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Griese is just a cog in Broncs’ machine

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DENVER — Broncos coach Mike Shanahan loves quarterback Brian Griese. He alienated most of his team two seasons ago to vault Griese to starter. Heck, he might start Griese over Peyton Manning or Brett Favre, if that were ever a choice.

But even Shanahan knows Griese's injury wasn't the reason his Broncos got thrashed by the Baltimore Ravens in January's wild-card playoff game.

That excuse sits out there, tempting as a free ice cream cone as the Broncos prepare for Sunday's rematch. Shanahan won't grab it.

"Everybody wants to blame that loss on the quarterback," Shanahan said. "That's usually the way it happens. But you have to play well as a team."

Yes, Griese was out with a crumpled shoulder. And yes, the Broncos' offense operated in sheer panic mode. Fill-in quarterback Gus Frerotte dropped back with all the comfort of a man whose shoelaces were aflame.

But it required an overactive, perhaps hallucinogenic, imagination to figure Griese could have fixed all of that. The Ravens' defense made its name by devouring quarterbacks, with no passes given for the sons of hall-of-famers or pet projects of Masterminds.

Shanahan did not respond in the offseason by tarring and feathering Frerotte. The first thing he did was can his defensive coordinator, Greg Robinson, and upgrade a unit that looked powerless against a decidedly one-dimensional Ravens offense.

In Shanahan's world, quarterback doesn't necessarily make or break his team. That's why Griese is so suited for him.

Griese is not a one-man show. He isn't John Elway. He isn't Favre. He won't take broken plays and weave them into magic. He isn't Troy Aikman. He isn't Joe Montana. He doesn't have such command of a game that everyone else on the field falls under his sway.

But he is one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. Of course, Ty Detmer, Anthony Wright and Chris Weinke have starting jobs in this league too, so that distinction isn't exactly cause for a parade.

What makes Griese so effective — and why he should be attached at the hip to Shanahan — is being the leading cog in the Broncos' machine. He takes Shanahan's system of surgical precision, of slant routes and quick outs and a bruising running game and executes it smartly.

He is the top-rated quarterback in the league through two games, with an outrageous 134.9 quarterback rating — thanks largely to having thrown no interceptions. His yardage, 572, is actually third in the AFC and his completion percentage of 71.7 percent is second behind the Colts' Manning.

"Now, there's always growing pains," Shanahan said. "Brian's not going to be playing perfect games every game. Sometimes he's going to have a tough game, and he's got to work through those experiences."

This week could be one of those weeks. What his shoulder injury did last season was spare him the experience of facing a Ravens defense that treated quarterbacks like hors d'oeuvres.

It was the Ravens' year. If Griese didn't have a mincemeat shoulder before that game, he would have had one when it was over.

That said, the Broncos will probably win today anyway. This isn't the Ravens' year. They aren't handling the defending champion role as well as they did the unloved, ferocious underdog one. They have other assorted issues, too, like a nonexistent running game and a guy named Elvis flinging 63 passes in a game.

But whether it's the Broncos' year is yet to be seen too. Some of that will depend on how Griese handles those growing pains. But the bigger pivotal factors are elsewhere.

Griese won't turn this around on his own.