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COLLIER FIRING STILL LOOMS OVER DENVER'S TURNABOUT

At first, it seemed as if Dan Reeves, the Denver Broncos' head coach, was desperately seeking a scapegoat.

The Broncos, who had been embarrassed by Washington in Super Bowl XXII, were humiliated further when their 8-8 won-lost record failed to qualify them for the 1988 playoffs.

So Joe Collier, the long-time defensive coordinator and former Bills' coach, and his staff of assistants were bagged.

It wasn't just another re-arranging of a coaching staff. Collier was not just another assistant coach who serves a relatively-brief hitch, then moves on to the next NFL city.

Collier had been with the Broncos for 20 years, through three Super Bowl teams, a couple of NFL generations. His home in Denver was nearly paid off. He was part of the community.

It didn't help much when Reeves' supporters attempted to explain that owner Pat Bowlen's heavy-handed ultimatums during a CBS interview forced Reeves' hand. Bowlen virtually demanded a defensive coaching purge during the interview.

Not that Reeves wouldn't have fired Collier anyway. What the head coach objected to was "the way it had to be done."

But done it was, and the results are inarguable. The Denver defense, under new coordinator Wade Phillips, was the catalyst as the Broncs once again dominated the AFC.

The differences in coaching style were obvious to the Denver players.

"There was so much emphasis on theory the last few years; so much time spent on adding to the defensive game plans," contends linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, "that we didn't have enough time left to work on our techniques, to become better players."

Mecklenburg, like a number of other Denver defensive starters, played under both Collier and Phillips.

Unlike those other players, Mecklenburg has been outspoken in his criticism of Collier's ways. Not popular among his teammates to begin with, Mecklenburg's criticism of the departed coach has made him even less popular.

A former Bronco player said the other Denver linebackers have barely spoken to Mecklenburg since he stepped up his critical comments at Super Bowl media day Tuesday.

"Mecklenburg was a 12th-round draft choice seven years ago, and he wouldn't have even made the Broncos if it weren't for Collier," said the ex-player. "Joe made him into a player who earns $800,000 a year today."

But even among Collier's remaining allies, discussing the change can be painful.

"Whenever these questions come up, I worry about offending Joe when I give my answers," admits Greg Kragen, the Pro Bowl nose tackle. "Everyone respected Joe."

Nevertheless, Kragen is candid about the positive effect the change from Collier's complex system to the simple style of Phillips has had on the Denver defense.

"We went from learning 150 defenses to 15 defenses," said Kragen. "The veterans could absorb the complexities, but it took a long time for rookies or other younger players to learn them."

Kragen was asked if first-round draft pick Steve Atwater, who became an immediate star as the Broncos' strong safety, could have been as effective under the Collier system.

"Atwater made big, important plays for us from the start," answered Kragen. "Under our old system, it would have taken him six or seven games to become that effective.

"That wouldn't have been good enough."

Sunday afternoon, Phillips will be on the sidelines, calling the defensive signals for the Broncos and basking in the pregame praise. If the Broncos upset the 49ers, or make it a close game, there may be more lavish praise.

Collier? A few days ago, Denver Post columnist Dick Connor visited Collier to see how he felt about these developments.

"I'm embarrassed," admitted Collier. "Everyone in Denver and 95 percent of the football fans in America think the Broncos are back in the Super Bowl because I was fired."

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