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Karma Control
No next year for the 2000 Broncos

click to enlarge Mike Anderson named Offensive Rookie of the Year Monday: a small consolation after a shortened postseason
  • Mike Anderson named Offensive Rookie of the Year Monday: a small consolation after a shortened postseason

Now is the winter of our discontent. Right now. January now. Broncos fans are ready to go into hibernation until that last game is over at the end of the month. Wake me up on Groundhog's Day.

The last time the Broncos played football in Baltimore was a 1983 victory over the Colts. It was John Elway's second game as a Bronco, after being drafted that spring as a Colt but threatening to play baseball rather than report for duty in Baltimore. Losing Elway was the final nail in the Colts' coffin, and months after their dismal season ended, owner Robert Irsay packed them up in the middle of the night and stole them off to Indianapolis.

Five Superbowls and one Hall of Fame quarterback career later, the Broncos finally paid their karmic debt to the city of Baltimore. There was poetic justice in Sunday's defeat, and it had nothing to do with the fact that the Ravens used to be the Cleveland Browns, three-time losers of AFC championship games to the Broncos. The poetry is built in to the only professional sports team named after a poet, celebrating Baltimore native and master of the macabre Edgar Allan Poe through his best-known poem, "The Raven."


Walking the Walk

Despite my Baltimore roots -- I was heading home to Baltimore from college the night the Colts crossed my path on I-70 on their midnight run to Indianapolis -- I counted myself among the Broncos fans in the stadium last Sunday. There were seven of us. Little patches of blue and orange flitting through the swarms of purple.

We came bearing good luck charms: a piece of orange turf scalped from the south endzone at the final game in Mile High Stadium and blue and orange prayer braids made by Tibetan monks. My friend had Broncos colors on every inch of her body, several layers thick, sparing only her shoelaces. She drew the attention of "Poe" as we headed down Ravenswalk, receiving a pummeling from the filthy scavenger of a mascot that presaged the upcoming action on the field.

The Broncos had their worst outing since 1992, scoring only one field goal against a defense that is arguably the best in history. After the opening coin toss at the 50-yard line -- the last time the Broncos faced even odds all day -- they only crossed midfield once in the entire game. Coach Mike Shanahan admitted it was the most frustrating loss he could remember.

Former Bronco Shannon Sharpe laid the ground rules a couple days earlier, setting up the game as a showdown between Sharpe and Bronco defender Bill Romanowski.

"It's our offense against their defense. Whatever team wins that battle wins. It's that simple. Our defense against their offense will be a wash," Sharpe explained. For good measure, he added some perspective on his former teammate. "I am the CEO of trash-talk," quothe the Raven. "Romo is only a vice-president."

The Ravens defense is so exciting that fans get on their feet when the defense takes the field, and they tend toward the restrooms when their lethargic offense goes to work. Broncos running back Mike Anderson, named Monday as NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, described what it's like to face them. "They try to take that fight out of you right from the get-go and take your will power to where you don't want to play any more. They just keep on attacking, keep on attacking."

With a fierce wind curtailing quarterback Gus Frerotte's passing game and the Ravens stymieing the ground game, Denver's last best hope came with 5:28 left in the half, down only 7-0. It was third down and a yard to go, 12 yards from the goal line. Anderson rushed and got nowhere, setting up Jason Elam's field goal

"That right there takes a little air out," Anderson said after the game. "Those kind of plays in this type game and atmosphere, you've got to make the play. You've got to convert."

On the Ravens' next play, a Trent Dilfer pass to Ravens running back Jamal Lewis was tipped into Sharpe's hands, who ran the ball for a 58-yard touchdown, further deflating the Broncos and making it 14-3 at the half.

"That was a fluke thing," Romo said later. "I was walling him. Shannon just happened to be at the right place at the right time. It popped right into his hands and he was able to make a big play." Romo started off dismissive, but he ended in a sigh of defeat. "It could have been anybody. But it wasn't. It was him."


Nevermore

When the second half of a lopsided losing football game begins, you become acutely aware of what a limiting factor time can be. The post-Elway possibilities diminish quicker than a crabcake platter at the lunch buffet. Even Shanahan had to forget the notion of a late comeback, playing rookie quarterback Jarious Jackson, who made his first NFL completion to Ed McCaffrey in the fourth quarter. With the outcome moot, the Broncos could finally play bold, getting a fourth down conversion and briefly quieting the crowd in the day's only little victory. But the fourth quarter is all about the fourth dimension, and the Broncos were out of time.

The Broncos locker room was Oprah-esque, with the press in crisis mode, walking the team through "the most devastating loss ever," a game that "couldn't get any more frustrating," searching for that sensational superlative, fishing for the words to numb us all into a January of hibernation.

"Any time a team goes 33 games without giving up a hundred yard rush you know they're pretty darn good," Shanahan explained after the game. "But it's all predicated on winning. If Baltimore can win the Superbowl, I think it's defense will be considered one of the best of all time if not the best."

Frerotte was just plum bummed. "Hopefully they'll go all the way and the only thing we could say is we lost to the best," he mused, reduced to the hapless hope of a loser. "I'm putting it on my shoulders. I wish I could have played a lot better."

"There's only going to be one team that's happy at the end of the season," Romanowski plainly stated. "We're one that isn't."

Ultimately, it was foolish to go against the karmic forces led by Johnny Unitas standing on the sidelines of a city that had waited 23 years to get back to the post season. The Elway mystique is dim stuff beside the legacy of Johnny U, and absolution was inevitable.

In the cellar of the stadium, Romo is the last Bronco to leave the locker room. A woman bedecked in Bronco gear cups her hands and yells "good season, Bill!" as he walks out the last tunnel of the last stadium in the waning hours of 2000 and into the orange sunset lingering over the Chesapeake Bay. It is not a Mean Joe Green moment. Romo doesn't turn back. He is already dressed and showered and has spent 20 minutes on the trainer's table realigning his battered body. He has no towel to throw the woman, and she has no 7-Up to hand him.

The holiday is over before it has even begun. No confetti. No noisemakers. Not even a smile or a wink. Romo turns the corner toward a midnight dreary, and the Broncos chase the sunset back to Denver, wishing they could turn the clock back, or even forward, anything to escape the cross-country zen of this endless moment.

-- owen@csindy.com

Log on to csindy.com for photos and interviews from the final game at Mile High Stadium and the playoff game against the Ravens.

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