New 'Man' in Denver NFL: Terrell Davis calls himself The Man Behind The Man (John Elway), but it's the third-year running back who's making the Broncos go.

January 10, 1998|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Terrell Davis sees the Denver Broncos as a much smarter team this time around. He sees the Broncos savoring their postseason run with too much urgency to experience a letdown like the one Davis thought caused their shocking demise in last season's wild-card round.

"You can't just flip a switch and expect to play well. We realize that this year," Davis said. "And you have to be at your best in the playoffs. Last year [against heavy underdog Jacksonville], I think we were taking things for granted."

With two consecutive playoff victories behind them -- including last week's 14-10 win over Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium -- and tomorrow's AFC championship game at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium awaiting them, the Broncos (14-4) look like a team that has learned its lesson.

Not that Davis needed to flip any switches. Throughout his three-year tenure in Denver, the Broncos' workhorse running back has operated at the same high-octane speed.

All Davis has done is establish himself as the league's most dangerous running back this side of Barry Sanders and provide 37-year-old quarterback John Elway with a young sidekick who has become the engine that drives the Broncos' top-ranked offense.

The Davis file continues to thicken. After a rookie season in which he cracked the 1,000-yard barrier, Davis finished second in rushing behind Sanders the past two years. He led the AFC in 1997 with 1,750 yards on 369 carries (4.7-yard average), despite missing most of the last two games with a sprained right shoulder.

Davis rebounded with a flourish, leading Denver to a blowout wild-card victory over Jacksonville by grinding up the Jaguars with 184 rushing yards. He then showed the toughness the Broncos have begun to take for granted by overcoming bruised ribs in Kansas City last week. Davis, wearing a flak jacket and playing in pain, scored two touchdowns and ran for 101 yards.

Make no mistake. While Elway still commands the respect afforded a future Hall of Famer, can still make a clutch pass into superb coverage and remains the king of fourth-quarter comebacks, the fate of the Broncos tomorrow rests mainly with their ability to run.

In other words, with Davis.

Elway passed that torch last month when he said: "It's been nice to have such a balanced offense, and that's a credit to Terrell. It's not my team anymore. It's Terrell's team."

To which Davis, 25, responded: "John's presence helps me out. He makes defenses respect the pass. I want people to try to focus on me, because that means they respect me. But [Elway] is still The Man. I'm just The Man Behind The Man."

Unlike Elway, who was the first player chosen in the 1983 draft, the Man behind The Man has carved his place among the game's elite from a more humble beginning. When the Broncos made Davis their second choice in the sixth round of the 1995 draft -- the 196th choice overall -- they took a chance on a guy who had battled numerous injuries at Georgia while posting solid production (1,657 yards, 15 touchdowns, 5.2-yard rushing average) over three seasons.

"I remember sitting around waiting to get drafted. Then, I didn't think I was going to get drafted," Davis recalled. "But how were they [NFL teams] supposed to know I'd be doing what I'm doing now?

"We were leading the SEC in rushing [at Georgia], but we weren't winning games. We became a passing team, and [Ravens quarterback] Eric Zeier threw the ball really well. All the pro scouts had to go by was what I had done in college, and I hadn't done much."

Davis quickly won over the Broncos with his tireless combination of hit-the-hole power, breakaway speed and an endless craving for his next carry.

"I'm a cross between a halfback and running back," Davis said. "I'm a lane changer with subtle moves, and I can be a power runner at times. I'm not that fast, but I'm not slow."

Davis is especially appreciated in the Broncos' locker room for his toughness. His pro career has been highlighted by a battle with migraine headaches, which Davis controlled this season with medication. The shoulder and ribs injuries he suffered late last season merely pushed Davis to another level. In all, he has missed only three career starts.

Check out his 42-yard run against the Chiefs last week. Davis started left, ran over one tackler, bounced outside, broke another tackle, then reinjured his ribs while being dragged down from behind along the sideline. Although he left the game briefly, Davis was back on the field in crunch time, scoring the game-winning, 1-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter.

"He is very mature, especially considering he's only been in the league for three years," Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. "He obviously played hurt last week but still gave us 25 carries and caught a pass. Terrell Davis is a special human being."

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