Denver -- If the Denver Broncos are still hurting from their stinging playoff defeat at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts, they are hiding it pretty well. Denver opened its final mini-camp before training camp on Wednesday and the optimism and confidence that has defined the Mike Shanahan era was on full display.
Taking the field in helmets and shorts, offense in white and defense in blue, the 2004 Broncos reflected the offseason personnel changes wrought by Shanahan and the usual player turnover. Here are some observations from mini-camp:
During one-on-one pass catching drills, old Denver hand wide receiver Rod Smith was consistently matched up with prized newcomer cornerback Champ Bailey. Smith and Bailey battled each other energetically but always walked away from the play in discussion about what had just happened. Smith said at one point: "I think I can always get that one on you" and then they discussed how Bailey could stop it. Shanahan's rosters always have several players who "get it." Smith, as a team leader, was welcoming Bailey to the team by talking football and helping him with fine technique points. Smith makes a point of helping new Broncos get adjusted just as John Elway, Steve Atwater and others did for him 10 years ago.
With strong safety Ryan McNeil departing as a free agent, new safety John Lynch was able to secure his favored uniform number of 47 without having to buy anyone a trip to Hawaii. Lynch and Bailey, proven vets, were not tentative during practice but were listening intently to coaches and watching closely as drills continued.
Quarterback Jake Plummer looked especially sharp during 7-on7 drills as did WR Willie Jackson. At one point, Plummer jogged about 30 yards downfield to punch fists with Jackson after an acrobatic catch. Jackson, a 10-year vet, could ease the loss of WR Ed McCaffrey to retirement if he can fill in behind Smith and WR Ashley Lelie.
The energy and spirit that was lost when tight end Shannon Sharpe retired will be made up by linebacker Al Wilson, a talker easily on Sharpe's level. Other than line coach Keith Millard, an enthusiastic and natural teacher, the main voice heard all morning was Wilson's. Rarely a play went by without Wilson commentary:
"Somebody has to make that play. I had three of 'em on me."
"You're gonna be tired, son, chasing me around all day."
When Smith went offsides on a play , the defense took great joy in it, whooping and hollering at a rare mistake by a cool veteran. When it all subsided, Wilson called out "I'm not saying anything Rod Smith. You were right. Ten guys were wrong!"
Around noon, the veterans left the field for weight lifting and lunch, the rookies staying another hour. As they drilled, dark clouds moved in while a tornado watch was in effect further south. The Broncos just kept on working, ignoring the change in weather that had ruined a perfectly nice day. They know that storms, and bad playoff games, eventually pass. So you might as well keep working and get ready for the next one.