DENVER – The first catch always is the toughest.
The pass doesn't necessarily have to be a tough one to catch. It could be about as visibly difficult as a screen pass, but it's still the play that sets the tone.
Perhaps that's why, after nearly a year away from the game, Javon Walker was so excited about a 16-yard catch in the first quarter Sunday against Houston. It was only the exhibition season, but the play was emblematic of what Walker hopes will be a big year.
More importantly, if the Denver Broncos are going to have the big year they hope for, Walker may have to be that good.
"That first catch always seems to get you in a groove," said Walker, who snagged a pass that was slightly behind him for his next catch. "You catch that first one, and then the next one is easier. You feel like everything is going to go smooth."
No question that was the case Sunday. Walker finished the first quarter with three catches for 41 yards as the Broncos got their biggest offseason acquisition off to a fast start.
Walker was acquired from Green Bay for a second-round pick and given a six-year, $40 million contract in the process. The deal includes an $8 million option bonus in March 2007, which allows the Broncos to get out from under the contract if Walker is a bust.
That said, the Broncos would be happy to pay the bonus. They want Walker, who missed the final 15 games last season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in the opener, to give them a serious deep threat.
In the NFL of today, where the philosophy of many offensive coordinators is that you have to throw to score and run to win, the 27-year-old Walker will play a vital role. He must be the guy to get defenses to back off the Denver running game, which the Broncos need to progress from their home loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC championship game last season.
Then again …
"I don't agree with that statement," Shanahan said of the run-to-score, throw-to-win philosophy.
Shanahan can argue that point with distinction. During his 11 years in Denver, the Broncos have rushed for more yards (25,022) than any other team. They also have scored more points (4,440) over that time than any other team.
Shanahan has done that without devoting significant resources to the running back position. From Terrell Davis to Olandis Gary to Mike Anderson, the Broncos have turned low-round picks or unknown players into 1,000-yard rushers.
This season, the running back talent may have hit a wall. Tatum Bell is a breakaway threat, but the coaches have little confidence in his ability to be an every-down back. Last year, the team wasted a third-round pick on Maurice Clarett and then dabbled with the idea of trading for Ricky Williams before he was suspended for drug use.
Beyond Tatum Bell, rookie Mike Bell sprinted to an early lead for the starting job in training camp, but he has slowed significantly. Former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne is in danger of being cut. Cedric Cobbs has been gaining of late, but it's still seems a stretch to project him as the full-time starter.
The fact is that the Broncos rushed for 68 yards on 23 carries Sunday against Houston. The Texans are relatively stout up front, but they're not exactly the Monsters of the Midway.
Furthermore, while Shanahan can question the premise of the throw-to-score, run-to-win axiom, he certainly has devoted his share of resources to the passing game. Over the past nine years, the Broncos have selected six receivers in the first three rounds, including Ashley Lelie and Marcus Nash in the first. They also used a second-rounder this year on tight end Tony Scheffler.
This is where Walker, who was acquired from Green Bay for a second-round pick, becomes more important. If the Broncos are going to keep defenses honest, they're going to have to do more than their usual hijinks on the offensive line, where their tactics have been the bane of opposing defensive linemen.
Walker is going to have to be the deep threat that Lelie couldn't be, at least not to Shanahan's satisfaction.
Lelie posted a somewhat impressive 18.3 yards per catch last season on 42 receptions. However, he got off to an awful start. In the opener in Miami, he misplayed two potential big catches that significantly could have altered the momentum of the game.
Moreover, the Denver coaches didn't think Lelie was particularly tough. If a deep pass was slightly underthrown, Lelie rarely used his body to ward off the defender; he simply reached back and hoped to catch the ball on the move.
That prompted the Broncos to consider acquiring wide receiver Terrell Owens in the offseason, although Shanahan said the team only would have signed Owens "if the contract gave us complete protection from anything that might go wrong."
After Owens, the Broncos turned their attention to Walker, who blossomed into one of the top receivers in the league in 2004. He finished with 89 receptions for 1,382 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Walker asked for a new contract before 2005, but the Packers refused. Finally, Walker got his wish through the trade to Denver. On Sunday, he started to get into his old groove.
And perhaps keep the Broncos in theirs.