The greatest decade in Denver Broncos history was undeniably the 1990s as the only two Super Bowl titles came from that time and the single greatest three-year span in their history was also achieved from 1996-1998. The earlier part of that decade was full of turmoil as Pat Bowlen worked to transition the team from the old guard to a new guard in the hopes of capturing those elusive Lombardi trophies.
A perfect storm created that greatness when Mike Shanahan, free agency and the desire to spend money all came together after 1995. Those teams included talent the likes of which few Bronco teams have had, which makes the task of nominating a few of those greats for consideration all the more difficult.
Nominees for the 1990s
Since John Elway made the 80s list, I decided to leave him off my nominee list even though I think he still makes the greatest player of this decade as well. However, I don't think he deserves my vote. That honor goes to Terrell Davis, because without Davis the Broncos do not win those two Super Bowls.
Terrell Davis (1995-1999)
When it comes to Terrell Davis, I have gut feeling that he may be the next Denver Bronco to find his way into the Hall of Fame. He has been a semi-finalist in all seven years of his eligibility and I think its only a matter of time. One of the best arguments for TD's Hall of Fame worthiness was published last Summer by Football Outsiders, where they compared him to both Roger Craig and Jerome Bettis. In it, the writer concluded that Davis achieved everything a running back in the NFL could possibly achieve in a career, except he did it in only a few seasons and that he should be celebrated for that, not penalized for it. I agree wholeheartedly.
Unfortunately, TD's knee injury left him a different running back. His 1999 campaign was already looking to be a disaster as no NFL defense was fearful of Brian Griese at quarterback and were loading the box and shutting Davis down. In his final season, Davis recaptured some of his effectiveness, but it was not to be. In any case, you would be hard-pressed to find another running back in NFL history that had a better three year span than Davis and you will never find another running back that had a better run in the playoffs, because the next closest playoff great isn't even close to Davis. Let's take a look at those incredible playoff stats that set Davis apart from all other running backs in all of NFL history.
Yes, that is first place by a mile for every single measurable average in the playoffs. Oh and did I mention all of those other running backs already have a bust in Canton? Terrell Davis also owns a slew of playoff records that still stand today. Some of his other accolades include three trips to the Pro Bowl, three First-Team All-Pro selections, NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP. How could he not be one of the top considerations as the greatest Bronco to play during the 1990s?
Shannon Sharpe (1990-1999)
One of the few Denver Broncos in the Hall of Fame is Shannon Sharpe, who was one of the greatest pass-catching tight ends ever to play the game. He could easily overtake Terrell Davis as the greatest Bronco of the 90s, but part of me thinks that Bronco team with TD would have still found a way to win some Super Bowls had Sharpe not been on the team. His presence, however, made the Broncos the scariest offensive powerhouse of the late 90s.
After a brief stint in Baltimore in 2000 and 2001, where Sharpe would collect a third Super Bowl ring, he returned to Denver to finish out his Hall of Fame career. Sharpe went to eight Pro Bowls, which included seven straight during the 90's and was selected First-Team All-Pro four times during that seven year streak. He is also just one of two tight ends to eclipse 10,000 yards receiving in a career.
Steve Atwater (1990-1998)
Finally, we come to my own personal favorite, Steve Atwater. He was and still is my favorite Broncos defender of all-time and the 1990s was his decade. The guy was a tackling monster early in his career as he racked up Rookie of the Year honors in 1989 and then followed it up with seven consecutive Pro Bowl appearances and two First-Team All-Pro awards in 1991 and 1992. His role on the defensive side of the ball changed drastically after the retirement of Dennis Smith.
As his skills degraded with age, Atwater saved his best for the games biggest moments. None was bigger than his performance in Super Bowl XXXII and if he hadn't dropped an easy interception, he could have been a potential co-MVP to Terrell Davis in that Super Bowl. Not only was Atwater one of the most dominant safeties in the game during this decade, he was also one of the most feared tacklers on the field. He was so good, he made a Top 10 of all-time list in that category.
Vote for the best!
Any one of these three Bronco greats could be the best of the decade and then you add in John Elway to the mix and it gets even more unpredictable. You also have a couple of long shots in Simon Fletcher who had a stellar career in the early 90s and Rod Smith who began his great career later in the decade, as well as another Bronco Hall of Famer in Gary Zimmerman.
Who do you think deserves to make the final cut as the greatest Bronco player of the 1990s? Vote in the poll below.