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A 'riches-to-rags' story for Denver and Atlanta

It seems like only yesterday that the Atlanta Falcons and the Denver Broncos were strutting and swaggering at the Super Bowl in Miami, both enormously pleased with how they had turned out.

Less than nine months later, they are sniffling and stewing, both furious with how they are turning out.

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Their combined record is 0-8. But don't be too quick to judge. They may not be that good. The Denver Post headlined this week after the heretofore winless Jets beat the Broncs 21-13, "Terrible day." It could get worse. In Atlanta, the Constitution headlined following the 19-13 overtime Baltimore win over the Falcons, "A down day in a mean season." Local sports columnist Steve Hummer wrote of the Falcons "impossible riches-to-rags story."

In order to win even a little bit, both teams need to be a lot better in blocking, tackling, running, passing, catching, kicking, punting, coaching, and trying.

Bronco linebacker Bill Romanowski insisted afterwards, "We know we're better than 0-4." Really? Wonder how he knows that since the facts scream otherwise.

Of course there are all kinds of excuses for both. Denver legendary QB John Elway retired and Falcons starting QB Chris Chandler has been hurt. Both have lost their gifted running backs. And perhaps the heretofore honored and hallowed coaches, the Broncos Mike Shanahan and the Falcons Dan Reeves, have come down with identical cases of the stupids.

But football, like life, is not built on excuses but on performance.

Or lack thereof. Classic example: The Broncos spent $22.8 million to get highly respected defensive back Dale Carter, formerly with Kansas City. He hasn't made a play yet. Wait, that's not right. He made two plays in the Jets winning drive in Denver Sunday, both interference penalties against him, to be the unlikely MVP for New York.

The only ones distinguishing themselves in this meltdown of great teams are the fans. They have been brilliant. (This doesn't include, obviously, the animal masquerading as a human who threw something at Carter and struck him near his eye.) Follow along here.

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In Atlanta, there were some 20,000 empty seats. Beautiful. Perhaps when the Falcons play St. Louis at home on Oct. 17, there will be 30,000 vacancies. Empty seats speak loudly.

In Denver, the fans once again filled Mile High Stadium but they arrived in ill humor. They spent a good part of their miserable day booing Bronco QB wannabe, Brian Griese. Good for them. By afternoon's end, Griese had flung three interceptions and lost the ball on a costly fumble against the Jets. "This was a team we should've beaten," said Griese afterward. Huh? He must have attended the Romanowski School of Logic.

Shanahan put in backup Bubby Brister in the waning moments, but with enough time for Brister to throw two interceptions. He was loudly - and deservedly - booed off the field.

Let's hear it for the fans.

See, why should fans - who pay plenty of money and invest a lot of their emotional selves in the teams - sit by mute while they look at this raging ineptitude? We don't do this in any other setting. In all other aspects of life, when we are disappointed with what we receive, we vote with our feet, our wallets, and our voices.

Go to a restaurant and get a bad meal. The normal response is not to suggest returning the next evening to give the chef another chance. Go to an atrocious Costner movie. The normal response is not to go to the video store and get another Costner movie to watch the next night.

Yet, somehow in sports, fans are expected to be there to support the home team, regardless. Be optimistic. Be good soldiers and of good cheer. Clap hands, stomp feet, bring cash. Yes, be dumb.

Bronco defensive end Neil Smith asked the media to relay a message to the fans: "Tell 'em we don't need them." It must have momentarily slipped Smith's mind that without all those folks in the stadiums and millions more watching on television, he'd be cleaning out septic systems. This is an honorable endeavor but most agree it lacks quite a few of the benefits of playing football on a handful of Sunday afternoons.

The point is, fans will always punish bad performance and reward excellence on the field. That's fair. Denver defensive end Alfred Williams suggested afterward, "I feel like we owe the fans an apology." That's more like it. Let the groveling begin.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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