DENVER – Brandon Stokley came running off the field toward the Broncos' bench, holding up a single finger and pleading for sanity. He felt like the little kid in the back of the station wagon whose mom was about to drive her unsuspecting family off a pier.
"What are we doing?" Denver's No. 3 receiver screamed in the direction of coach Mike Shanahan. "We're only down 1. We're not down two! Can't you see the scoreboard?"
Jay Cutler's four-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to rookie wideout Eddie Royal had just pulled the Broncos to within 38-37 of the San Diego Chargers with 24 seconds remaining in a wild battle for early season AFC West supremacy Sunday. Stokley, like virtually every one of the 75,915 fans at Invesco Field, expected Shanahan to do as all coaches do in that situation – kick the extra point and gear up for overtime.
Shanahan wasn't listening to Stokley. He looked right through him, relaying the two-point conversion call to Cutler that would decide this game, then and there, on his terms. Adding to the boldness of it all, Shanahan sent in the exact same play that had just produced the touchdown. Only the formation (the receivers lined up on opposite ends, with Royal motioning into the left slot) was different; the result, despite tighter coverage, would be identical.
Forget, for a moment, the terrific pass made by Cutler that Royal seized between three San Diego defenders and the delirious celebration that followed. Blow off the blown call by referee Ed Hochuli that kept Denver's dramatic comeback from derailing. Put aside the implications of the Broncos' 39-38 victory over a team that embarrassed them twice in '07 – and the two-game gap in the AFC West that now separates the rivals.
The true significance of Sunday's game was Shanahan's gutsy decision to go all in and play for the win – a course that he and Cutler plotted as the Chargers went up by 7 with 4:22 remaining.
Strip it all away, and this was an "I'm Back" statement from a coach nearly a decade removed from his last Super Bowl victory who is coming off a losing season he found untenable.
It was a power move by a play-calling savant who knows he finally has the quarterback who can help the Mile High City get over its collective post-John Elway hangover.
It was the act of a man who, despite recent rumblings to the contrary, is secure in his environment. Now in his 14th season, the league's second-longest-tenured head coach was willing to risk the backlash that would have accompanied a failed conversion. Given that only six other coaches had pulled a similarly risky move (going for two while down a point in the final two minutes) since the advent of the rule in 1994 – and only two of those six had been successful – Shanahan had to be feeling mighty exposed.
Let's be honest: He's been waiting for a chance to expose himself in good conscience for a long time. And even in those tense moments before he knew how the outcome would play out, Shanahan loved every second of it.
"I think so," said Cutler, who completed 36 of 50 passes for 350 yards and four touchdowns in a performance that we may remember as the day he became a big-time NFL passer. "I think he's comfortable being aggressive. We're attacking a lot more this year. We've got so many weapons. Our receivers are stepping up, our tight ends are exciting and our backs are so versatile. And with the way our line's playing, we feel like we can attack you any way you want."
Most of all Cutler, in his third season, has progressed to a point where Shanahan wants nothing more than the ball in his quarterback's right hand with the game on the line.
"That's why you go for it," Shanahan said afterward as he sat in the coaches' locker room at Invesco, his face still flushed from the excitement. "I've always believed you get a good feel for a quarterback in his third year, and I knew going into this offseason that Jay was capable of doing what he's done these first two games. If he keeps on playing at this level, good things will happen."
Before the Broncos drafted Cutler with the 11th overall pick of the '06 draft, they knew all about his robust right arm. Yet USC's Matt Leinart, a former Heisman Trophy winner, and Texas's Vince Young, who led the Longhorns to a stunning upset of the Trojans for the 2005 national championship, were considered to be better prepared to handle big-time pressure than Cutler, who played for SEC bottom-feeder Vanderbilt.
Two-and-a-half years later, that perception has changed dramatically. Partly because of what coaches believed was a lack of maturity, Leinart lost a competition with 37-year-old Kurt Warner and is now an Arizona Cardinals second-stringer. Young, too, has struggled with the transition to life as a professional and will likely be a backup to Kerry Collins after he recovers from a sprained knee.
Conversely Cutler, who became a starter late in his rookie season, gutted out the second half of the '07 campaign under physical duress without a significant dropoff in his play. It turned out he was suffering from Type I diabetes, a condition he has since had to manage on a constant basis.
On Sunday he was happy to report that, during that three-and-a-half hour stretch at Invesco, his blood sugars were under control. So, too, was Shanahan's game plan. Isn't it amazing how much smarter the man once dubbed 'The Mastermind' (a line from a feature story I wrote for Sports Illustrated that was later used against him in mocking tones) looks when a quarterback with Cutler's abilities is running the offense, as opposed to predecessors and failed Elway-followers Jake Plummer and Brian Griese?
"You've got to run an offense that fits your personnel," was Shanahan's way of putting it. "Jay can do so many things."
Against the Chargers, who stayed in the game thanks to the equally outstanding Philip Rivers (21 of 33, 377 yards, three touchdowns and no trace of debilitation from the torn ACL he suffered last January), Cutler did it all. For one thing, he connected 18 times for 166 yards with wideout Brandon Marshall, returning from a one-game suspension for having violated the NFL's personal-conduct policy.
Let's repeat that: Marshall caught 18 passes, two short of Terrell Owens's single-game league record, many of them while allegedly being covered by utterly frustrated Pro Bowl corner Antonio Cromartie, reprising the role played by the Raiders' DeAngelo Hall against Royal in Denver's season-opening 41-14 victory in Oakland. Included in Marshall's haul was a six-yard touchdown pass off a gorgeous fade to the left corner from Cutler with two seconds left in the first half, giving the Broncos a 31-17 lead.
Earlier Cutler, sliding and stepping up in the pocket with tremendous presence, gunned a pair of scoring tosses to tight end Tony Scheffler (six catches, 64 yards). He was best of all on the game-deciding two-point conversion, coolly buying time before finding Royal wedged between defenders Eric Weddle, Steve Gregory and Clinton Hart and firing a strike that the young wideout simply assimilated into his being.
Even more telling was the way Cutler shook off the mistake that seemed to turn the game in the Chargers' favor. Up 31-30 with 5:41 remaining, on third-and-3 from the San Diego 4, Cutler rolled to his right and lobbed a meatball to Chargers corner Antoine Cason, who intercepted it in the end zone, ran it out and fumbled after being hit by Stokley. After Hart recovered and ran forward, a frustrated Cutler took him down at the 9 before heading back to the bench with a knot in his stomach.
"I was sick," Cutler said. "I don't even think the ball had left my hand before I was already cursing myself. I knew it was a disaster when I released it, and I was running after the guy as soon as I made the throw. It turned out the best thing that happened for us was that they scored quickly."
At the time, Rivers' short screen to Darren Sproles that the diminutive halfback turned into a 66-yard touchdown – and the two-point conversion that followed – didn't seem like a positive development for the home team. But Shanahan was already spinning it forward, undoubtedly influenced by an aversion to the possibility of seeing his reeling defense take the field again. When the coach broached the idea of going for two if the Broncos were to score in the final 80 or 90 seconds, Cutler was all for it, and he excitedly told his teammates of the plan in the huddle.
Stokley, who was on the bench at the time, never got the memo, but now he and everyone else knows the score. For once Cutler made his coach's gamble pay off, the league-wide perception of him and the Broncos had changed, perhaps irrevocably.
Shanahan, of course, had long ago envisioned the day on which he would place the full measure of his faith in the kid from Vanderbilt. "We felt that from Day One he was someone who could wipe bad plays away very quickly," Shanahan said. "That's what most great quarterbacks do – just like great cornerbacks who get burned but have to have those short memories. Even in college, you could see his toughness on film. He would stay in the pocket and get hit in the jaw, but he'd still wait 'till the last second and throw it 60 yards downfield."
Shanahan rose from his chair in the coaches' locker room and flashed a knowing smile. He didn't have to state the obvious: His quarterback has the right stuff, and now that the kid has arrived, it changes everything.
When you see it from that vantage point, perhaps going for two isn't such a risky decision after all.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• After the Packers blew a 21-0 lead against the Lions and fell behind 25-24 midway through the fourth quarter, it took a Michigan man to restore order at Detroit's Ford Field. Enter Charles Woodson, playing with a broken toe, who made a pair of interceptions to key a 24-point outburst. Woodson, whose 32nd birthday is next month, might as well have struck a Heisman pose while racing to the end zone on a 41-yard interception return with 3:09 remaining. "C Wood should be a Hall of Famer," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers (via text message), who had his second consecutive strong outing for the NFC North leaders. I wrote it last season and I'll write it again: Woodson, once derided as the most overrated player in football back in his days with the Raiders, may now be the most underrated.
• Meanwhile at Giants Stadium, Rodgers' predecessor put up only 10 points against a determined Patriots defense – not that Brett Favre should shoulder the blame for the Jets 19-10 defeat. The Pats are still better than the Jets, the abrupt change in quarterback fortunes notwithstanding. With Matt Cassel taking over for the injured Tom Brady, New England has changed its style, moving away from the explosive offensive attack of 2007 and going back to the careful, ball-control approach it employed during Brady's early days as a starter. The Patriots can still win that way – they're tied with the surprising Bills atop the AFC East, and that battle should continue into December. But it'll be interesting to see how Randy Moss, who on Sunday had just two catches for 22 yards, reacts to the shift. If New England suffers a couple of disappointing defeats and Moss isn't getting the ball, that whole model-citizen persona he adopted upon arriving in Foxborough might disappear in a hurry. Yeah, I know, I'm a skeptic. But I've seen this movie before.
• The Titans have one of the NFL's best defenses, and linebacker Keith Bulluck is the unit's most important player. He's not a bad special-teamer, either, as he showed in Tennessee's 24-7 thrashing of the Bengals in Cincinnati. In the fourth quarter, Bulluck bust through the line and blocked a Kyle Larson punt with his right arm, then spun around and somehow recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. If Bulluck were a quarterback, he'd be the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. Big Ben showed Big Cojones in Pittsburgh's 10-6 victory over the Browns in Cleveland Sunday night, making enough big throws to win despite a separated shoulder he suffered (but didn't talk about) in the Steelers' season opener and winds that reached 60 miles an hour. Finally, it was nice to see rookie Redskins coach Jim Zorn, who seemed overwhelmed in his debut, get it together in a hurry. On Sunday, after Washington had come back from a 24-15 fourth quarter deficit to take a 29-24 lead over the Saints, the 'Skins faced a fourth-and-2 at the New Orleans 32 just after the two-minute warning. Zorn went for it, and Jason Campbell's eight-yard pass to wideout Santana Moss clinched the game.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• How frustrated are the Vikings right now? One of their veterans, via text message, asked me Sunday night what I thought was keeping them from winning. The best I could do after having checked out much of their 18-15 defeat to the Colts on TV from the Invesco press box? "Red-zone offense." Duh. The Vikes, who out-gained the Colts on the ground by a 180-25 margin, had the game's first five scoring drives but settled for Ryan Longwell field goals each time. That would have been enough to put away some struggling teams, but not Indy. Desperate after a Week 1 defeat to the Bears, Peyton Manning and his teammates summoned their championship mettle and rallied for an emotional victory. I still like Minnesota, but a quick look at the schedule of its next three games (Panthers at home, at Titans, at Saints) tells me this team is in danger of seriously messing up its playoff plans.
• So Al Davis, through his faithful minions, is floating reports that he's about to fire coach Lane Kiffin? Ooooh, I'm stunned. I mean, when Kiffin walked into his office in early January and saw an owner-drafted resignation letter awaiting his signature, it certainly indicated to me that he was set up for success in Oakland in 2008 and beyond. Right! Assuming Davis wanted Kiffin gone from that point on, the owner's refusal to eat the remaining two years on his handpicked coach's contract – or, more likely, Davis's vindictive obsession with flexing his power to the bitter end – is worth more to him than giving his team the best chance to win this season. That's not really a commitment to excellence, for those of you scoring at home.
On Sunday, naturally, the Raiders pulled off a 23-8 upset of the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium, possibly earning Kiffin a stay of execution. With Mike Nolan's 49ers scoring an overtime victory in Seattle and Cincinnati owner Mike Brown, who's even cheaper than Davis, unlikely to make a move that would cause him to eat any money on Marvin Lewis' contract, the coach most likely to compete with Kiffin as the first to be fired in '08 is the Rams' Scott Linehan. I'm a big Linehan fan, but the situation in St. Louis, as one player told me Sunday, is a "nightmare." The Rams have been outscored 79-16 and have given up 967 yards in two games, and Linehan went on a postgame tirade during a one-question press conference at the Edward Jones Dome, after which respected St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz urged him to resign. None of that bodes well for Linehan's immediate job security.
• Is it just me, or has Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio blown a lot of timeouts in the team's first two games? Jacksonville, despite its 0-2 start, is a good team – good enough to challenge for the AFC title. But it sure helps when you can stop the clock while trailing late in a close game.
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How the new advertising slogan for a Quiznos sandwich – "It's like getting a hug from the inside" – is supposed to make that sandwich sound appealing, in a digestive sense.
2. Why the Arizona Cardinals can't figure out a way to make things work with wideout Anquan Boldin, who is understandably peeved that he's due to make about a quarter of the salary the team's other star receiver, Larry Fitzgerald, will command in '08. As Boldin showed again on Sunday – catching three Kurt Warner touchdown passes in a 31-10 victory over the Dolphins – in helping the Cardinals to their first 2-0 start since 1991, the combination of him and Fitzgerald is what makes that offense special. Boldin reportedly stopped speaking to coach Ken Whisenhunt this summer and has asked to be traded – though, to his credit, he continues to play exceptionally hard. From an organizational standpoint, every creative step should be explored in an effort to keep the dynamic duo intact.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
I could devote this entire section to teeing off on Hochuli for the call he blew at the end of the Chargers-Broncos game, but I'll leave the bulk of the ranting to a friend of mine who weighs in below. I will say this, however: Hochuli sets himself up for ridicule by doing his best Rod Serling impression every chance he gets, turning on his microphone and narrating the action and behaving as though he gets paid by the word. On one occasion Sunday Hochuli, actually pumped up the volume to explain why a flag hadn't been thrown on a Broncos incompletion. And regarding the errant whistle on Cutler's fumble at game's end, as one Chargers player told me afterward, "When we (expletive) up like that, we get fired. But nothing will happen to that guy."
OK, now back to our regularly scheduled diatribe: It wasn't Hochuli's fault that what seemed to be a bad call on Champ Bailey's first-quarter interception of a Philip Rivers pass wasn't reversible. The call, challenged by Chargers coach Norv Turner, couldn't be reviewed because the replay equipment supposedly stopped working at that pivotal time (it was up-and-running soon thereafter). So, even though it appeared to TV viewers as though San Diego wideout Chris Chambers caught a low pass and was touched down before Bailey took it out of his hands, the Broncos were allowed to keep possession on the Chargers' 29. Five plays later, Denver scored the game's first touchdown. It may all have been an unfortunate coincidence, but given the fact that the home team benefited, how can the Chargers not be suspicious? In the wake of Spygate and the mysterious failure of coaches' headsets and other communication devices at various stadiums, isn't this just another area in which a team could try to gain an unfair competitive edge? And even if everything is completely above-board, how can this happen? The NFL is a multi-billion-dollar business, and the whole world is watching, and yet there's no backup system in place to ensure that a malfunction of this sort can't mar an important game? Awful.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Dude, Ed Hochuli is the worst. He makes sure he gets more screen time than anybody I've ever seen in NFL history, with his big muscles and his (expletive) (expletive) (expletive) homoerotic (expletive) physique. He's out there saying 'I' every five seconds and trying to get noticed so John Madden and Phil Simms can talk about how ripped he is. Getting noticed – that's not a referee's job! Ed Hochuli is the most famous referee in the world … just like the guy from the Exxon Valdez is the most famous ship captain in the world. It's all about him. He's a game-changer. I should have drafted him on my fantasy team. This is ridiculous what he did here."
My buddy Malibu – of fantasy-adventure fame – mourning the controversial call that helped doom his beloved Chargers to defeat