by Michael Tanier
They clinched home field advantage with weeks to spare, winning their division going away while blowing out opponent after opponent. But there was trouble: an offensive superstar was hurt in the clinching game, and coaches had to decide whether to bench regulars and risk losing their competitive edge, or let the starters play in the waning weeks and risk injury. A cavalcade of backups started in the final games, leading to some embarrassing losses just before the playoffs.
Sounds like the 2004 Eagles, right? But the team I am describing is the 1996 Broncos, a team that was 12-1 at the start of December, finished the year 13-3, and was upset by the Jaguars 30-27 in the playoffs. Those Broncos have become an oft-invoked cautionary tale for teams like the Eagles who have nothing to play for in the final games. Mike Shanahan benched John Elway and others in those last few games, the Broncos lost momentum, and the team choked in the playoffs. So keep the starters out there, or else.
Those 1996 Broncos have come up a lot in the Philadelphia press in the last few weeks. Vaughn Hebron, a local sports analyst who played for that team, is quick to remind viewers of what happened that fateful year. Local radio hosts, looking to stoke controversy after the ugly Bengals loss, used those Broncos as justification for their rage.
Of course, though it was just nine years ago, no one really remembers exactly what happened in the final weeks of the 1996 season. I decided to go through the archives and find out just who was benched, for how long, and why. How did Elway and others feel at the time? What was Shanahan's rationale? How did the long string of meaningless games really affect the Broncos in that playoff loss?
A Costly Clinch
The Broncos clinched home field advantage on December 1st by beating the Seahawks 31-7. The win lifted their record to 12-1. The Steelers, with the second-best record, lost to the Ravens that day to fall to 9-4. The Patriots crushed the Chargers to rise to 9-4, but it was irrelevant: the Broncos held all the tiebreakers.
It was a convincing win, but it came with a price. Elway's hamstring, which had been giving him problems for weeks, knotted up badly in the first quarter. He was walked off the field by the trainers and taken into the locker room for treatment. The trainers administered "heat and soft tissue treatment," eventually sending Elway back onto the field. In his absence, Bill Musgrave went six-of-seven for 51 yards, setting up a field goal in one drive to give the Broncos a 17-7 lead.
Elway wasn't the only player dealing with injuries in the clinching game. Iron-man offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman injured his shoulder. He needed arthroscopic surgery on the Monday after the game. Guard Mark Schlereth, still recovering from knee surgery, was in and out of the lineup against the Seahawks. Shannon Sharpe had two bad ankles and left the game to get re-taped at one point.
Age and the long season were just part of the problem: the Mile High Stadium playing surface had been a problem for weeks, and a re-sod job in November just left the field as a muddy, clumpy mess. "I'd rather play on sand. All you do is slip on this stuff," Jason Elam said of the field after the game. He added: "I think the home-field advantage is huge. I know where all the divots are." Indeed, everyone from punter Rick Tuten to the Broncos mascot slipped during the Seahawks game, making the field an unsafe place for 30-something year old athletes.
Soon after the victory, Shanahan and the players began fielding questions about the games to come. Players, even the injured ones, wanted to keep playing. "We've got to go into the playoff playing our best football, and we can't do that with the starters sitting on the bench," Elway said, though he acknowledged that his hamstring could be a problem. "I don't need the rest. I just need to be healthy."
Sharpe voiced similar sentiments. "Everybody says, 'You've clinched home-field advantage. You won the AFC West. Why don't you rest some guys?' When you rest guys, you mess up continuity. Our offense has been together for 17 games. Our continuity is pretty good."
In the post-game press conference, Shanahan wasn't ready to outline a strategy for the weeks to come. The Steelers loss gave the Broncos home field advantage a week earlier than expected, and Shanahan had been focused on the Seahawks game. "I didn't really think this was going to happen today. We'll evaluate what direction we will go to determine how much playing time certain people need."
He had a lot to evaluate. Zimmerman was out for at least two weeks, meaning that second-year tackle Jamie Brown would be starting against Reggie White and the Packers. Putting an injured, immobile Elway into a meaningless game while a novice was blocking an All Pro defender seemed like a foolish gambit. Furthermore, the Packers had the best record in the NFC, and the upcoming game was already being billed as a Super Bowl preview. Throwing the full playbook at a team you might have to play in the playoffs didn't seem like a sensible option.
Still, Shanahan didn't throw in the towel. "We've got to keep that momentum going," Shanahan said later in the week. "We've got to keep the continuity. You can't just do what we've done and say, 'Hey, we've got home-field advantage and come back and play in a month.' It just doesn't work that way."
So Shanahan allowed Elway to test his hamstring several times in practice. When it became clear that he couldn't run well, Musgrave got the call to start against the Packers. But there would be no full-scale benching. Sharpe played. Terrell Davis played. Only Elway, Zimmerman, and flu-stricken DE Dan Williams were given the day off in Green Bay.
The Worst of Both Worlds
So with Musgrave starting, the Lambeau temperatures well below freezing, and the Packers still trying to hold off the Niners and Panthers for home-field advantage in the NFC, the Broncos snoozed their way through one of the worst performances in team history.
Their 41-6 loss to the Packers on December 8th was their worst loss since the Niners crushed them 55-10 in Super Bowl XXIV almost seven years earlier. The Broncos' nine first downs were the fewest the team totaled in a game since 1984. In fact, the Broncos went seven straight possessions without a first down between the second and fourth quarter, forcing Shanahan to bench Musgrave in favor of rookie QB Jeff Lewis.
"They beat us and they beat us baaaad," DT Mike Lodish said after the game. Added Musgrave: "Everyone is real disappointed and mad. No one likes this feeling. The loss is a reality check." But while no one was happy with the performance, few players in the Broncos locker room were pushing the panic button. "I'm not ever worried about this," safety Tyrone Braxton said. "If we make it to The Show, we'll prove everybody wrong." Indeed, there was a sense after the game that the beating would help the team re-focus for the games to come.
Up next for the Broncos were the Raiders, a divisional opponent and historic rival still gunning for a playoff berth. Elway would be back for the December 15th game. And despite having pole position locked up, the players would be motivated: pure antipathy was enough to fuel the Raiders-Broncos rivalry.
Every healthy starter played. The Broncos took a 24-3 lead on the Raiders, with Braxton (who felt snubbed when he was left off the Pro Bowl roster earlier that week) and Steve Atwater intercepting passes to set up touchdowns by Davis and Rod Smith. But the Raiders came back in the second half. Elway was sacked and fumbled into the endzone, where Lance Johnstone scored for the Raiders. With 3:38 left in the fourth quarter, Jeff Hostetler scrambled away from Michael Dean Perry and threw a touchdown pass to Daryl Hobbs, making the score 24-19.
The Raiders got one last chance to win the game. Billy Joe Hobert replaced Hostetler, who was hurt earlier in the game but had stayed in. Hobert and the Raiders drove, but with 1:11 to play CB Ray Crockett jumped an out route by Hobbs and intercepted pass. The Broncos won. But Crockett heard something pop in his knee.
Crockett sprained his knee. He wasn't the only casualty. Sharpe aggravated his ankle injury and also suffered a split lip. And Schlereth suffered yet another knee injury, forcing him to undergo knee surgery yet again. In short, the Broncos won a game they didn't need to, but they injured three key contributors. It was the worst of both worlds: the Broncos played flat one week but risked injuries the next.
After the Raiders game, Shanahan explained his end-of-season strategy. "I felt we had to use all our healthy starters today and against Green Bay. We want to stay in football shape and this way, hopefully, we can stay healthy once we get into the big race." But he was clear about his plans for the season finale. "We'll have a little bit different game plan than we did this week. We won't play our players like we did this week. We'll rest some players, but at the same time, go into it with the same kind of thought, and that is trying to win the football game."
The Broncos de-activated Zimmerman, Schlereth, Crockett, Perry, and Sharpe for the Chargers game. Elway, who said that his hamstring was now about 95% healed, played a few series. Davis also played early in the game, carrying the ball a few times to protect his lead in the rushing race (Barry Sanders overtook him in the Monday Night game anyway). The Broncos lost 16-10 on a rainy day in San Diego, playing the kind of listless finale that we all saw from several teams two weeks ago. "Any time you rest some of your regulars, you send a message that maybe it's not as important as you make it out to be," Shanahan said, admitting that his team wasn't playing at full speed. "It wasn't a pretty sight."
The game was ugly, but the Broncos avoided catastrophe when Junior Seau crashed through the line and leveled Musgrave, who had only recently entered the game in relief of Elway. Musgrave suffered a separated shoulder and was placed on injured reserve. Had Seau struck a few plays earlier, this might have been a story about how Mike Shanahan doomed the Broncos by foolishly playing Elway in a mop-up game.
Instead, the Broncos escaped the finale with no major injuries. "We're just glad it's over," Elway said. "It's been a long three weeks." Added Sharpe: "I think everybody was looking forward to having the season end. Now there are no more excuses. No more 'John didn't play' or 'this guy only played a few plays' or whatever."
Rested but Not Ready
The Broncos would have to wait through the Wild Card round to learn that their opponent would be the Jaguars, a team that entered the playoffs on a five-game winning streak. Elway reported that he was 100% during the layoff. Zimmerman would play. Schlereth and Musgrave were the only players out for the duration.
Shanahan wasn't concerned that his players had too long a layoff. After all, Elway, Davis, and others got their work in against the Chargers and had played a full game against the Raiders. The Cowboys rested their aging starters in the final week of the season that year, then went out and crushed the Vikings in the Wild Card game. In fact, Shanahan was worried that his team might be too pumped up. "Any type of playoff game, a championship game, players have to concentrate on their job," he said in the days leading up to the Jaguars game. "So many times, a player wants to make the big play. Instead of doing their job, they try to overrun or overpursue. There's a fine line there. The intensity level is on both sides of the football. Now the concentration level has got to be there, too."
The intensity was there early in the game. A 47-yard run by Davis set up a Vaughn Hebron touchdown, but Elam's extra point was blocked by Clyde Simmons. Elway hit Sharpe for a 18-yard touchdown pass, but the two-point conversion failed: Sharpe dropped a pass thrown slightly behind him, one he admitted later he should have caught. Still, the Broncos held a 12-0 lead, and the Jaguars didn't even have a first down in the first quarter.
The score was 12-3 when the Jaguars got the ball back deep in their own territory. Mark Brunell tried to connect with Willie Jackson when nickelback Tory James jumped in front of Jackson and intercepted the pass. But Jackson was called for pass interference, even though contact was minimal. "I don't remember touching him," James said of the play. "But you can't do nothing about it. That's the call they made. You've got to stick with that." The Jaguars drove to make the score 12-10. Later, with the Jaguars on their own 11-yard line and less than a minute to go in the half, Brunell hit wide-open Jimmy Smith for a 44-yard completion to set up a go-ahead field goal.
A touchdown pass to Keenan McCardell gave the Jaguars a 20-12 lead, and the Broncos proved incapable of stopping bruising Jaguars RB Natrone Means. The Broncos blew plenty of opportunities as they tried to cut the lead. At one point, the Jaguars lined up to punt from their 43-yard line late in the third quarter, but the Broncos were flagged for having 12 men on the field. Perry was slow to get off the field and was two feet from the sidelines when the ball was snapped. "They'll call that penalty one in a million," Perry said. "That's the way the day went. That's just petty, no doubt about that." The Jaguars retained possession, later kicking a field goal.
The Broncos tried to come back. Elway and Ed McCaffrey hooked up several times in a 57-yard drive that was capped by a Davis touchdown. A two-point conversion made the score 23-20. On the next possession, Brunell escaped the Broncos rush and drew comparisons to Steve Young, scrambling 29 yards to get the Jaguars in scoring position. A touchdown pass to Smith extended the Jaguars lead. Again, the Broncos came back, with Elway hitting McCaffrey for a touchdown with 1:49 to play.
It came down to the onside kick. The slumping Elam kicked the ball straight into the arms of Jaguars fullback Le'Shai Matson. The game was over. The Broncos were upset in the playoffs by a second-year expansion team that had been 4-7 at one point.
Denver Post columnist Irv Moss wrote: "That breather the Denver Broncos took over the final weeks of the regular NFL season must have been in contaminated air." Headlines in the Post dubbed the game as The Mile High Choke. Elway was the first player to express a sentiment that would grow in the years to come: "I thought we had a team that would make it happen," Elway said. "I thought it was tough for us to focus when we clinched so early."
There was speculation after the Jaguars game that Elway would retire, or that his window of opportunity had closed. In fact, the Broncos would win the next two Super Bowls. The Jaguars were no fluke, either: they would win 11, 11, and 14 games in the next three seasons.
But the Mile High Choke was not forgotten. The Broncos clinched home field a game a game early in 1998, but no one rested. Elway threw four TDs against the Seahawks in the finale that year, no doubt remembering the momentum lost two years earlier.
Crockett invoked the memory of 1996 before Super Bowl XXXIII, when the Broncos beat the Falcons. ''That was the most painful loss we could've experienced," he said. ''We could've been 15-1 or 14-2 that year, we had the home field, we were on our way. We let something very valuable go that could've been our only chance. We didn't know. It was painful. We definitely should've been in the Super Bowl that year."
Crockett, of course, might not have played in that loss if he had been injured more seriously against the Raiders. History has turned the 1996 Broncos into a team that clinched early, rested everyone for a month, and came out flat in the playoffs. The reality is more complicated. Shanahan attempted a balancing act, trying to keep players sharp while at the same time limiting injuries.
It's easy to make all the right calls nine years later. But game-by-game, it's hard to see what Shanahan could have done differently. Should he have played Elway against the Packers? That seems ridiculous: Elway was 36-years old and already injured. Musgrave had played well against the Seahawks. Even with Elway in the game, the Broncos had nothing to play for, while the Packers were still fighting. It's hard to see what that would have accomplished.
Should he have done something differently against the Chargers? Again, only the injured players were rested. Elway left the game minutes before his backup got flattened. Shanahan tried to keep his team focused, but professional athletes know when a game is meaningless.
Should he have benched everyone against the Raiders? The only tangible loss the Broncos incurred in those final weeks was the loss of Schlereth. The players at the time felt that they needed to beat the Raiders to keep their edge. But was it worth it when a starting offensive lineman was lost? Had Crockett or Sharpe been hurt more seriously in that game, then the decision to start them would have been severely questioned. Ironically, the team that has become well known for resting its starters too soon may not have rested them enough.
The 1996 Broncos teach us less about when a team should bench its starters and more about the difficulty of keeping a team mentally prepared to play through a long layoff. For Shanahan, there may have been no correct answer. No matter what, his Broncos were going to play some disinterested football when the games didn't mean anything.
Andy Reid has faced a similar dilemma in Philadelphia for the last month. He handled matters differently than Shanahan did, unabashedly benching players and ignoring the results of games. He may be vilified for his decisions if the Eagles are upset this week. But an early clinch may be a Catch-22, a thorny problem with no easy solutions. One thing is certain: if the Eagles do lose, they'll replace the 1996 Broncos as the poster boys for lost momentum.