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This year's NFL draft is Shanahan's latest bid to gamble wisely

Published May 2, 2007 at midnight

It isn't as if Mike Shanahan suddenly decided last weekend to roll the dice for players with red flags attached to their names.

He spelled out his thought process hours before the NFL draft.

"I'm a risk taker, there's no question about it. I love to gamble," he said Friday. "But to me, it's got to be an educated gamble."

At this point, Shanahan could teach a master's class on risk taking.

The Broncos drafted the University of Florida's Jarvis Moss and Marcus Thomas - trading picks to get both - despite their admissions and suspensions for marijuana use. Thomas' case and successive missteps led to his dismissal from the team.

Shanahan's draft moves are the latest to raise eyebrows in a long line of tricky personnel decisions during his 13-year tenure with the Broncos.

In other words, it's business as usual.

Running back Travis Henry became arguably the team's top free-agent acquisition this offseason despite being in the league's substance-abuse program for smoking marijuana. Henry soon could be out of the program because of good behavior.

With punter Todd Sauerbrun, Shanahan did something seldom seen around the NFL. After taking a chance on Sauerbrun in the first place and acquiring him in a 2005 trade, the coach welcomed him back a second time after getting burned by the punter's four-game suspension for ephedra use last year.

Shanahan, though, doesn't worry about creating buzz if the moves help his team.

And he doesn't care if controversy is created because he trusts his instincts when making those calls and isn't scared to handle the fallout if things go awry.

"It just can't be, 'Hey, I'm going to gamble on a guy,' " Shanahan said of his philosophy regarding players with iffy backgrounds. "You have to research him and take a look at what makes him tick."

Shanahan looks for answers by talking with people involved with the player and during a sit-down with the player himself.

"Then maybe you take a chance on a guy that's had a checkered past," he said. "But a lot of times you can't change those spots. If you can't change those spots, you don't gamble."

Secure in his role

Job security helps explain Shanahan's Vegas mentality.

With a newly signed contract extension through 2011 and a relationship with Pat Bowlen as rock solid as any coach-owner bond in the league, he's as stable as anyone in his job in a what-have-you-done-for- me-lately league.

"He is so a part of the organization," said longtime Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese, now an ESPN analyst. "I think he has the leeway to do a lot of things along those lines that many others would not and could not do."

But it goes beyond that. In weighing the risk-reward equations, it appears Shanahan makes huge distinctions between missteps such as ephedra and marijuana if they're isolated incidents vs. serious criminal behavior, an issue the NFL is trying to curtail through a stricter conduct policy under commissioner Roger Goodell.

Shanahan also doesn't easily buy into damaged reputations others have pinned on a player; instead, he'll size them up and make his own call.

In one well-publicized free-agent meeting in Denver in early 2006, Shanahan met with Terrell Owens, didn't like the vibe and decided the mercurial receiver wasn't a good fit.

Sauerbrun, Henry and many others, though, have convinced him otherwise.

As for the two draft picks, "I think Mike thought everything out," said Gil Brandt, who works for the league as a draft consultant and formerly served as Dallas Cowboys general manager. "And I don't think it would be any different if he had a one- week contract or 100-year contract, I still think he'd do the same thing. . . . He researched it and felt he could solve the problem."

Brandt has known Shanahan since the late 1970s, when the latter was an assistant at Minnesota and Florida, where he turned middling talent into explosive offensive attacks. Such an early experience, Brandt believes, might have allowed something of a "miracle worker" mentality to seep in.

It's also Brandt's belief Shanahan relates well to players and isn't out to show he's smarter than everyone else by getting potential character risks to walk the straight and narrow.

"I look at Mike as really a smart guy and I don't think he's trying to prove everybody else wrong or anything like that," Brandt said. "I think he's just trying to do everything possible to win a Super Bowl, and sometimes you have to go up and do things because the window of opportunity usually is short. A lot of people didn't think it was very good what he did (to acquire receiver Javon) Walker last year (after a right knee injury). And I think Walker turned out pretty good."

'Not a riverboat gambler'

An assistant who has worked alongside Shanahan maintained that while the Broncos coach is consumed with winning - and finding players who can help him win is the driving force in the moves - he has seen firsthand an unwillingness to draft or sign players who appeared to fit the can't- change-their-spots category.

"He's not a riverboat gambler taking risks with these guys," said the assistant, who asked not to be named. "He's going to do his homework. He's going to meet with the people on the staff or outside the staff who know the individual. And he wants to know the good, the bad and the ugly. And then he meets with that person and gets that evaluation and makes his decision from there as to whether he's a good fit."

Some of the players for whom Shanahan has stuck out his neck haven't reciprocated, among them Maurice Clarett, Daryl Gardener and Dale Carter. In the late 1990s, Darrius Johnson was cut and David Bowens was traded because of character issues.

But for every one of those examples, there are more saddled with baggage who panned out without incident, including Keith Traylor, Chester McGlockton, Leon Lett, Reuben Droughns, Denard Walker and Gerard Warren.

In Sauerbrun's case, his reputation was tarnished badly when the Broncos traded for him in the 2005 offseason. He had a drunk-driving arrest in his background and had been linked to a steroids-distribution scandal.

Shanahan signed off on the acquisition, partly because the cost was low. And there was no apparent trouble until Sauerbrun knowingly ingested a beverage containing an ingredient banned by the league and was caught on a random test.

Six months later, Sauerbrun returned. And when he met with Shanahan last month, the punter said he was told, "You know what you did and you know what not to do. Now go do it."

"He's good like that," the punter said.

Sauerbrun is aware he won't be working on a short leash from this point forward.

"I'll have one of those electric collars instead," he joked.

Alfred Williams, a former Broncos defensive end who had to deal with bad-mouthing during his free-agent recruitment in 1996, believes one of Shanahan's strengths is the coach doesn't buy into the notion "once a bad athlete, always a bad athlete."

And, in his view, certain types appeal to Shanahan.

"In my experience with Mike, it's where you are as a young man," said Williams, who was part of two Super Bowl wins with the Broncos. "If you are a guy who's looking to redeem himself and out to prove you're capable, he welcomes you. If you're just the opposite and better than the whole team, that kind of mentality, you're going to hit the road."

New policy a benefit?

The NFL's new, more stringent conduct policy, which gives Goodell wide berth to impose discipline, is designed to reduce the number of embarrassing events that sully the league's image.

The harsher stance on behavior, in Shanahan's estimation, might help keep in line players who historically have had trouble.

"These guys know - one time, they're gone. You don't get second chances," he said. "Sometimes I think that's the best situation. And that's the situation we're in with Roger."

But, as Reese pointed out, the commissioner also has made clear the potential ramifications to teams should they bring in players with questionable histories who later misbehave again. With that backdrop, the Moss and Thomas selections were surprising, particularly considering they represent half of the Broncos' draft class and the team is counting on both.

"That's the one thing that's different this year," Reese said. "Because everybody in the league, if you haven't drafted someone who wasn't a saint, you haven't drafted."

In the cases of Henry and Sauerbrun, Shanahan said, both are quality people who he hopes will do the right thing.

Moss' failed drug test led to a one-game suspension at Florida and might be a random incident. The Broncos hope so, given the first-round money he'll receive.

Thomas' situation is trickier.

He was off some teams' draft boards because of character concerns. He tested positive twice for marijuana use last season and a third time in 2003. He also failed to adhere to strict guidelines regarding his return to the field last season. Thomas was required to make curfew, check in with coaches every day, stay in Gainesville and participate in drug-education classes along with a 12-step program.

Instead, he broke curfew, went on an out-of-town trip and stopped attending the mandatory drug-education classes because he felt they weren't needed, leading to his expulsion from the Gators program.

Thomas and his agent have said he has been taking weekly drug tests since Nov. 1 and passed them all.

The Broncos satisfied their minds by investigating his background in Thomas' hometown of Jacksonville and by flying him to Denver before the draft.

"Who knows?" Thomas said Sunday. "If everything worked out and I would have played and went on to be the No. 3 pick in the draft, I still probably would have taken (the stance) that nothing can touch me now and (then) messed up in the NFL. I'd rather it happen now than later. I learned from that. You won't hear nothing but positive stuff out of Marcus Thomas."

It's Shanahan's "gut feeling" that will be the case from a player whose talent level the team had rated as first-round caliber.

"If he likes you, he likes you," Sauerbrun said. "And if he thinks you can help the team, he's going to side with you."

Taking their chances

Some risky moves that worked for the Broncos.

Denard Walker: Had a 1999 assault on his record, which led to a one-game NFL suspension while he played for Tennessee. Never distinguished himself as a consistent player with the Broncos after signing as a free agent in 2001 but was a starter at cornerback. Two-year stay occurred without incident.

Gerard Warren: Viewed as an immature underachiever in Cleveland as a one-time top-five draft pick. Had been fined for a helmet- to-helmet blow and embroiled in controversy over saying he wanted to take off Ben Roethlisber- ger's head. But the defensive tackle has been a regular with the Broncos, with one solid season, one down year and no other issues.

Chester McGlockton: Coach Mike Shanahan didn't listen to talk that the massive defensive tackle was a negative locker-room presence when he signed him to a free-agent contract in March 2001. McGlockton was on the downside of his career, not the four-time Pro Bowl pick he once was, but he was a solid citizen and starter for the Broncos for two years.

And some that didn't.

Dale Carter: Let a big-money contract go to his head, didn't prepare well, failed to deliver on the field and became a disruptive influence in the locker room. Arrested twice in first NFL stop in Kansas City. Cornerback eventually was suspended under the league's substance- abuse policy and faded into obscurity.

Daryl Gardener: Had a reputation as a partyer in college and as a disruptive influence in the pros, but a turnaround season with Washington convinced Denver he was a changed man. Famously broke his hand in an IHOP parking-lot scuffle, was suspended by the team, then blasted Shanahan in a radio interview, essentially ending the failed marriage of team and player.

Maurice Clarett: Broncos used a third-round pick on the Ohio State running back, who sued the NFL to enter the draft early and accused his former school of providing improper benefits. A rookie contract including no signing bonus allowed the Broncos to cut him for free when he exhibited strange behavior and repeatedly couldn't practice in his first training camp. He's now in prison.

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