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For the Broncos, Season Will Offer Rush to Judgment

Wednesday, September 8, 2004; Page H17

The Denver Broncos have the most rushing yards in the NFL over the past two seasons (4,895), the past three seasons (6,722) and the past four seasons (9,083).

This year, we will find out whether those numbers were because of great running backs or a great offensive line. It certainly won't be both. Not after Denver traded Clinton Portis (1,591 yards rushing last year) to the Redskins for cornerback Champ Bailey.

Mike Anderson, Quentin Griffin, Garrison Hearst and rookie Tatum Bell are fighting to be the starting running back. Each has good and bad points. Anderson rushed for 122 yards in one preseason game, but injured his groin in a non-contact play while on the punt team and may be out for the year.

Hearst has had four 1,000-yard seasons, but he's getting old. Griffin is fast, but he's also small and has trouble blocking. Bell is a good receiver, but missed part of the preseason with a broken finger.

Coach Mike Shanahan apparently thinks his system is good enough that it won't matter.

"I think we have running backs that will fit into the system and do very well," he said. "If you take a look over the past 15 years, and you take a look at all the Super Bowl champs, there's one thing that's common, and that's how many points a team gives up in a year. If you don't have a defense that ranks in the top five in points given up, you don't win Super Bowls."

The offensive line includes standout guards Ben Hamilton and Dan Neil and standout center Tom Nalen. Nalen is a rugged, flannel shirt-wearing type who bought an Isuzu Rodeo with his rookie money in 1994.

And don't forget quarterback Jake Plummer; he was 9-2 as a starter last year.

The Broncos spent more than $30 million on bonuses for the defense, adding starters Bailey (71 tackles), safety John Lynch (72 tackles with Tampa Bay), defensive tackle Luther Elliss (Detroit) and rookie linebacker D.J. Williams (University of Miami).

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