Shanahan, Broncos seek perfect encore Tonight's game at K.C. is major hurdle to 19-0


They call him the Mastermind in Denver, with good reason.

In four years as coach of the Denver Broncos, Mike Shanahan has demonstrated an uncommon ability to push his team to new heights.

Last season, it was winning the Super Bowl.

This season, he's working on perfection.

That's 19-0 perfection, which would two-up the Miami Dolphins' 17-0 perfect season of 1972 if it happens.

The Broncos take their quest for an undefeated season to Kansas City, Mo., tonight to play their archrivals, the Chiefs, on prime-time TV. In keeping with the theme of the 1998 NFL season, two backup quarterbacks will command center stage -- Denver's Bubby Brister fills in for injured John Elway and Kansas City's Rich Gannon replaces a struggling Elvis Grbac.

But this game is about more than backup quarterbacks. It's about the phenomenon that the Broncos have become under Shanahan, about their domination of a league where dynasties are hard to come by.

If the Broncos beat the Chiefs, they'll become the first defending Super Bowl champion since the 1990 San Francisco 49ers to start the following season 10-0.

It was one thing when the Broncos shook off the stigma of four Super Bowl defeats to whip the heavily favored Green Bay Packers and Brett Favre, 31-24, in Super Bowl XXXII.

But it's entirely something else to talk about improving on that improbable season, about doing something only one other team in the history of the NFL has done. And have it appear reachable.

"It's not easy," Broncos tailback Terrell Davis said last week. "I think it has to start with Mike Shanahan. He does a great job preparing us for a game and putting us into a perspective.

"It's not like the coaches pat us on the back each week and say, 'We won this many games, so you can relax.' Each week is getting more intense. So the coaches have done a great job preparing us to go into places to play. And the players are mature enough to recognize we're a team people are out to get."

Shanahan, 46, is one of the league's most intense and demanding coaches. 49ers quarterback Steve Young had his three most productive seasons when Shanahan was San Francisco's offensive coordinator from 1992 to 1994. Young calls him "Mr. Let's Do It Again" because of Shanahan's penchant for repeating plays in practice.

Few coaches prepare as thoroughly. Shanahan spends 30 hours a week crafting an offensive game plan. One of the keys to Denver's victory over Green Bay last January was his developing a formation that neutralized blitzing Packers safety LeRoy Butler. Like several coaches, he scripts the first 15 offensive plays in a game.

Shanahan's attention to detail drove the then-Los Angeles Raiders crazy when he was coach in 1988 and part of 1989. That same attention to detail has driven the Broncos to another level. They take a 14-game winning streak into Kansas City.

The Mastermind seems to have it all covered.

He is winning with an undersized offensive line that lost its natural leader (left tackle Gary Zimmerman) to retirement and its biggest blocker (299-pound guard Brian Habib) to Seattle in free agency.

He is winning with a 36-year-old backup quarterback playing the best football of his 12-year career. Brister won three games as a starter and another in relief of Elway this season. Although he hasn't thrown enough passes to qualify, his passer efficiency rating of 104.2 is second in the league behind Minnesota's Randall Cunningham (another backup).

And Shanahan is winning in probably the toughest division in the league, the AFC West. His overall division record is 25-14.

There is no disputing Shanahan's offensive genius. During his three years in San Francisco as coordinator under George Seifert, the 49ers' offense produced the best three-year averages in the history of pro football.

What's more, the 49ers' season total of 636 points in 1994 -- counting regular-season and postseason games -- is the single-season record for the NFL.

Last year, the Broncos led the league with a grand total of 583 points, the fifth-highest figure in history.

More numbers: In Shanahan's 62 games as coach (he's 46-16 overall), the Broncos have scored 30 or more points 28 times. They have lost only one of those games.

What Shanahan learned in San Francisco, he obviously applied in Denver. His version of the West Coast offense represents a wonderful blend of run and pass, using the skills of an aging Elway and a vibrant Davis.

With a league-leading 1,219 rushing yards, Davis is on pace to gain 2,157, which would eclipse Eric Dickerson's NFL record of 2,105 yards set in 1984.

Averaging 5.5 yards a carry, Davis said he's looking more for the big play.

"This year, I'm not looking so much for 5 or 6 yards a carry," he said. "I'm looking for the home run. I've been able to do that a couple of times. I try to make sure when I'm out there, I try to be an impact player."

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