Droughns next in line of Broncos backs

Reuben Droughns, who has not been selected to seven consecutive Pro Bowls, could not contain himself.

"You're washed up," the Denver Broncos' running back yelled at Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp as the two teams left Network Associates Coliseum at halftime last Sunday.

Sapp, who has been invited to Hawaii for seven straight seasons, did not take kindly to this criticism from a player who has started only 12 games in his five-year NFL career. The two had to be separated by players and coaches as they neared the tunnel to the locker rooms.

"I am never one to back down from anyone, no matter who it is," Sapp explained later. "He is a punk who had one good game."

Actually, it's two.

The Broncos are 5-1 after their 31-3 dismantling of the Raiders and the emergence of Droughns, a backup fullback-turned-starting tailback, is one of the league's more compelling story lines. America will get its first extended look at Droughns on Monday night (9 p.m. ET, ABC), when the Broncos meet the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.

After carrying 30 times for 193 yards against the Carolina Panthers in Week 5, Droughns burned Sapp and the Raiders for 176 yards on 38 carries -- two of the NFL's five highest rushing totals so far this season and a two-game total of 369 yards on 68 carries for the 26-year-old. By contrast, the team that gave up on him, the Detroit Lions, have run the ball 119 times for 382 yards in five games.

"You don't want people to doubt you and you don't want the team to doubt you," Droughns, who had 97 yards on 40 carries in four previous seasons, told reporters after the Raiders' game. "You have to let them know, 'I'm going to be there for you and fight as hard as I can for you.' "

This is a ridiculous rags-to-riches story -- admittedly, early in the curve -- that approaches the former Iowa grocery shelf-stocker who won the Super Bowl XXXIV MVP Award, or the sixth-round draft choice who replaced the franchise player and won the MVP in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII. But after two scintillating games, Droughns isn't drawing the kind of attention that made Kurt Warner and Tom Brady household names.

That's because this is the Broncos, and it's happened before.

After Terrell Davis (sixth-round choice in 1995) wore down, head coach Mike Shanahan dropped Olandis Gary (fourth-round choice in 1999) behind a disciplined and effective offensive line. In 1999, Gary produced a 1,000-yard season and then a total of 555 yards over the next three. Mike Anderson (sixth-round choice in 2000) got the call a year later and produced 1,487 yards. Clinton Portis (second-round choice in 2002) cleared 1,500 yards in 2002 and 2003 before the Broncos were moved to trade him to the Washington Redskins for cornerback Champ Bailey.

It's the system, stupid.

The interesting thing? In the 10 seasons since Mike Shanahan arrived in 1995, none of those other backs -- even Davis or Portis -- equaled Droughns' numbers in their first two starts.

Droughns, who played at Merced (Ca.) Junior College for two years before rushing rushed for 2,058 yards in two seasons at Oregon, was a third-round draft choice of the Lions in 2000. But he suffered a separated right shoulder on his first carry of the NFL preseason and was placed on injured reserve for the entire season. In 2001, he was waived by Detroit and spent time as a practice player with the Dolphins before re-signing with the Lions in October. He played in nine games, but Detroit did not renew his contract and the Broncos signed him as a free agent in 2002.

For two years, he was largely a special teams contributor, making tackles in kick coverage and returning kickoffs. Coming into this season, Droughns had seven starts in four years. And when tailback Quentin Griffin gained 156 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs in the season opener, it looked like Droughns would again play a supporting role, this time as a fullback. But when Griffin suffered an ankle injury late in the game against Tampa Bay, Droughns was Shanahan's starter at tailback against the Panthers. In a bit of gamesmanship against the team that fired him (some would call it something worse), Shanahan listed Droughns as the starting fullback before the Raiders game, with Griffin at tailback. Droughns started the game at tailback and Griffin carried the ball only four times.

"Reuben Droughns is our starter," Shanahan said coyly after the game. "I'm not sure if all of you noticed that early on."

Droughns has now carried the ball 78 times for 399 yards, a 5.1-yard average per carry that is surpassed only by the Giants' Tiki Barber and Brian Westbrook of Philadelphia among leading rushers. At 5-foot-11, 207 pounds, Droughns is not a classic tailback. He is a straight-ahead power runner who bounces off opposing would-be tacklers.

"I figure I'd rather lower my shoulder and hit them, not just let them take shots at me," Droughns said. "I'm a little bruised up, but that's OK. I like carrying the ball that much. I feel like I get stronger as the game goes on."

In the last two games, the Broncos lined him up in a one-back set and then shifted tight ends Dwayne Carswell and Patrick Hape into the fullback slot to block. With Carswell serving a one-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy, that look may change this week against the Bengals.

According to Terrell Davis, Droughns' success can be partly attributed to understanding the fullback position.

"He has the best advantage of anybody that's played back there," Davis told Denver's Rocky Mountain News earlier this week. "When you're a fullback and you know the offense and understand the blocking and the reads he makes, it's exactly how the runner would run the ball. So he's had that bird's-eye view for a long time. And then he has the mental toughness as far as being a fullback, which translates into being a tough runner."

Said Shanahan, "He loves carrying the ball. Anytime you carry the ball 38 times and you still look fresh on your 38th carry, you're enjoying what you're doing."

After being in the wrong place at the wrong time for four NFL seasons, Droughns' timing, finally, is superb. Griffin's injury -- as well as preseason injuries to Mike Anderson and rookie Tatum Bell -- elevated him to the starting position against two teams who have difficulty stopping the run; Carolina was ranked No. 29 and Oakland was No. 27.

And now there is this piece of good news: Monday night's opponent, the Cincinnati Bengals, are ranked last among the league's 32 teams in stopping the run. The guy Warren Sapp called a punk who had one good game has another tantalizing opportunity. Sometime after midnight on the East Coast, fans around the country may well know who he is.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.