The Denver Broncos of the 1980s became a franchise to be reckoned with the trade that brought John Elway to Denver in 1983. The success prior to Elway was due largely to the defensive dominance of the Orange Crush throughout the 70s and early 80s, but that defense was aging rapidly, with not enough talent replacing the talent retiring in those early years of the decade.
Once again, I looked towards the Ring of Fame for our final cut of Bronco greats for this decade. The offensive side of the ball was nearly completely devoid of talent for the entire decade, with very few quality players even deserving of being part of this discussion - especially with a guy like John Elway on the list.
Nominees for the 1980s
I sincerely doubt any player overtakes Elway in this poll as he was the sole reason these teams were as competitive as they were. The defense still deserves credit, however, which is why the only other players making my cut were on that side of the ball.
John Elway (1983-1989)
The clear cut winner here has to be John Elway, because without Elway there is no chance this franchise makes three trips to the Super Bowl in four years. In fact, Elway could very well end up owning two decades, if that is, I were to include him in tomorrow's post. I hate to disappoint, but Elway won't be making the final cut for the 1990's and I'll explain why tomorrow. For now, back to the 80's!
Elway began his legend through finding ways to win late in games, especially on the games biggest stages (minus the Super Bowl). The art of the comeback became synonymous with Elway and the Broncos of these years.
The Denver Broncos of these years were a run-heavy team with Dan Reeves calling the shots. The idea behind his scheme was to keep the game close enough to win late, but often times this strategy would lead to a late game deficit, but because of Elway's penchant for incredible play with the game on the line, the Broncos would end up being one of the winningest organizations in football during Elway's career.
With a .653 winning percentage during the 80's decade, you cannot get much more dominant than that. Of course, Elway will be remembered for trying to will the Broncos to victory in those Super Bowls only to be blown out every time. He did help the team to a 6-5 record in the playoffs, which was really a 6-2 record if you discount those Super Bowl disasters.
The thing about Elway that drives me crazy in today's debates is when people focus on his statistics, without acknowledging the differences in the game in those days compared to today's rule book. They also ignore the scheme Elway had to play under until 1992, which was a run, run, pass kind of old school offense. The only time Elway was able to find any rhythm was when Dan Reeves' saw his team down late and had no choice but to unleash Elway. And what did Elway do with those opportunities? Oh, only win. And win a lot.
You will notice that one Reeves was gone, Elway became a statistically better quarterback. However, in a twist of irony, he was unable to win as many games as he had under Reeves. It took talent and a return to the run, run, pass kind of offense run by Mike Shanahan before Elway recaptured that winning spirit. The difference in the Super Bowl's was Terrell Davis, but it was Super Bowls either way under those two great coaches.
To give you an idea of Elway's importance to this franchise, he is the only former player where the customary five year waiting period before being considered for the Ring of Fame was waived. He was inducted immediately following his retirement during the teams season opener against the Miami Dolphins.
Dennis Smith (1981-1989)
The great Dennis Smith was one of my childhood heroes during that time period and once Steve Atwater was drafted, I was a complete homer of both those guys. Homerism aside, Smith was a solid defender of that decade and really helped ease the transition from Billy Thompson retiring, thus helping the Orange Crush defense continue well into the 1980's.
Do I think he deserves to overtake John Elway? Unfortunately, no and its not even close. This isn't the best two players of the decade. This is the best single player, regardless of position. Of the entire decade, there are maybe two other guys besides Elway I would consider worthy of this kind of recognition and Smith happens to be one of those guys.
As you can see, he had a fine career in Denver with six Pro Bowl selections and induction into the Ring of Fame in 2001. The 80's Broncos won a lot of games and those wins were almost entire due to Elway and the defense.
Karl Mecklenburg (1983-1989)
Another 2001 Ring of Fame inductee was Karl Mecklenbrg, who helps provide the kind if pass rush necessary for any defense to succeed. As a 12th round draft pick, Mecklenburg proved he was every bit worth the value of his draft position. If only he had hung on for three more season, he could have retired a champion, but like most great players they don't like the idea of sticking around when there is nothing left in the tank.
Of all the players who were dominant during this decade, Mecklenburg may be the only one who may someday find his way into the Hall of Fame, but he may have to wait his turn over some other Bronco greats.
I left off interception stats because he only had interceptions in two seasons, which totaled 5 for 128 yards with a long of 63 yards. It wasn't worth putting in that chart, but definitely worth noting overall.
Aside from those stats, Mecklenburg brought home six Pro Bowl selections and was a three time First-Team All-Pro selection, to go along with his Ring of Fame honors. He is also the only player in Broncos history to notch two four sack games in his career.
Vote for the best!
So who is the best? I think the obvious choice is John Elway, but I could see a few votes going the way of some of the other guys, especially so some I failed to mention like Steve Watson or one of the Three Amigos. If you are wondering where Simon Fletcher is, well, he had his best seasons in the early 1990s, which puts him in a tough spot tomorrow. As for this decade, I still think it comes down to Elway and the two defensive stalwarts already nominated above.
Who makes the cut as the greatest Bronco player of the 1980s? Vote in the poll below.