The Denver Broncos believe they can take just about anybody who is ambulatory and make him a franchise running back. That's why they didn't go into deep mourning when Terrell Davis, a Super Bowl MVP who should still be in his prime, suffered career-ending injuries. That's why they drafted Maurice Clarett in the third round when nobody else would touch him. That's why the Broncos, during Mike Shanahan's tenure in Denver, have had four 1,000-yard rushers drafted in the second round or later. And that is precisely why the Broncos traded Clinton Portis to the Washington Redskins last year.
Of course, Portis has never bought into the notion that he was easily replaceable in Denver, not after a pair of 1,500-yard seasons and 29 rushing touchdowns in 29 games. Portis told Colorado reporters during the middle of last week that not only was he not just some system flunky, but he was the best running back the Broncos ever had. Ever.
So it was no surprise the Denver fans booed Portis every time he touched the ball. It was no surprise his former teammates barked at him in the pileups. And it was no real surprise, bad a man as Portis is, that a guy wearing his old Broncos jersey outran him Sunday afternoon in the rain. A kid named Tatum Bell, the 41st pick in the draft a year ago, ran for two long touchdowns to beat the Redskins. You couldn't recognize Tatum Bell if he walked into your living room wearing a jersey that reads "Tatum Bell."
But there he was, laying the wood to the Redskins. Most of the Monday morning conversation will center on the safety that was negated because of the infamous "tuck rule" and the two-point conversion pass from Mark Brunell to an absurdly wide-open David Patten that would have tied the game and sent it into overtime but was tipped away by Denver linebacker Ian Gold. You could have fried an egg on Joe Gibbs's head, he was so hot about the safety that was taken away, a two-pointer in what would become a two-point game.
But it didn't have to come to that because the Redskins outplayed the Broncos Sunday. Actually, the Redskins were much better than Denver in some of the areas coaches care about most. Washington held the ball seven-plus minutes longer, and converted a better percentage of third downs (40 percent to 29). The Redskins' special teams, which can be a little shaky at times, produced a blocked punt. And, oh, the Redskins outgained Denver by nearly 200 yards. Okay, Brunell, who should have thrown for a million yards because he threw the ball 53 times, nevertheless passed for 322 yards to Jake Plummer's 92. That's right, Jake the Snake threw for a grand total of 92 yards -- at home -- against two substitute cornerbacks much of the day.
Two plays killed the Redskins, and I'm not talking about the safety or the missed two-point conversion.
Bell's fourth-and-inches run for a touchdown and his 55-yard touchdown run when the Broncos weren't even trying to score are the killer plays, the plays that make coaches sleep on sofas four nights a week. On Bell's fourth-and-inches touchdown run, the Redskins had him trapped for at least a one-yard loss. They clearly had the perfect defense called to stop him. "We knew what the play was," defensive boss Gregg Williams said. "We had guys calling out the play at the line."
So what happened? Bell ran through two Redskins tackles for not just the first down, but the touchdown.
The second Bell touchdown had an even more bizarre twist.
The Broncos weren't trying to score. Shanahan told Williams as much after the game. The Redskins had more players at the point of attack than Denver could block, so the Broncos switched plays at the last second to what coaches call a "safe run." Shanahan was trying to keep Bell away from a swarm of Redskins, away from a four-yard loss or a turnover in the rain. And in calling an intentionally conservative play on third and five to set up a punt and a field-position play, Bell wound up slipping down the sideline for a 55-yard touchdown.
So what happened? The Redskins missed two more tackles.
Coming into the game, the Redskins led the NFL in fewest yards after contact. And while such terms are always difficult if not impossible to define exactly, the point is the Redskins this season basically haven't missed tackles. "If you could have those two runs back," Williams said. "But you can't. Normally, we take those plays away. We cannot allow those long runs on defense. We've got to finish those tackles. We did so many things well that we thought we had to do to take away a very good running game. Those plays are going to be hard to stomach."
That's because those plays were the game. Please don't tell me Jake Plummer can beat a good defense, because he can't. The Jake Plummer show has been going on for years now, in Denver and in Arizona, and it's as much comedy as anything else when you consider the left-handed flips and behind-the-back tosses. You just knew when he was taking snaps in the shadow of his own goal line early in the third quarter that Plummer was one of his vintage screw-ups from blowing the game, and he nearly did, on cue. The tuck rule, which really is a pox on the NFL, saved him from a safety and his team from a loss.
But Shanahan must know that, too. And he always has a great running game if not a great runner. Portis knows that. "They brought Bell in to make plays," Portis said, "and he did that. Two key third-down runs [actually one third-down, one fourth-down] end up winning the game for them."
Portis played very, very well. Again. He rushed 20 times for 103 yards.
He threw a block on blitzing linebacker Al Wilson that was so perfect, Portis hurt himself. But he didn't score. And there were those stinging words in the morning paper, the Denver Post, from longtime scout and team executive Bobby Beathard, who said the Broncos were looking to get rid of Portis because he was "not a great worker or anything like that. They didn't feel like they were losing anything by getting rid of him."
So by sundown, Beathard looked pretty smart. The Broncos looked pretty smart, even though cornerback Champ Bailey was too hurt to play. Portis didn't score a touchdown (which really should start worrying the Redskins considering he always scored for Denver), and he was out-rushed by Bell who ran only 12 times for 127 yards and the two decisive scores.
But it's a long season, one that was never going to result in the Redskins going undefeated, one that never figured to include victories in both Denver and Kansas City. Portis left the locker room saying that there was a lot to think about on the long flight home, and not just missed safeties and two-point conversions but penalties and mistakes. It wasn't the kind of return to Denver that he had hoped for. Still, he and just about all his teammates can think about how they played well enough in one of the league's most difficult places to win. And for another week, at least until the results from Kansas City are in, once defeated certainly doesn't mean down.