Moments before Broncos lineman Gary Zimmerman was immortalized into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, last month, coach Mike Shanahan and owner Pat Bowlen shared a sunny moment backstage on a sun-splashed day.
Shanahan and Bowlen were asked, "How is it going?"
Shanahan answered. "Very well. We're undefeated."
Bowlen chimed in: "We're going to stay that way, right?"
Both men laughed. Hearty ones.
"Well, I walked right into that one," Shanahan said, smiling. "I deserved it. I just lobbed you that softball."
Bowlen smiled. He was kidding.
Well, two games in, two victories in hand for the Broncos. They may not win them all -- but they certainly look like a club that will score trying.
Quarterback Jay Culter is slinging it, receiver Brandon Marshall is winging it, tight end Tony Scheffler is stinging defenders and rookie receiver Eddie Royal is bringing it.
Shanahan is dialing it.
When the 2-point conversion was added to the NFL game in 1994 it was employed more frequently by coaches early on. That first year coaches converted 59 of 116 attempts, the most in both categories since its conception. Only two seasons ago coaches used it the least ever (21 of 41 attempts converted). Last season the numbers increased to 30 of 61 converted.
We could talk all week about percentages and protocol in terms of when to go for two and when not, but the bottom line is to make that call in the final seconds, eschewing an extra-point kick and the near certainty of overtime, takes guts.
That is just where Shanahan looked in making the call.
Controversial, confusing call
"You go with your gut sometimes," Shanahan said on Monday morning, looking back on the call and the tingling 39-38 victory. "We had that feeling on the sideline and I could sense the players' excitement about it. And when you look into your quarterback's eyes and he has that look, that he wants it, that's all the nudge you need."
The Broncos -- after their winning touchdown drive was kept alive on a Cutler fumble whistled dead as an incomplete pass -- converted a fourth-and-4 Cutler to Royal touchdown pass.
Shanahan called on the same duo for the conversion, despite Marshall's Broncos-record 18 receptions in the game.
"Same guys and same play," Shanahan said. "We had run a right formation on the touchdown and we switched it to a left formation and altered the route a little to give it a different look. The protection was good. It was a good throw. The right read."
And a special, sure-handed catch in the end zone in traffic by Royal.
Shanahan did not want to put his team's fate in an overtime coin flip. In Cutler, in Royal, he trusted.
In his offense.
It has not been this way in Denver for awhile. Sure, Jake Plummer led the Broncos to a 13-3 record and the 2006 AFC Championship Game. But as far as Shanahan was concerned, that was the zenith with Plummer. Only three months after that loss, he drafted Cutler from Vanderbilt.
"I give Jake tremendous credit and we won a lot of games with him," Shanahan said. "But having been around quarterbacks like Elway and Young and Montana and having won Super Bowls around them, I think I know what it takes. We beat New England that year. We lost to Pittsburgh here at home in the AFC Championship Game. And I thought that was as good as we could play with Plummer as our quarterback. It was as good as we could get in our offensive system at that time."
So, Shanahan moved up the No. 11 spot to draft Cutler. Texas quarterback Vince Young (No. 3) and USC quarterback Matt Leinart (No. 10) both were drafted before Cutler.
"We drafted him to get to the next level," Shanahan said. "If we were going to be a top three offense, we needed someone special."
Cutler started the last five games of his rookie year. Then he went 7-9 as a starter last season. Shanahan is impressed with how well Cutler is grasping the offense. He has completed 70.3 percent of his passes in two games. He has six touchdown passes compared with one interception -- and the pick came in the drive that preceded his game-winning march against the Chargers.
Now Shanahan gets to cook up an offensive game plan, a passing game each week that is not hindered. He has returned to the unchained offensive feel and innovation that has marked his coaching career.
No franchise during his 14 seasons as head coach of the Broncos has gained more rushing yards or total yards. Only two during that span (Indianapolis and Green Bay) have scored more points. For the Broncos to reach their ultimate goals, their season appears to hinge on if the defense can rise to match the offense.
When the Broncos play host to New Orleans on Sunday, the game pits Shanahan's creativity against that of Saints coach Sean Payton. This matchup should provide as cat-and-mouse, razzle-dazzle, imaginative offensive display as any NFL game this season.
"I went for 2 points there because I have a lot of confidence in our offense," Shanahan said. "I have a lot of confidence in Jay and the supporting cast. I think we'll continue to have a 'let's go win it attitude' on offense. It's a young football team, but our guys are smart enough to know that unless you prepare, this kind of feeling is very short lived. Week in and week out, we are stressing our preparation."
Especially if you have visions of winning 'em all.