Facing 5th-and-long, Shanahan reverses field on QBs

On The NFL

October 10, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Mike Shanahan actually conceded last week that his decisions are wrong on occasion.

It was a painful admission for the coach who called the plays for three of the past five Super Bowl winners -- in San Francisco in the 1994 season as the offensive coordinator and in Denver the past two years as head coach -- and seemed to have all the answers.

After saying he gets input from the team on his decisions (he wasn't about to take all the blame), he said: "Am I always right? No, I'm not always right. But, at the time, do I think I made the right decision? I sure do."

He compared it to play-calling and said he goes on if something doesn't work.

"You go on and make another decision," he said.

His latest decision was to reverse his decision to bench veteran Bubby Brister for young Brian Griese at the start of the season.

Shanahan wasn't about to say he blew it big-time. That's not his style.

But his decision to go back to Brister with the team in shambles at 0-4 spoke volumes.

In the process of going 0-4, he lost his best player, Terrell Davis (during the runback of a Griese interception), and had to deal with the assertion by a Sports Illustrated writer that an unidentified player said the team is finished.

It's probably too late for Brister to save the season, especially without Davis. Nobody ever said Brister was more than a journeyman. It's even possible the team would have gone 0-4 with him as the starter.

But by yanking Brister for a young quarterback after some meaningless exhibition games, he lost the veterans' respect and gave them an excuse for losing. It suddenly wasn't their fault. It was the bone-head coaching move that did them in.

It didn't help that Griese isn't the kind of kid the veterans were going to rally around. He's the son of a Hall of Famer and tends to have an arrogant, know-it all attitude. His father, Bob, had the same attitude when he played, but he proved himself by winning Super Bowls.

By going back to Brister, Shanahan is in effect telling the players to prove they can win with the veteran, although Davis' absence may give them an out.

The Sports Illustrated article, though, may have even given Shanahan a rallying point. It gave him a chance to tell the team that if anybody believes they're finished, "I'll send you out of here quick. I don't care if you want a bus ticket or a plane ticket. Just let me know." Nobody volunteered to leave.

It's true they're finished. They're not going back to the Super Bowl and probably won't even make the playoffs at 0-4 without Davis. But they can't admit it. They can play for pride, and there's no team they'd rather beat today than Oakland. They're an old rival, and they know Oakland owner Al Davis fired Shanahan at 1-3 a decade ago.

If nothing else, Brister's return seemed to break the tension with his bubbly "I'm not going to throw in the towel" attitude.

Even Shanahan didn't seem as grim by the end of the week. When Shanahan was asked if he was going to don headgear protection for the return to Oakland, he said: "Why would you think I'd need head protection? My flak jacket's enough."

After a pause he added: "I can't believe I said that. See, you guys got me too loose."

Shanahan might as well smile. There's no point in crying.

No threepeat

Denver is about to become the seventh team to win back-to-back Super Bowls and fail to threepeat.

With the soap-opera atmosphere surrounding the team this year, it's easy to forget the Broncos probably wouldn't have done it if John Elway hadn't retired and Davis hadn't got hurt.

Gunther Cunningham, the Kansas City coach, put his finger on the real problem last week.

"The legend of John Elway leaving is part of it, but I think the wear and tear on that staff and players, we're underplaying that part to it. Two years of defending the Super Bowl title. It wears on coaches and players," he said.

Cunningham added: "Mike can say what he wants [that they're not worn out], but I've been around long enough to know when you put in as many hours as those guys did last year to defend the world championship, that's hard. If you look at those players closely, it shows. You fight for a few hours of sleep.

"Yet, I see Terrell Davis on every commercial in the world. For him to play, take part in the off-season and do all that, you have to be Superman. There has to be something else going on."

The Broncos probably don't have much left in their tank. They're just drained.

History lesson

If the Broncos win today, there's a precedent for a two-time Super Bowl champion rallying from a 1-4 start to make the playoffs even though the quarterback was out.

Pittsburgh came back from 1-4 in 1976 to win its last nine -- six with Mike Kruczek at quarterback when Terry Bradshaw was hurt -- but the Steelers defense gave up just six points in seven of those games, with five shutouts and a field goal in two others. Denver doesn't have the defense to do that.

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