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ELVIS DUMERVIL is one of the best young pass rushers in the NFL, a leader on the field and in the locker room, the kind of ambassador whose face a franchise can plaster on billboards all over town. But coach him at your own risk. Over the past five seasons—three at Louisville and then two in Denver—Dumervil has had five defensive coordinators. That means a different playbook to study, a different scheme to learn, a different terminology to memorize each year. "I should have kept a page from each one of those playbooks," Dumervil says. "I'd have a pretty good collection by now."
The high turnover rate has nothing to do with Dumervil, a 5'11" defensive end who, by all accounts, is a coach's dream. Despite his height, or lack thereof, Dumervil led the Broncos with 12 1/2 sacks last season and was an alternate for the Pro Bowl. But it can make a guy paranoid when his boss keeps getting fired. As a rookie Dumervil watched Larry Coyer get the ax. Last season, Jim Bates was ushered out of town. This year, Dumervil is intent on stopping the streak and keeping Bob Slowik employed for a while.
Slowik has stepped into one of the most precarious positions in the league. Coach Mike Shanahan helps run the offense, so when the team falters, Shanahan can blame either himself or his defensive coordinator. After last season, when Denver ranked 30th in the league against the run, the choice was obvious. "Everybody had a finger in the pie," Dumervil says. "Some weeks it was the players, but some weeks it was the scheme. There was too much 'If this happens, do that,' and 'If that happens, do this.' It's a lot simpler now. There's not as much thinking."
Bates was doomed five games into last season, when the Broncos were giving up an average of 187.6 rushing yards. They trashed the seven-man front that Bates was using and brought strong safety John Lynch up to help against the run. It was hard to tell who was making the decisions—Bates was listed as an assistant coach in charge of defense, while Slowik was a defensive coordinator in charge of the secondary. But those titles were slightly misleading. "Jim ran the defense," Slowik said. "I coached the defensive backs."
After Bates was dismissed, the defensive backs lobbied hard for Coach Slow, citing his engaging personality and businesslike approach. They didn't mind that he had not run a defense since 2004, when the Packers hired and fired him in the same year. "Many times, I thought I would never get this opportunity again," Slowik says.
Hiring a new coordinator is often a Band-Aid solution for a deeper problem in Denver: finding players to help Dumervil anchor the front seven. The Broncos were 7--9 last season, only the second losing record in Shanahan's 13 years with the team. They are talking playoffs this year, but they are in the same division as LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson and Darren McFadden, so they first have to stop a few sweeps. Slowik cannot rely anymore on Lynch, who asked for his release and signed with New England, but Denver did acquire 308-pound defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson from the Jets. Asked his job description, Robertson says, "To cause havoc."
If Robertson and Dumervil can hold the line, the Broncos should contend for a wild-card spot, and Slowik should be back next year. Otherwise, Dumervil is in danger of his streak reaching six. "When you've had as many defensive coordinators as I have, you see that they use a lot of the same terminology," Dumervil says. "One of them says something and it reminds you of another. I like to connect the different plays they use."
If it seems that Dumervil is training for a second career, he is. Despite all the upheaval he has witnessed over the past five years, he wants to be a football coach.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH MIKE SHANAHAN (138--90 in NFL), 14th season with Broncos