If you believe official attendance reports, there were less than 1,500 no-shows at the Bronco's last home game against the Chiefs. In fact, anybody attending the game passed ticketholders trying to unload their seats at bargain-basement prices outside Mile High Stadium. But the more telling fan response came in the fourth quarter, long the exclusive domain of the Broncos' offense. Most of the 98-percent-capacity crowd were still in their seats as the Broncos started a drive with 3:20 on the clock. But after four straight Brian Griese incomplete passes, the crowd began disappearing. With 2:12 still on the clock. Down by six. In Mile High Stadium!
Legend says that those final minutes are the can't-miss magic minutes of any close game in Bronco-land. And there has been no shortage of close games this season -- especially the losses. The previous three Broncos losses have all been decided by less than a touchdown. Add the Chiefs to the list, and an optimist or three-peater still in denial could make a case for how little separates the team's 4-8 record from a possible 8-4 record. But despite close games week after week, the Broncos haven't been close to anything but the cellar all season.
With four games left in the season, it's still possible, in theory, for the Broncos to avoid a losing season -- they've only had two of them since 1982. It's even conceivable that a complete reversal of fortune could still result in a wild-card berth, though the permutations necessary to achieve that are beyond my capacity to outline. But it isn't hope as much as habit that keeps fans returning to Mile High Stadium, where the team has sold out for 30 consecutive seasons, second only to the Washington Redskins.
As the Kansas City Chiefs started making their way down the field on the first series of last Sunday's game, the fans began stomping their feet, thundering through the stadium, letting the team and the world know that the "12th man" was in the house, as intensely involved as ever.
As much as football is so significantly about winning and losing, being a football fan is about much more than that. Winning is vitally important, but the Broncos and Redskins didn't string together 30-plus consecutive seasons of selling out their stadiums by always posting winning records. There's something affirming and essential about the level of involvement in the game that helps define a fan's identity. Perhaps in football more than any other sport, fans work at their fandom with a sense of responsibility sometimes exceeding that of the players on the field.
If you didn't know better, you might be inclined to think Brian Griese was putting on a show in his post-game interview session, something along the lines of "I'm not really a despondent lost soul, but I play one on TV." Even before he took a question, the room filled with his aura of doom and a tension that made me wish I'd packed kid gloves.
Most of his comments were along the lines of "deep sigh of dejection," "heavy sigh of depression" and "no comment while making agonizingly defeated expression."
What he did have to say was merely for added emphasis, clarifying the self-pity he cloaked himself in after watching the final nail being driven in from within the coffin of this Broncos football season.
"It's not any fun," said the man who is finally resigned to his sentence of being buried alive for the crime of entering the post-Elway era a few genes short of the miracle-maker DNA we've grown accustomed to over the past 16 years. "I'll be honest with you," he continued, "it's hard to come back every week when it's not any fun. Maybe these times make winning better. Maybe that's what makes it so sweet."
It's been a season of blame surrounding the Bronco's, as the search for a scapegoat moves into week 14. The most casual glance from the most insensitive observer would detect the bulk of that weight shackled to Griese like a lead football and chain. He doesn't have the scramble gene to escape defensive pressure; when the playbook calls for bombs, he's got nothing but SCUDS in his arsenal, and the Mile High Survival Guide to the Fourth Quarter went out of print about seven months before he took the job of rookie starting quarterback on a defending world-champion team.
If nothing else, Griese elicited enough sympathy in defeat on Sunday to stymie the Monday-morning quarterbacks who have managed to continue the standard rituals of dedicated football fanatics. They knew the season was lost well before Shanahan and company, who seem only now to be letting reality sink in on top of them. Fans still do their fan thing, stomping their feet, yelling out "In-com-plete!" at the top of their lungs, and doing their "Hey" dance once or twice a game when the Broncos find themselves in the end zone.
But when a professional team sinks to having nothing to play for but their pride, the game becomes harder than we ever would wish on someone outside of a Raiders uniform. How bad can it be, we wonder, hopefully, if you're still playing for a living? "It matters not who wins or loses, but how you play the game" is playground tripe to a professional team, let alone world champions who've done little else but win in recent memory. In football, Vince Lombardi still has the last word with his unforgiving adage: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." The Broncos know that how they play the game determines whether they win or lose.
"We've got 11 guys on the field taking care of their responsibility," said linebacker Bill Romanowski. "When a team beats us, it's a breakdown." Romo showed no lack of intensity, firing himself up and enraging the Chiefs' line to the point of unsportsmanlike conduct in the first quarter.
Griese, who has never been mistaken for anything but human, may have finally come down to earth enough to earn another shot at redemption. Gone are the visions of simply strolling into the world-champion huddle as Elway's anointed successor. At last, he is admitting that this NFL business is tougher than he ever imagined, confessing: "I watched what this team did last year and thought it would always be that way."
"Of course, it's tough to have fun when you're losing," said Romo when asked if Griese's comment about the fun deficit rang true. "If you find a guy who's having fun while losing football games, I see a loser."
Head coach Shanahan is riding shotgun on the return trip to earth after his four-year run winning 75 percent of his games. "We got outplayed, we got outcoached. Now we'll find out what we're made of." The key word he used repeatedly in describing his team was "average", surpassed in emphasis only by "very average". In stressing that nobody played well enough, he reiterated his new mantra that nobody on the team is assured of keeping their job.
No one is more clear about that than Brian Griese, who knows that whatever may have been handed to him at the season's opening, it came with no warranty, no security and precious little assurance of satisfaction.
"Hopefully I'll be able to keep working," Griese mumbled, "and maybe have some fun one of these days."