It is last Saturday, 18 hours before kickoff against
and the Broncos gather for a meeting in a suburban Denver
hotel, where they will spend the night. For the offense, the
next 30 minutes will be particularly significant. For the final
time this group will be reviewing "The Script," that
mysterious, ever-changing list of 15 plays the Broncos use to
orchestrate the opening part of every game.
If each contest is, in reality, a weekly term paper
Denver offense, then The Script serves as a thesis. It helps to
energize both players and coaches and forces the team to
focus on what plays should work best against this next
opponent. This is the feel-good part of the game plan; if The
Script is effective, usually the plan winds up working well,
On this night, the theme is two-edged: Be patient,
the ball. The Broncos know their division rival intimately. The
Chiefs' defense is physical and resourceful. It rarely
surrenders big plays, so Shanahan and Gary Kubiak, his
offensive coordinator, emphasize the need for long drives. And
they also know, because they will be starting reserve
quarterback Gus Frerotte instead of the injured Brian Griese,
the team must guard even more than usual against turnovers.
"We've got some long calls for Gus (in the huddle),
guys must listen and help him out and get out of that huddle
efficiently," Kubiak tells them.
"We've got to stay on schedule. We want to stay out
third-and-12 or -14. We need lots of third-and-5 or -6s. And
it's crucial we protect the ball. They are one of the best
ball-stripping teams we play. No early mistakes."
This is the first year that Kubiak has called the
Shanahan, one of the game's elite offensive minds, gave up
those duties, hoping it would enable his longtime assistant to
emerge from his boss' shadow and help him get a head
coaching job. But this has been an especially tough week for
Kubiak, who doubles as quarterbacks coach. Griese had been
outstanding in the first three games, the highest-rated passer in
the league, but he hurt a shoulder the week before against
Oakland and can't throw. The veteran Frerotte joined the club
in the offseason as a free agent and still isn't deeply versed in
the Broncos' intricate offense.
Kubiak has confidence Frerotte can perform well
win, but this is the first time they have been through The
Script together. The coaches have strived to make sure they
call plays that will allow him to excel. They want to make him
feel comfortable quickly, but they warn him constantly not to
force any passes. And most important, they don't want him to
feel he must carry the team by himself.
In the meeting room, Kubiak slowly works through The
play by play. Shanahan sits in an audio-visual booth located
between the offensive and defensive rooms. He runs a control
panel that allows him to listen to both rooms. He turns up the
volume as an assistant puts up individual diagrams of each
play on a screen and Kubiak uses a laser pointer to discuss the
intricate elements, emphasizing adjustments in routes, reads,
audibles and blocking schemes. Most of his reminders are
directed at Frerotte, who sits by himself in the middle of the
room, feet propped up on a chair. Frerotte nods his head
frequently. Teammates follow along in their playbook; some
take notes. None takes his gaze away from the screen.
The first two plays will be runs, giving Frerotte
time to settle
down and disperse some of his adrenaline. But Kubiak also
doesn't want the players to think the coaches are afraid to let
Frerotte throw. So the next three calls will be passes. The
review is rapid, filled with the jargon of the Broncos' offensive
play-calling. The adjustments even on a simple running play
are mind-boggling. It is this attention to detail that necessitates
the hours of meetings every week, both for players and
By the time the review is finished, Kubiak wants
stimulated by The Script. "We've got touches for everyone,
the receivers, the tight end, the fullback, the running back," he
says. "They can't sit there and say, 'I've got nothing to do for
the first five plays.' They get involved immediately." Kubiak
expects his players to leave the meeting and focus on those
"Gus, it is your turn," Kubiak finally tells
Frerotte. "This is
what you are here for, buddy."
By the time Frerotte and the offense touch the ball
Chiefs lead, 7-0. The Broncos begin as had been scripted,
calling two straight running plays for Mike Anderson, who
again is starting for Terrell Davis, who is just coming back
from an injury. The Script now calls for a pass, H 2 Smash 'Y'
China; Frerotte connects with wide receiver Rod Smith for 23
yards. Kubiak, sitting in an upstairs booth, is relieved. His new
quarterback has passed his first test.
For the next seven plays, Kubiak stays within the
if not the order, of The Script. No reason to change. He
bypasses one run call that doesn't seem suited for the
defensive schemes being employed by the Chiefs. And once he
uses the fourth play on The Script, he bounces around a bit
among the listed plays, starting to respond to the feel of the
Indeed, The Script works so well on this first
by the 11th snap, the Broncos are in the red zone, with a
first-and-goal at the Kansas City 6 after a 15-yard completion
to tight end Dwayne Carswell. Now Kubiak leaves The Script
and turns to a prioritized list of plays Denver wants to call
inside the 20. Kansas City stuffs two runs, and Frerotte is
pressured on third down and throws away a pass toward
fullback Howard Griffith. The Chiefs are giving Denver some
new third-down blitzes; they are trying to unnerve Frerotte.
The Broncos have to settle for a 22-yard field goal despite a
14-play, 79-yard drive. At least they produced the long
possession Kubiak wanted.
Shanahan first became enamored of The Script when he
graduate assistant at Oklahoma. In 1975, he attended a football
coaches convention in Chicago. Bill Walsh was a guest
speaker; his topic was The Script. To the young Shanahan,
Walsh's lecture was mesmerizing. It all made perfect sense,
coming as it did from an acknowledged creative force. Here
was a way to introduce a theme to your players, to crystallize
and summarize your offensive thinking in 15 plays, to throw
both your best and your most reasoned plays at the defense.
"I can remember the moment to this day," says
sitting in his office, 48 hours before Sunday's kickoff. "I was
this young kid, just getting started. What Bill said really caught
my attention. It was so reasonable, so intelligent."
Shanahan eventually wound up working for the 49ers,
he served as offensive coordinator for three years, perfecting
not only the nuances of Walsh's West Coast philosophies but
the intricacies of The Script. It has become the absolute of the
Denver game plan. The Broncos wouldn't dare leave the locker
room without it.
"We use it because it works," says Shanahan. "It's
proven over time. It's not fail-safe, for sure. Sometimes, when
a team comes out and defenses you entirely different than you
expected, you have to acknowledge it and change. And out
goes The Script. But the vast majority of the time, you are able
to stay with it and use it."
The Broncos' Script always has 15 plays, all
and written down on their game-plan sheet that the offensive
coaches carry on the sideline. But as the first series against the
Chiefs demonstrated, that doesn't mean each of their first 15
offensive plays in every game is on The Script. The coaches
move off The Script according to the game situation. Inside
the opponents' 20, they will switch to their best red-zone calls.
On short yardage, particularly on third down, they will move
to another set of calls. If they are backed up inside their 10,
they have a specific list for that problem. Depending on
third-down yardage, they have yet another set of calls.
But as much as the contest allows, they will
through the 15 plays. They will start each series picking up
The Script from where they left off the previous possession,
occasionally skipping a play or two if their personnel on the
field has changed or if Shanahan and Kubiak feel a later play is
absolutely perfect for that particular occasion. Yet it is the
discipline that comes with The Script that encourages
Shanahan to remain with it if at all possible.
"If we follow it and don't get off of it at a
moment's notice, it
serves to break our tendencies," he says.
So let's say the Broncos face a second-and-15. The
on The Script is a run. The defense likely would expect a
pass, but Denver will stick with the run. And if the defense
blitzes and the Broncos catch them right and their inside
blocks work, it could lead to a big play. And opponents who
break down the tape afterward have to wonder what Denver
will call the next time in the same circumstances.
In the opener this season against the Rams, the
decided not to risk a big mistake on the first series in the noisy
Trans World Dome. So The Script called for an initial three
running plays. On the third one, they needed 5 yards for a first
down. The Rams, with reason, anticipated pass. And blitzed.
Which the Broncos anticipated. Their scripted run, a sweep by
Davis, got outside the containment and gained 12 yards. And
the crowd quieted noticeably, allowing the Broncos to
successfully move to the next phase of The Script, which
included two straight Griese completions. They wound up
scoring, just as they scored on their first possessions in earlier
games against both the Falcons and the Raiders.
Besides this anti-tendency plus, The Script serves
functions for the Broncos:
It allows the coaches to gain insight into how the
will react to various formations and personnel packages. For
the Chiefs, Kubiak had tossed up 15 different alignments in
those 15 plays -- "every formation in the freaking book" --
hoping to see every check-off and change Kansas City has
planned for the Broncos. After each series, the offensive
coaches receive a packet of pictures showing two pictures of
each play that was just run. One picture shows the snap, the
second is a second after the snap. They study these pictures
and determine how the Chiefs reacted. Even if the particular
play on The Script didn't work, the coaches can make
adjustments with a particular formation that they can exploit
later in the game, either because of a weakness in the
defensive structure or because of a particular defender who
they believe is vulnerable.
"What we see in the first 15 goes a long way to
helping us be
successful in the third and fourth quarters," says Kubiak. "We
go in thinking the defense will react in certain ways to what
we are doing. Then we, in turn, react to how they react. So
even if we don't get any scores because of The Script, or even
if we don't do much, it is still extremely valuable to us. That's
what people don't understand."
Secondly, it forces the coaches to sum up their
game-planning into a neat package. They had 60 passes in the
Kansas City game plan. The Script contained the eight very
best of those passes. Shanahan doesn't want to come out in a
grab-bag approach, where you have dozens of plays ready to
go and just pick and choose at random.
"It's a matter of specific organization," he says.
"It makes you
wrap things up and focus your thinking. If you can't verbalize
what you want to do, it probably won't work." This is the
climax of intense study. And here are our results of all our
study; let's see how they work.
Most important, it forces the players to focus on
the task at
hand. By telling them the first 15 plays ahead of time, they are
given time to study their assignments on each, including every
potential adjustment. So, surprises should be eliminated. And
that should eliminate mistakes.
"If you are right about the plays on The Script,"
"you should really reduce your mental problems. I have a
group of guys who are studying those 15 plays like there is no
end to them. We shouldn't have any mistakes in the first
quarter or in the first half. It makes the players very
accountable for those plays."
Indeed, The Script is intended to give the Broncos
over the game. Since they also script the first eight plays of
the second half (that handiwork is done at intermission),
Shanahan and Kubiak are dictating a minimum of 23 plays out
of about 60 to 65 a game. Toss in those predetermined calls in
various specialty situations -- short yardage, red zone,
third-and-long -- and they could have orchestrated 50 percent
of their play selections before the opening kickoff.
That eliminates a huge chunk of guesswork, and it
Broncos to stay with their elite play selections. That is one
reason the Broncos annually have one of the league's best
Before their second possession, Kubiak reviews The
Davis, who is coming off a bad ankle sprain, looked good
enough in practice Friday to get playing time in this game. It's
now his turn to come in. Kubiak also likes No. 8, a waggle
pass that should work.
The Broncos start the series at their own 38, still
four points. Kubiak calls for the waggle play, Waggle Right 'Z'
Out. Receiver Ed McCaffrey goes in motion to his right and
runs an out pattern. Smith, split wide left, runs an in pattern.
Frerotte rolls slightly to his right and fires back to Smith
downfield. The completion nets 14 yards.
Then Kubiak calls 19 HO Strong. Griffith is
split to the left,
and Smith and McCaffrey are set right. Davis takes the
handoff and cuts to his left. The Broncos catch the Chiefs
in just the right defense -- "Those are the times," says
Griese, "when you get to the line and say, 'Golly gosh,
we've got them'" --and Davis moves untouched through the
secondary. He finally is stopped after a 24-yard gain. Two
plays later, Davis sprints for another nine and a first down
at the Chiefs' 10. But again, the Broncos' red-zone calls
don't work. Even with the aid of a 5-yard penalty, they
can't get into the end zone. They thought they could
overwhelm the Chiefs with runs inside the 5, but Kansas
City balks and stops three straight rushes. So, despite a
nine-play, 60-yard march, Denver again winds up with only
The Script is formalized on Friday. That morning, two
before kickoff, Kubiak and Alex Gibbs, the line coach,
meet. Gibbs, the overseer of the NFL's most consistent
and dangerous running game, gives Kubiak his list of the
best running plays for the Chiefs' game. They talk about his
reasons, then Kubiak takes those eight plays along with the
eight passes he believes will be most effective, and he
works until 8:45 a.m. on a chronological order. He places
them according to how he wants to exploit the Chiefs, and
adds various formations from which they will be run. He
then gives The Script to Shanahan and heads for two hours
When he returns to his office, The Script is on his
Kubiak wonders every week how his boss will grade his
handiwork. Sometimes, he has been 15-for-15, other times
not even 50 percent. On this day, Shanahan has made
three changes. He meets with Kubiak and Gibbs to
persuade them on his suggestions. They agree; after all, this
is Shanahan making the suggestions. Once practice is
finished, Frerotte receives the entire play-call sheet, which
includes The Script. The quarterback then takes home the
call sheet and begins even more intense study that began
with the introduction of the game plan on Wednesday.
Still, despite all this preparation, The Script
doesn't work. During Shanahan's last season in San
Francisco, three opponents scrapped their normal defenses
and drastically changed their schemes for the 49ers.
Shanahan had to toss out The Script after a few plays and
"The year we won our second Super Bowl," says Kubiak,
"we played San Diego and they came at us with stuff we
didn't expect. We went to the shotgun and almost had to
playground it. When that happens, you have to be honest
as a coach and tell your players what is going on. Then you
try to find a way for them to win. And that day we did."
But on this Sunday, The Script isn't enough. It has
extremely effective against the Chiefs. Serving as the basis
of the first two possessions, and using all but three plays on
the list of 15, it set up two long drives, without any
turnovers, leading to two red-zone opportunities. But the
Broncos couldn't fully capitalize on either. The two field
goals gave them an empty feeling, and gave the Chiefs
The Script gave Frerotte a chance to settle in. But
seemed rusty and unsure of his decision-making as the
game wore on, and hesitated too much on his releases. His
two fourth-quarter turnovers -- a fumble off a sack at
midfield and an interception on his team's last possession --
coupled with a turnover by Smith allowed the Chiefs to
rally from a 22-14 third-period deficit to a 23-22 victory.
In their first three games, with Griese at quarterback,
Denver had just one turnover--and no interceptions.
"We did what we wanted to early except score
touchdowns," says Kubiak. "When you work that hard and
don't get touchdowns, it serves as a downer. It affected us
the rest of the game."
The theme of the term paper had been successful; the
Broncos just failed to write a winning conclusion.
Senior writer Paul Attner covers the NFL for The