Broncos' linemen are five of a kind; Lacking in bulk only, offensive line heavy on smarts, teamwork; SUPER BOWL XXXIII


MIAMI -- They have sensitivity judges, a kangaroo court and a season-ending feast.

They communicate through grunts and hand signals, sometimes on intuition, but almost never with the media.

They make up the lightest offensive line in the NFL this season -- and quite possibly the best.

The tag team of left tackle Tony Jones, left guard Mark Schlereth, center Tom Nalen, right guard Dan Neil and right tackle Harry Swayne holds the key to whether the Denver Broncos will win Super Bowl XXXIII on Sunday.

If those five blockers can blunt the penetrating charges of the Atlanta Falcons and create cutback lanes for Terrell Davis, the Broncos should become the sixth club (seventh time) to repeat as Super Bowl champions.

If they can't, it's an upset in the making.

"It's all about chemistry, coaching styles and systems," said Jones, the former Ravens tackle. "We have a great system. The coaches put in a great game plan, and if we go out and follow it, nobody can beat us."

There is more truth than exaggeration in Jones' assessment. The Broncos, 16-2 this season, have won 21 of their last 23 games, 32 of the last 38, and 45 of the last 55 over a three-year period.

A major reason is an undersized offensive line that turned Davis loose for the NFL's fourth 2,000-yard rushing season in 1998. Averaging 287 pounds a man, the line makes up for its lack of bulk with intelligence and a sense of camaraderie that is hard to find.

"There are teams that put a big [emphasis] on IQ testing, that pick players with that as a high premium," said line coach Alex Gibbs. "The two teams playing here do that. There are guys literally not on our [draft] board because of brains."

This is how smart the Broncos' linemen are: They don't have to talk to communicate.

"We don't spend much time talking," Jones said. "We can do grunts and hand signals and know what each other is doing. Sometimes I can think what my left guard is thinking. We all know each other inside and out."

This is a group that prides itself -- yes, even governs itself -- on not talking. Led by Gibbs, the linemen impose a regular-season moratorium on interviews. A kangaroo court metes out punishment: $50 a quote, $100 for a television appearance.

The worst thing you can do as a lineman with the Broncos is get slapped with a "prima donna" fine. That's putting yourself above the group, a crime punishable with a $4,500 fine, according to Jones. The last player to pick up the prima donna tab was retired tackle Gary Zimmerman because he missed most of training camp in 1997 with his first retirement.

Then there's the $5 sensitivity fine.

"That's when the coach says something and you come back with an aggressive answer and lose your poise," Jones said.

Who determines the sensitivity fines?

"Harry and Tony are the sensitivity judges," said Nalen. "That's funny because they're more sensitive than anybody."

This season's indiscretions filled the kangaroo court's kitty with more than $5,000, Jones said. On Monday night, two days after arriving here for the Super Bowl, the offensive line took an entourage of 20 team members to Joe's Stone Crab, Miami's renowned restaurant, for a feast of Roman proportions.

The bill came to more than $1,800 -- before tip -- leaving ample funds for, say, a post-Super Bowl brunch.

The Broncos' system of fines requires an exhaustive vigil of TV, radio and newspaper reports. Call it a labor of love. Nalen caught former Broncos guard Brian Habib doing a radio show one day last season while he was idling in Denver traffic. Newspaper quotes, of course, are much easier to catch.

"We enjoy reading all that stuff," Nalen said. "Those of us who know how to read."

The spinoff is that the offensive linemen are a much-coveted interview once the postseason begins and the moratorium ends. They have been extremely popular at the daily media sessions, each drawing a crowd.

"I think it worked out to our advantage," Nalen said, "because these people [reporters] want to talk to us really bad."

Not everyone is enamored of the Broncos' blockers, though. Several Falcons have accused them this week of holding.

"People say what they want to say about us," Jones said. "They say we're a finesse team, that we can't run block, that we hold, that we trip.

"The only thing I know is our running back had 2,000 yards this season, and it's hard to do that if you're doing things wrong."

Pub Date: 1/29/99

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