|08-12-2007, 05:57 AM||#1|
Join Date: Apr 2006
Team unity top task for Broncos this season
By Mark Kiszla
Denver Post Staff Columnist
While the starkly simple decals affixed to every Broncos helmet memorialize the spirit of dearly departed teammates Darrent Williams and Damien Nash, what reminds you that nothing in the NFL lasts for long is how many new players on this year's Denver team did not know either dead man.
Pro football is a game of transients who try to overcome the tough defeats and jealousies inherent in the business to become family.
The difference between success and failure for the Broncos in 2007 will be about far more than the talent to run, block and tackle.
On a team rocked by tragedy and overhauled in the locker room, with veteran leader Rod Smith on his last leg and young quarterback Jay Cutler trying to step up, what coach Mike Shanahan cannot possibly know is how solidly this Denver team will hang together during the inevitable bumps in the road.
"You don't really know how a team is going to mesh together. You're hoping that players do, but you don't really know until they get out there on the field," Shanahan said.
From the painfully slow pursuit of justice for Williams' killer to receiver Javon Walker's confession to HBO's "Real Sports" that a shirt stained with the blood of D-Will is kept at home, only the hopelessly naive can believe this will be anything close to a normal NFL season for the Broncos.
"This is like ... what's left of him is on my clothes," Walker told HBO.
Cornerback Domonique Foxworth, who laughed so hard with Williams over lunch they sometimes had trouble eating, is visibly shaken when the conversation turns to No. 27 months after the unsolved murder.
Check the changes in the depth chart, noting the additions of Sam Adams and Dré Bly, contrasted with the departures of Al Wilson and Tatum Bell. This is a significantly different team from the solemn group that walked in a Texas church for Williams' funeral in January.
From the always brilliant Champ Bailey to new plow horse Travis Henry to the stellar potential of Cutler waiting to be unleashed, this is this most talent seen in training camp since Denver won the Super Bowl eight years ago.
But winning a championship in the NFL has grown more complicated than assembling talent and calling clever plays.
A large component of the game is how quickly players who often change allegiances not only come together as a team, but if they can keep the faith in each other through all the season's hard knocks.
"One of the big challenges in today's football is putting all the faces together," Broncos safety John Lynch said.
In the age of free agency, Denver fans bleed blue and orange.
But green is the only color that really matters to many NFL players, who know salary cap whims can get them cut faster than the time it takes Tony Kornheiser to comb his hair before a "Monday Night Football" telecast.
"Back in the old days, if you drafted a guy as a Bronco, he was going to be in Denver until he couldn't play any more," Denver assistant coach Jim Bates said. "But that was before free agency was in existence."
What was most worrisome during Shanny's Summer Day Camp was not that so many pass-catchers were hurt that Cutler could have gotten better reception if he were stuck on the dark side of Mount Evans with a dead battery in his cellphone.
What scared me is Shanahad to yank Brandon Marshall off the couch and push him through the door before a guy who's supposed to be one of this team's bright young stars would come out and play with his friends.
"If it was up to me," Marshall said Friday, "I wouldn't have (practiced), but Coach wanted me to."
There might be no "I" in team, but if a single key player twists the meaning and scrambles the letters, you can uncover some ugly "me" tendencies that could tear unity apart.
Now, don't get the wrong impression.
Headline-loathing center and football hermit Tom Nalen would rather be crammed in the front seat of a Prius on a cross country trip with Geraldo Rivera than miss the playoffs. And new tight end Dan Graham has the diamond jewelry to prove he's a winner.
So the Broncos obviously have heart.
But can a locker room filled with new teammates find the chemistry that will allow Denver to prevent one loss from becoming four while the season goes in the tank, as was the case a year ago, when hippy-dippy quarterback Jake Plummer could not be blamed for everything that caused a ballclub that began 2006 with five victories in six games to unravel and miss the playoffs?
"You never really know until it happens. But you talk about it," Shanahan said.
"We talk about what does happen if you lose a couple games, or what is the mind-set as a person or as a team if you're 6-0. Now's the time you talk about it, not after you lose two games."