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Tom Jackson: ‘The game has not gotten better for the defense’

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The former Orange Crush linebacker and member of the Broncos Top 100 all-time players talked with Andrew Mason and Steve Atwater about his playing days and great players who were with him.

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The ‘1st and 10 @ 10’ crew on Orange and Blue 760 talked to several of the former Broncos who cracked the Top 100 all-time Broncos list, including Tom Jackson, Keith Burns, Clinton Portis and Daniel Graham.

All of the interviews are worth your time, but as a Broncos fan since the early 70s, I feel compelled to highlight the Orange Crush linebacker who still owns one of the most iconic quotes in Broncos’ lore - Tom Jackson.

“It’s all over, fat man!” Jackson belted across the field in Oakland to then-Raiders coach John Madden after the Broncos whipped them 30-7 Oct. 16, 1977.

Plus, last week on the “Hurlbutt Huddle” radio show I was asked to name a former player in his prime I’d like to have on the Broncos now, and off the top of my head I said Tom Jackson (before then just requesting the whole Orange Crush D), so it only seems appropriate to give him extra attention here.

Jackson, known for his friendly demeanor off the field but ferocious play on it, gave a lot of credit to his counterpart on the strong side and another Top 100 player, Bob Swenson.

“Bob was as a good a strong side linebacker as we probably have had in the history of this team,” he said, noting that that’s in addition to Von Miller, who is just “a different kind of beast.”

But Jackson added that Swenson “solidified the strong side” in a way that no one else could.

“He had probably the most difficult position to play because you’re over the TE and have a lot of traffic coming at you,” Jackson said. “He was an excellent tackler. Driven to win. Great competitive spirit. I’ve never seen anybody play the position better than Bob, and he probably didn’t get enough credit for what he did on the field.”

In the conversation with Steve Atwater and Andrew Mason, the former linebacker-turned-broadcaster bemoaned the difficulty playing defense in today’s offense-driven NFL.

Atwater asked him if the game has “gotten better in any way for the defense” since Jackson’s playing days in the late 70s, early 80s.

No. 57 was laughing before Atwater even finished the question.

“No. The game hasn’t gotten better for the defense,” he said, adding that it’s gotten so much more difficult to play defense. “Look, the league wants scoring and that’s been going on since the late 70s. The league decided to put an emphasis on scoring and as we have gotten to the era of the passing game dominating football, the emphasis is on ‘how can we create a lot of offense and make it very difficult to play defense?’”

Jackson said he “feels for defenders” in today’s NFL trying to figure out exactly where to be so he won’t hit a running back or receiver with his helmet.

“I feel for guys trying to figure out how long they can bump a guy,” he said. “I feel sorry for them trying to figure out how to tackle a guy because tackling has to be instinctive.”

But Jackson believes defenders can be successful, and he points to Bill Belichick’s defenses as proof.

“He is such a dynamic coach on defense, and he is able to use some of the same fundamentals that were in place when we were playing - and he uses them with the limitations the league gives him,” Jackson said. “He requires his players force plays where they want to go; he makes players understand where their help is. You have to be an excellent tackler if you’re going to play for him.”

But before you want to be mad that Jackson is giving props the Patriots coach, the linebacker believes the initial credit goes to Joe Collier who mentored Belicheck when he worked under him for a year in 1978.

“It’s interesting how Belichick takes players and makes each one a clone of the one before him and gets them to use the exact basic fundamental things he needs to be successful,” Jackson said. “I look at the way he coaches today and all the things Joe taught us how to play football, and I just think he took that from him.”

For example, Jackson noted how good Collier was at fixing problems on defense during the game.

“Coach Collier was great at in-game adjustments. He didn’t wait for us to get to an intermission in order to make changes. He’d make changes in between series,” Jackson said. “That’s one of the elements Coach Belichick has. He makes an adjustment on the sideline, and it’s a real advantage over all those coaches who have to wait until halftime.”

Before he got off the phone, Jackson couldn’t hang up without giving former owner Pat Bowlen the biggest props of all.

“There has never been a better owner in this league than Pat Bowlen and better person who has owned a football team than Pat Bowlen,” Jackson added. “His Legacy is long, but he was as good an owner and as good friend as anyone. What a guy to play for. What a guy to play for.”

Bonus listen:

I always liked Clinton Portis but sometimes thought he was going to showboat too much. He had a fantastic two years in Denver before being part of one of the greatest trades in Broncos history for Champ Bailey at the Redskins.

But in his conversation with Mason and Atwater, he points out a whole bunch of players who he believes are responsible for helping him see what being a professional football player really meant - and it’s a nice testament to them and him.

“Olandis Gary, Reuben Droughns, Mike Anderson. Just to see how they molded me. Mike Anderson, who did it all and never complained. When you have those kind of guys around you who know how to win and now how to be professionals, it makes it a lot easier for you,” Portis said. “Shannon Sharpe and Rod Smith - they had fun, but they worked their butts off. Al Wilson, John Mobley and Ian Gold - those guys knew how to have fun but play the game the right way.”

But when pressed to name one player who really had an impact on him, Portis went with his running backs coach, Bobby Turner.

“I wouldn’t even say it was a player. I’d give that credit to player to Bobby T,” Portis said. “He was an amazing coach and always kept me in check, kept me on my toes. He would never give me credit, was always critiquing me. But it was a tough love. He made me understand what was required. Bobby T was always one of those straight shooters. He wasn’t going to tell you ‘good job,’ but you could tell when you satisfied him.”

Portis recalled like it was yesterday how Bobby T reminded him to “wait his turn” when he ran into the huddle with 1s first day.

“I remember Bobby T having a full-fledged conversation with me, ‘Young pup, wait your turn, it’s gonna come,’” Portis said. “He knew that side of me that I was eager and he was always keeping me level-headed, so when I got that opportunity (started against the Bills after Gary sprained his ankle), I made the most of it. Bobby T had me right, man.”