Okay, the NFL’s national holiday just passed, and perhaps you’re one of the millions of Americans who sat down and watched the game without having a rooting interest. Or, you know, not really knowing anything at all about football. But you watched, and you caught on, and decided it was cool enough for you to start following this spectacular sport. You already know the Denver Broncos are the NFL Champions, because they won the Big Game on the NFL’s national holiday. (What was it called again?…) Mmmaaayyybbbeee you’re flirting with turning the Denver Broncos into your own team and want to know more about what you’re getting into.
Well, it’s gonna be a long offseason, so sit back and read as I tell you about the three-time (SUPER BOWL! That was it!) NFL Champions and help you decide whether or not Denver Broncos loyalty is for you.
Like a lot of current NFL teams, the Broncos started in the old American Football League, an upstart league started in 1960 intended to upend the established National Football League. Back then, Denver wasn’t a sports city. Okay, well, it was, it’s just that its only team was a minor league baseball team called the Denver Bears. Their owner, Bob Howsam, had a problem on his hands: He expanded his team’s stadium to accommodate his team in anticipation of joining the Continental League, a major baseball league which was started by an enterprising New Yorker strictly as a bluff intended to bring a National League baseball team back to New York City. (New York City’s two previous NL teams, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants, had moved to California a couple years before.) The bluff worked like a charm, and the New York Mets were created. Unfortunately, the Continental League founder forgot to let Howsam in on his scam, so now Howsam had a shitload of debt and a stadium too big for the minor leagues.
His solution? Get a football team to Denver, pronto! The NFL, as it did all the time back then, denied his application, and a snubbed Howsam got together with a bunch of other businessmen pissed off at the NFL to create the AFL. To get the Broncos off the ground, Howsam hired Dean Griffing as general manager and Frank Filchock as head coach. Here now is your cue to be confused and cockeyed while asking yourself “Who?” Yeah, there’s a reason those names don’t pop up very often in NFL lore: The Broncos sucked to mile high hell the whole time the AFL was an independent league. Oh, they did produce some memorable moments: A 38-38 tie against the Buffalo Bills; being the first AFL team to defeat an NFL team when they beat the Detroit Lions in a preseason scrimmage; and being the first team to have a black kicker (Gene Mingo); the first black quarterback (Marlin Briscoe); and the first 100-catch-in-a-season receiver (Lionel Taylor). Fine things, but kinda nullified by their inability to get to the AFL title game – they were the only AFL team to never play in the AFL Championship during those years. Or make the playoffs. Or deliver so much as a winning season. During the first half of the AFL era, the Broncos were led by over a half-dozen starting quarterbacks and four coaches. They did go 7-7 in 1962, but that was it for their success.
In 1965, a group of minority partners got together and tried to sell the Broncos to a group from Atlanta. But a different group bought the team and kept it in Denver, which ended up tripling season ticket sales the next year because as far as major sports were concerned, the Broncos were still the only game in town back then. As for Atlanta, don’t feel too bad for them; they got their own NFL team a few years later, the Falcons. … Okay, you’re right. Feel bad for them.
In 1967, the new owners introduced a new era! And a new attitude! They hired a proven head coach, Lou Saban, fresh off two AFL titles with the Buffalo Bills. They also drafted Floyd Little. Although Saban managed to generate more interest in the team – with players going as far as door-to-door solicitation in nearby states – the team still proved to be well on the sucky end on the standings. Little, though, electrified his audiences and won the hearts and minds of Denver through his tireless efforts to keep the team there.
By the 70’s, the Broncos were, well, better at any rate. In 1973, the finally gave their fans a winning season. They slowly started producing winning seasons with regularity, but still couldn’t get to the playoffs, even after a 9-5 effort in 1976… Then everything changed. With new coach Red Miller, veteran quarterback Craig Morton, and the Orange Crush defense, the Broncs went 12-2, won their division, and beat the previous year’s Super Bowl winners, the Oakland Raiders, in the AFC Championship. How many teams can say their first-ever playoff appearance resulted in a Super Bowl? And a 27-10 thrashing at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys? Yeah, that Super Bowl didn’t go very well for Denver. They turned the ball over eight times. But that Super Bowl is seen among Broncos diehards as the official arrival of the Denver Broncos, and since then they’ve been playing at a consistently high level most teams can only dream of. And we’re just getting started!
By 1983, the Broncos, despite their newfound success, had still used over two dozen starting quarterbacks in 23 years of existence. The 1983 draft, though, was stacked at QB! The first pick of the draft belonged to the Baltimore Colts, who used it on a hotshot prospect named John Elway. There was a bit of a snafu, though: Elway had already made it clear he didn’t want to play for Baltimore. He didn’t get along with the owner. While most players who end up playing for teams they don’t want to play for just buck up and eat shit, Elway had some extra leverage: He was a natural athlete who had also been drafted by baseball’s New York Yankees as a center fielder. So he used that leverage to force a trade to a list of teams he picked out himself. Guess who got him!
Between Elway and coach Dan Reeves, the Broncos became the team to beat in the AFC. Reeves coached the shit out of the team, and Elway earned a reputation as a comeback wizard. The Elway/Reeves era yielded three more Super Bowl appearances, in the 1986, 1987, and 1989 seasons. Unfortunately, the AFC at the time wasn’t producing the most quality opponents. Although Elway cemented his fourth quarter magic reputation in the 1987 AFC Championship with The Drive – an epic five-minute, 15-play, 98-yard mother of a downfield march – he kept playing like a headless dodo once the Broncos reached the Super Bowl. Not that his actually being any good would have helped the Broncs very much. In 1986, the Broncos played the New York Giants. That was a hell of a game – at least until halftime, when Denver walked off the field leading 10-9. But in the next two quarters, Phil Simms exploded for 30 points, cutting up the Broncs. Denver managed ten save-face points in the fourth, but the 39-20 score was pretty lopsided. The next year, Denver returned to the Super Bowl and faced Washington. It was another competitive game… At least in the first quarter, when Washington spotted Denver a 10-0 lead. Elway presumably told his teammates that he didn’t want a repeat of last year. Well, he didn’t get one. Doug Williams bombarded the Broncs with 35 points in the second quarter, added an insurance touchdown in the fourth, and Denver never got on the board again. The final score was 42-10. But if there’s such a thing as a signature Super Bowl loss, the 1989 season Super Bowl is it. The Broncs’ opponents, the San Francisco 49ers, produced an all-time great team that year. In a game that Denver never led, the Niners rolled up 461 yards on offense, held the ball for 40 minutes, and limited the Broncs to 167 yards and 12 first downs. The 55-10 score is still the most lopsided in Super Bowl history, and it still holds the records for points scored and point differential.
Despite their successes, Elway and Reeves weren’t getting along especially well. Reeves was fired due, of course, to the team’s 8-8 record in 1992. At least that’s the public reason given for why Dan Reeves would be fired for Wade Phillips, who compiled a pair of respectably mediocre records before getting fired for Mike Shanahan. In 1995, the Broncs picked a running back named Terrell Davis in the draft, and in 1996, the offensive line created one of the team’s coolest traditions: The offensive line bonded by refusing to talk to the media. By 1997, the team was finally in the Super Bowl again, this time to face the defending champion Green Bay Packers. And did Elway waste his talent playing like a headless dodo again? HELL… Uh, yes, actually. This time, though, the rest of his team picked up the slack. Terrell Davis punched in three touchdowns. Late in the game, Elway, with three frustrating Super Bowl appearances behind him and not willing to walk off the field in tears saying “Not again,” between sniffles, ran for a first down while surviving hits from opposite sides that spun him around like a helicopter. Terrell Davis then ran in the lead-taking touchdown, Green Bay got the ball back, and Denver broke up a fourth-down conversion attempt as Denver finally came out on the top of a thrilling seesaw battle, 31-24. The next year, the Broncs returned to the Super Bowl, laying their previous title on the line against Dan Reeves’s Atlanta Falcons. This time, Elway finally beat his Super Bowl hiccups, successfully defended Denver’s title, and was the MVP in the final game of his spectacular career.
You’d think the loss of their 16-year lynchpin would cause a rebuild, with the Broncos spiraling out of control, but nope! They only had three losing seasons since then, as opposed to their winning their division six times. And they somehow pulled it off while riding one of those eternal quarterback carousels. Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, Jay Cutler, and Kyle Orton all took rides. As far as bad quarterbacking goes, that’s a list of the best of the bad. Tim Tebow came along in 2011, and became known for two things: Religion and football. Neither was in a good way. Tebow was installed due to incredible fan pressure, quickly proved he wasn’t much of an NFL quarterback, and managed to take the Broncs to the playoffs anyway through a series of victories so improbable that more religious factions among us started attributing his success to Tebow having scored brownie points with god. He even managed to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card game. Of course, there were other factors affecting the Broncos’s playoff status: A weak division and a lot of bad luck. Broncos management was ware of that too, and so Tebow got shipped out of Denver despite being very popular.
Enter their new addition to the bad quarterback carousel: Peyton Manning! Wait, you say, Peyton Manning, greatest-quarterback-of-all-time Peyton Manning? Yep, the very same one! He ended up taking his previous season off due to an injury and managed to fall out with the front office of his old team, the Indianapolis Colts. Denver’s head started spinning, and they won the big Manning lottery on account of having a very impressive team backing him up. In 2013, the Peyton Manning Touchdown Factory went 13-3, scored a record 606 points, with Manning taking the record for touchdowns thrown in a single season with 55. The Broncs returned to the Super Bowl sporting the most prolific offense in NFL history, where the Seattle Seahawks and their own record-setting defense were waiting. Paying tribute to the Keystone Cop-like foibles of their Super Bowl appearances in the 80’s, the Broncos fumbled their first snap of the game, and a tone was set. Seattle had its way with Denver, running all over the field like the landscaping crew. The game was basically over at halftime. In the end, the greatest offense ever posted all of eight points against Seattle’s Legion of Boom defense, and lost 43-8. The Broncos returned in 2015, though, and while Manning paid tribute to John Elway by playing like a headless dodo, the Broncos came equipped with a scary-ass defense which bailed him out. After years of bailing out submarine-screen-door defenses by himself, Manning was long owed the return favor.
Playing in the AFC West, the Broncos have rivalries with the Kansas City Chiefs and San Diego Chargers, but the games their fans circle on the schedule every year are against the Oakland Raiders. This isn’t especially unusual; everyone hates the Raiders. There’s a lot of bad blood between those two teams. The Broncs once had another nasty rivalry with the Seahawks, but that all but ended when the Seahawks were pulled from the AFC and placed into the NFC. Even though Denver has the clear lead in the all-time series between the Broncos and Seahawks – and despite them playing against each other in the Super Bowl – the feeling of Seattle/Denver being a hard rivalry seems to be dying off. Of course, Washington and Colorado were the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana, so maybe that has something to do with it.
Broncos fans have one of the more unusual chants: “IN-COM-PLETE!” I don’t know how that turned into such a popular rallying cry, but it has distinction. A large part of the Broncos’s identity is based on the fact that Denver is so high above sea level. The team’s stadium, Mile High, is named that because it’s exactly a mile above sea level, and the team is prone to using psychological conductors – such as a mural – to make sure their opponents never forget that.
At a Glance
Appearing in eight Super Bowls and having a 3-5 record in them; Getting badly blown out in the Super Bowls they lost; The Drive; Tebowmania; John Elway’s helicopter play; going from being the least successful team in the AFL to being one of the greatest teams in the NFL; position above sea level.
Craig Morton – He has the unusual distinction of being the starting quarterback for the first-ever Super Bowl appearances for two teams – the Broncs and the Dallas Cowboys, just before the full-time installment of Roger Staubach. Morton doesn’t receive quite enough credit for his contributions to Bronco lore because John Elway overshadows him, but he was the first to give the team some sort of real stability at quarterback.
John Elway – Well, obviously.
Tony Dorsett – A Cowboys legend who played his final year in Denver.
Shannon Sharpe – The first prototype of what the tight end is these days.
The Broncos are the oldest sports team in the Denver area, and the only one free of any hipster stigma. Be that as it may, Broncs fans are pretty passionate and sincere.
Went to eight Super Bowls and won three; location is a unique identifier; good even when riding quarterback carousels; never moved or changed their name; John Elway; no bandwagon stigma despite success.
First team to ever lose five Super Bowls, and always with a point differential of at least 17; only eight-time Super Bowl team with a losing record; cheering in that stadium is basically hooking your lungs up to a vacuum.
Should you be a fan?
Go for it. The Denver Broncos are one of the best teams an incoming fan could possibly adopt.