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Denver Broncos Changing Faces: The Elway Years

March 20 2012; Englewood, CO, USA; General view of Broncos headquarters before the start of press conference to announce the formal signing of quarterback Peyton Manning. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE
March 20 2012; Englewood, CO, USA; General view of Broncos headquarters before the start of press conference to announce the formal signing of quarterback Peyton Manning. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

As I mentioned in the first installment of this three-part series, I became a Broncos fan in 1969 when my parents moved from Iowa to Colorado. I had to suffer through four losing seasons before I got to see the Broncos finish with a winning record. Four more seasons passed before I got to see the Broncos make the playoffs. After a Super Bowl loss, it was three winning seasons, one .500 season and one losing season.

Then in 1983, something miraculous happened. A young graduate from Stanford University forced a trade before ever playing a down for the team that drafted him. John Elway did not want to play for the Baltimore Colts -- considered at that time to be one of the worst teams in the NFL. Nor did he want to play for the Colts then-head coach Frank Kush. About a week after the draft, the Colts traded Elway to the Denver Broncos for quarterback Mark Herrmann, offensive lineman Chris Hinton and Denver's 1984 first-round draft pick.

After the jump, the changes to the starting lineup during "The Elway Years"

Elway's rookie campaign saw significant changes to the offense and minor changes to the defense:
QB John Elway LILB Randy Gradishar (from RILB)
RB Sammy Winder RILB Steve Busick
FB Nathan Poole RCB Mike Harden (from FS)
TE Ron Egloff FS Steve Foley
LT Dave Studdard (from RG)
LG Keith Bishop
RG Paul Howard

The Broncos went 9-7-0 and earned a wild card spot, despite finishing in a tie for second place in the AFC West. They lost to division rival Seattle 31-7 in the wild card round of the playoffs.

Elway's sophomore season saw extremely minimal changes, and much greater success:

WR Butch Johnson LILB Rick Dennison
TE Clarence Kay
TE James Wright
P Chris Norman

Denver went 13-3-0 that season and won their division. Unfortunately, they lost 24-17 to Pittsburgh in the divisional round. The following season saw even fewer changes -- LILB Karl Mecklenburg and ROLB Ken Woodard -- an 11-5-0, second-place AFC West finish and a lost tiebreaker with both the New York Jets and the New England Patriots.

1986 was a season of minor changes and tremendous success:

FB Gerald Willhite LDE Andre Townsend
WR Vance Johnson NT Greg Kragen
RILB Ricky Hunley
P Jack Weil

Denver finished 11-5-0 and in first place in the AFC West. The Broncos defeated New England 22-17 in the divisional round of the playoffs. They then defeated the Cleveland Browns 23-20 in the AFC Championship game that featured "The Drive." For those of you who might not know, "The Drive" occurred when Elway took the Broncos ninety-eight yards in five minutes and two seconds to tie the game with thirty-seven seconds left. The game then went into overtime where the Broncos won with a field goal. The Drive is reputed to have started with guard Keith Bishop declaring of the Browns, "We got 'em right where we want 'em!" Though the Broncos showed great heart in winning the AFC Championship game, they did not fare as well in Super Bowl XXI against the New York Giants. Despite jumping out to a 10-9 halftime lead, the Broncos were outscored 17-0 in the third quarter and 30-10 in the second half as the Giants went on to a 39-20 win.

The Broncos returned to the Super Bowl the following season after making small changes to the starting lineup:

FB Gene Lang LOLB Simon Fletcher
WR Mark Jackson ROLB Jim Ryan (from LOLB)
C Mike Freeman FS Tony Lilly
RG Stan Humphries
P Mike Horan

Denver won the AFC West with a 10-4-1 record -- the season was shortened to fifteen games due to a 24-day player strike and three weeks (#4, #5 and #6) were played with replacement players. The Broncos routed the Houston Oilers 34-10 in the divisional round of the playoffs. They sneaked by the Cleveland Browns for a second year in a row 38-33 in the AFC Championship game. Despite setting a record for the fastest touchdown scored in a Super Bowl -- Elway threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Nattiel with 1:57 elapsed in the game -- the Broncos were routed 42-10 by the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XXII.

1988 was an off-year for the Broncos. They changed over about half of the starting offense and made a smaller change to the defense:

RB Tony Dorsett LDE Walt Bowyer
FB Sammy Winder (from RB) RDE Andre Townsend (from LDE)
WR Ricky Nattiel RCB Jeremiah Castille
LT Jim Juriga FS Mike Harden
C Bill Bryan
RG Stan Humphries

These changes were ineffective as the team went 8-8-0 and finished in second place in the AFC West. They finished two games behind the two wild card teams.

More changes followed in 1989 and brought impressive results:

RB Bobby Humphrey LDE Alphonso Carreker
FB Jeff Alexander ROLB Michael Brooks
WR Mark Jackson LCB Tyrone Braxton
LT Gerald Perry RCB Wymon Henderson
LG Doug Widell FS Steve Atwater
C Keith Kartz
RG Jim Juriga (from LT)
K David Treadwell

This time, the changes in the starters had a better effect as the Broncos went 11-5-0 and won their division. Denver defeated Pittsburgh 24-23 in the divisional round of the playoffs. They continued their dominance of the Cleveland Browns in AFC Championship games by winning 37-21. The Broncos entered Super Bowl XXIV with high hopes, but were quickly routed by the San Francisco 49ers, falling behind 27-3 at the half and trailing 41-10 by the end of the first three quarters. The depressing final was 55-10.

The depressing result of Super Bowl XXIV did not deter Denver from making minimal changes in 1990:

TE Orson Mobley LDE Warren Powers
RDE Ron Holmes
RILB Marc Munford
LCB Randy Robbins

Unfortunately, these changes did not improve on the success of the 1989 season. In fact, the team took a major step backwards by finishing 5-11-0, in last place in the AFC West.

The following season, Denver made more changes to the offensive side of the ball than the defensive:

RB Gaston Green RILB Mike Croel
WR Mike Young LCB Tyrone Braxton
TE Shannon Sharpe
LT Jeff Davidson
RG Crawford Ker

This approach paid off as the Broncos went 12-4-0 and won their division. Denver squeaked by Houston 26-24 in the divisional round of the playoffs before losing to the Buffalo Bills 10-7 in AFC Championship game.

1992 saw moderate changes in the starting lineup and the Broncos take a step backwards:

WR Vance Johnson LDE Brian Sochia
LT Russ Freeman RDE Kenny Walker
LG Jeff Davidson (from LT) LOLB Mike Croel (from RILB)
RG Dave Widell (from LG) RILB Michael Brooks (from ROLB)
ROLB Simon Fletcher (from LOLB)

Denver finished at 8-8-0 and in third place in the AFC West.

The following season, the Broncos made significant changes on the offensive side of the ball and minor ones on the defensive:

RB Rod Bernstine LDE Dan Williams
WR Derek Russell RDE Shane Dronett
WR Arthur Marshall RILB Dave Wyman
TE Reggie Johnson RCB Charles Dimry
LT Gary Zimmerman
LG Dave Widell (from RG)
RG Brian Habib
RT Russ Freeman (from LT)
K Jason Elam P Tom Rouen

The team raised their record by a game from the season before and finished at 9-7-0. Although the Broncos finished in third place in the AFC West, they were able to secure a wild card playoff spot. Unfortunately, they were hammered 42-24 by the Los Angeles Raiders in that game.

As 1993 saw major changes to the offense, 1994 brought major changes to the defense:

RB Leonard Russell LDE Shane Dronett (from RDE)
WR Anthony Miller LDT Ted Washington
TE Jerry Evans RDT Harald Hasselbach
LG Jon Melander RDE Simon Fletcher (from ROLB)
C Dave Widell (from LG) MLB Karl Mecklenburg (from LILB)
RT Kirk Scrafford RLB Elijah Alexander
LCB Ben Smith
RCB Ray Crockett
SS Steve Atwater (from FS)
FS Dennis Smith (from SS)

Unfortunately, these changes did not bring a better record to Denver. The Broncos finished 7-9-0 and in fourth place in the AFC West. Only the Seattle Seahawks at 6-10-0 finished in the division with a worse record.

The next four years saw the Broncos climb back into relevance in the NFL. This started with major changes on both sides of the ball in 1995:

RB Terrell Davis LDE Harald Hasselbach (from RDT)
FB Aaron Carver LDT James Jones
WR Mike Pritchard RDT Michael Dean Perry
LG Mark Schlereth LLB Elijah Alexander (from RLB)
C Tom Nalen MLB David Wyman
RT Broderick Thompson RLB Allen Aldridge
LCB Ray Crockett (from RCB)
RCB Lionel Washington
SS Tyrone Braxton
FS Steve Atwater (from SS)

The Broncos finished at 8-8-0 in that season and in a three-way tie for third in the AFC West with Oakland and Seattle. The following season saw minimal changes and a giant step forward:

WR Ed McCaffrey LDE Dan Williams
LDT Mike Lodish
RDE Alfred Williams
LLB Bill Romanowski
MLB Allen Aldridge (from RLB)
RLB John Mobley

Denver won the division with a 13-3-0 record. Expectations were high as they entered their divisional round playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Unfortunately, it was not to be. After jumping out to a 12-0 lead after one quarter, the Broncos fell behind 13-12 at the half. They trailed 23-12 in the fourth quarter and were able to close the gap to 23-20. The Jaguars scored again to make it 30-20 and although the Broncos gained one more score, the Jaguars were able to hold on for a 30-27 win.

The success, and the disappointment of the 1996 campaign strengthened Denver's determination to do well. In 1997, only minor changes were made:

FB Howard Griffith LDE Neil Smith
WR Rod Smith LDT Keith Traylor
RT Tony Jones RCB Darrien Gordon

This strategy paid off. The Broncos finished the season with a 12-4-0 mark. though they finished in second place in the AFC West behind the 13-3-0 Kansas City Chiefs. Relegated to a wild card spot, and facing a rematch with Jacksonville, the Broncos came out on fire. They jumped out to a 21-0 lead and never looked back on their way to trouncing the Jaguars 42-17. Their next game was a match up with division rivals Kansas City. Denver won a close divisional game 14-10 to earn a spot in the AFC Championship game. They took on the Pittsburgh Steelers for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XXXII. The Broncos jumped out to a 24-14 halftime lead and held on for a 24-21 victory. Their opponent in the Super Bowl was the NFL's defending champions, the Green Bay Packers. This turned out to be a classic see-saw battle which saw the teams tied 24-24 late in the game. Green Bay opted to allow Denver to score with 1:47 left to give their offense a chance to answer. Green Bay was able to drive to Denver's 35-yard line, but on fourth down, John Mobley batted a Bret Favre pass away from tight end Mark Chmura with thirty-two seconds left to preserve the victory and give Denver its first ever Super Bowl win.

Confident that the 1997 season was no fluke, the Broncos made very minor changes in 1998:

LT Tony Jones (from RT) RDT Trevor Pryce
RT Harry Swayne RDE Maa Tanuvasa
MLB Glenn Cadrez
SS Eric Brown

The Broncos rolled to a 14-2-0 record, easily winning the AFC West. Denver destroyed the Miami Dolphins 38-3 in the divisional round and defeated the New York Jets 23-10 to win the AFC Championship game. They faced off against the 14-2-0 Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII and won easily 34-19.

Sadly, the back-to-back Super Bowl wins brought the John Elway years in Denver to a close. Many questions arose as the Broncos prepared to face life after Elway.

Next time: Denver Broncos Changing Faces: Life After Elway