "Yeah," he said. "I was disappointed he didn't lift his game last year. Every team gets injuries. When you get injuries on offense, the quarterback's got to make those new players believe they can do it."
No team has been hit harder by injuries over the past three seasons than Denver, but it's still stunning that the Broncos are only 25-23 since winning their second straight Super Bowl following the 1998 season. Last year the broken left leg that wideout Ed McCaffrey suffered in the season opener and the subsequent injuries to fellow receivers Rod Smith and Kevin Kasper, plus the continuing left knee woes of former All-Pro running back Terrell Davis (who will start the season on injured reserve), exposed Denver's lack of offensive depth. The once explosive Broncos scored 30 points or more only once in the last 14 weeks, and Griese, unwisely forcing throws, dropped from being the league's top-rated passer in 2000 to 15th last fall.
"I don't see last year as being representative of me as a player," Griese says. "I just haven't thrown interceptions like that [19, one more than in his entire college career]. As the year went on, I found myself trying to make plays that weren't there. In this league you can't use injuries as an excuse, and I won't. I know I have to play better."
He also has to get used to the media zeroing in on his gaffes. In May, after a night of carousing with teammates, he fell on his face—literally—in Davis's driveway. Two months after his driveway dive, Griese lightly rear-ended a stopped car. "Are you going to write about that stuff?" he said, clearly annoyed when it was mentioned. "Practice is the best time for me. I can get away from the media and concentrate on football instead of all this other stuff, which no one will ever let me forget."
They'll forget—after a few mistake-free, 300-yard passing games lead to Denver wins.
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