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BRONCOS SADDLED IN EFFORTS TO STAY ON TOP

All through the '90s, NFL coaches saluted Marv Levy for what they realize is an amazing feat: Leading the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowls.

The latest to understand how difficult it is to stay at the top is Mike Shanahan. Two months ago he coached the Denver Broncos to a smashing victory over Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXII. Today he isn't sure where his next starting quarterback is coming from.

There is great interest among the Bills' deep thinkers about how this comes out since the Broncos will be among their non-division opponents coming into Rich Stadium next season.

The word out of Denver is that John Elway, in command of the Broncos since 1983, is still undecided whether to continue his football career or to quit while he's still ahead. Elway, it's said, may not make up his mind for another month, just before the Broncos hold their minicamp.

"It's true," admitted Shanahan at the annual NFL meetings Tuesday. "He's still undecided."

Shanahan is sweating it out. His options are Bubby Brister, the longtime journeyman who was Elway's seldom-used backup last season, and Doug Nussmeier, one of New Orleans' four quarterbacks who was signed as a free agent a few weeks ago after Jeff Lewis, whom Shanahan considered the quarterback of the future, suffered a knee injury in a pickup basketball game.

"I would be surprised, very surprised," says Shanahan, "if John decided not to play."

There was more hope than conviction in the coach's voice.

Elway's vacillation is the most serious of Shanahan's worries. But he has others. Like most Super Bowl contestants with large payrolls, the Broncos were vulnerable to raiding.

Elway aside, the major reason Denver pulled clear of the Packers in the final quarter last January was that Terrell Davis, the Super Bowl's most valuable player, collaborated with an underrated offensive line to rip apart Green Bay's gasping defenders. Seattle has already raided the Broncos for their right guard, Brian Habib.

"We'll replace Habib with one of our experienced backups," says Shanahan. "I think a good line must have top tackles and we have them in Gary Zimmerman and Tony Jones. I don't think anyone can name a better center than Tom Nalen. You can get along with decent guards."

Zimmerman had to be coaxed out of retirement last fall but Shanahan thinks the big left tackle, who played with shoulder pain for a long time, will play again.

"Gary felt better after last season than he did in a year," says Shanahan, "so I think he'll be with us."

Detroit raided Denver's defense for middle linebacker Allen Aldridge to compensate for the loss of Reggie Brown, whose career ended when he suffered a spinal injury last season. The expectation was that bad-boy Bill Romanowski would be moved from outside linebacker inside to replace Aldridge.

"We thought about it, but then we decided to leave Romanowski where he's been playing," says Shanahan. "We think we can replace Aldridge with one of our younger linebackers who gained experience last year."

Loaded with hefty salaries on the Denver roster now, Shanahan says that means he can't afford to make a mistake if he does decide to go into free agency for help during Stage Two of the signing period, which commences June 1.

"We have to take a lot of things into consideration," he says. "How is the new player going to interact in the locker room? What do his past teammates and his college coaches think about him? How will he react when things start getting tough?"

Two years ago, Shanahan was torn between two free agent pass rushers, Alfred Williams of San Francisco and Leslie O'Neil of San Diego.

"Alfred told me that if we chose him I wouldn't regret it," says the coach. "I believed him and I haven't regretted it."

O'Neil signed with St. Louis and became part of the Rams' problem, not a solution.