The prevailing wisdom in professional sports is that home field advantage is just a buzz term meant to give the visiting team mental hiccups. The Denver Broncos would beg to differ. Their home city is perched in the country's tallest mountain range, the Rockies, thousands of feat above sea level. At its height, being physically active in Denver - provided you're visiting and don't actually live there, in which case you would obviously adjust - would cause people to suck wind much quicker than usual. Author and former football player Tim Green likened playing in Denver to having the wind sucked out of his lungs with a vacuum. That home field advantage is more than just the crowd screaming their lungs out. It can seriously slow down the opponents, and to show for that, the Broncos have been one of the most successful teams in the NFL. Ironically, they started out as THE worst team in the original AFL.
The Broncos were there in the AFL right from the very beginning. In 1959, Bob Howsam owned a minor league baseball team, but the NFL was on his radar and he decided an NFL team owner would soon be the thing to be. George Halas, the Chicago Bears owner who was old school in every possible sense of the word, said no. So Howsam, along with four other people, got together and created a whole league meant to rival and supplant the NFL. That league, the AFL, began play the following year, and the Denver team was given the name "Broncos" through a fan naming contest.
The early, AFL Broncos played in some memorable games, in cluding a weird 38-38 tie with the Buffalo Bills. On August 5, 1967, they played a preseason game against the Detroit Lions, and that day they became the first AFL team to ever beat an NFL team when they beat the Lions 13-7. Okay, to be fair, they were the Lions, but still. They were also the team that fielded the first black kicker (Gene Mingo) and the first modern-era black quarterback (Marlin Briscoe), and the first receiver to reel in 100 passes in a single season (Lionel Taylor). In spite of those positives, though, the Broncos were the worst team in the 10-year history of the AFL. Their overall record was 39-97-4 during the ten years of the AFL's existence as an independent league. They're the only team that never reached the AFL Championship. Or have a winning season in the AFL.
The Broncos are the only team in the AFC West to have never moved or change their nickname, but they came close in 1965. A local ownership group dropped in that year and began to rebuild the team, signing superstar Floyd Little in 1967 and hiring Lou Saban to coach that same year, Saban having come off back-to-back titles in 1964 and 1965 when he was coaching the Buffalo Bills. Those were seen as instrumental in keeping the team in Denver, since previous draft picks to Denver had a bad habit of running off to the NFL the second the opportunity arose. (The Broncos originally drafted Dick Butkus, the legendary Chicago Bears linebacker and still one of the franchise faces.) In order to help keep the team in Denver, Broncos players went from door to door trying to solicit funds from fans who were, fortunately, very enthusiastic about the team's future. They even rode buses to some of the neighboring states of Colorado in order to solicit. Unfortunately, despite Saban's coaching, Little regularly out-rushing every running back in either the AFL or NFL, and defensive end Rich Jackson beating up everyone in sight, Saban couldn't succeed in Denver, and the team finished last in all five years of his tenure.
It wasn't until 1973 that Denver fans were finally rewarded for their patience and loyalty with a winning season. But despite winning in 1973 and in the following few years - with the exception of Floyd Little's final season in 1975, when they went 6-8 - the playoffs dodged the Broncos until 1977. That year, coach Red Miller, the "Orange Crush" defense, and quarterback Craig Morton led the Broncos to a 12-2 miracle season, beating the injury-bruised Pittsburgh Steelers and defending champion Oakland Raiders in the playoffs, which catapulted them into their first Super Bowl. They got beat pretty handily by the Dallas Cowboys, but that season is seen as the official emergence from the basement as the Broncos spent the next 30 years entertaining Denver with some of the best, most consistent football in the NFL.
By 1983, the Broncos had been in existence for 23 years. They had used 24 starting quarterbacks in the time span. Can you guess how many they would spend the next 16 years starting in a full-time capacity? One! NFL nuts now know that I'm going to bring up the greatest, most prolific player to don the orange: John Elway. But the saga of Elway's arrival in Denver involved quite a bit of that fun game known as football politics. See, John Elway is not a dummy. Unlike a lot of professional athletes who are pampered and groomed the second their talent begins to sprout, Elway chose not to willy-nilly his education on some easy, useless degree in a school that uses its athletics to impress everyone. He went to one of the best schools on the planet, Stanford, where he studied economics and graduated with a Bachelor's. Saving that, Elway was also a gifted athlete who, by the 1983 draft, had spent two summers playing in the New York Yankees farm system. He was picked first overall that year by the Baltimore Colts, who by then were at their nadir as the worst team in the league and in no threat of immediate improvement. They were coached by Frank Kush, known as a harsh taskmaster, and so he pressured Colts owner Robert Irsay into a trade. Off he went to Denver for quarterback Mark Hermann and the rights to two other players, including Denver's first-round pick in 1984. (This would look like Denver getting away with murder, but that first-round pick, offensive guard Ron Solt, did end up having a solid career which included a Pro Bowl invitation.)
Under Elway and coach Dan Reeves, the Broncos turned into one of the AFC's most dominant teams. In 1986, 1987, and 1989, the won the AFC Championship. The 1986 AFC Championship was one of the great AFC Championships ever played, and one of Elway's signature games. With just over five minutes left to play and Denver down 20-13, Elway led a drive so awesome that talk about it requires use of the qualifier "The" so everyone will know what it is. Elway scored the game-tying touchdown with 39 seconds left and the Broncos won in overtime. In the Super Bowl, they started off with a 10-7 first-quarter lead against the New York Giants. The Giants did most of the scoring from that point on, though, and no furious Elway fourth-quarter comeback en route to a 39-20 New York blowout. The next season, Denver beat Cleveland for the AFC Championship again, and went to the Super Bowl to face the Washington Redskins. Racing off to a 10-0 first-quarter lead this time, Denver didn't want a repeat of the previous year. And they didn't get one. Washington scored every point after the first quarter, putting 42 up for a 42-10 blowout. But if there's such a thing as a signature Super Bowl loss, Denver's 1989 appearance was it. They beat Cleveland for the AFC Championship again, but found the mighty San Francisco 49ers waiting for them in the big game. The Niners that year fielded one of the greatest NFL teams in history. They went 14-2, with those two losses coming on a combined five points. They led the league in yards from scrimmage with 6268, 442 points scored, and 253 points allowed. Their stars were fully emerged, with Joe Montana receiving what was then the highest quarterback rating in history with a shiny 112.4, good enough for MVP and Offensive Player of the Year. A lot of San Francisco's players had career years, and even backup quarterback Steve Young shined in Montana's absence, throwing for 1001 yards and eight touchdowns. Guess how this Super Bowl went. Denver never led, losing an out-of-control game 55-10. It's considered one of the worst Super Bowls in history, and Denver became the second team to lose four Super Bowls. (The Minnesota Vikings were the first.)
Part of the problem was that despite Elway's reputation as an all-awesome quarterback and comeback kid, he played like a headless dodo in most of his Super Bowl appearances. In 1991 the Broncos returned to the AFC Championship but lost a close 10-7 matchup against the Buffalo Bills. The team got rid of Dan Reeves in 1992, thinking they did all the damage they possibly could with him, although his bad relationship with Elway probably helped. Wade Phillips was installed. Phillips is one of the league's old boys, a guy who seems to keep getting hired despite having no real discernible talent. Phillips lived up to that reputation as Denver's coach, running for 9-7 and 7-9 in the two seasons he was there before being fired and replaced with Mike Shanahan.
Under Shanahan, zone blocking and Terrell Davis emerged. Also, a tradition emerged in which the offensive line didn't talk with the media. It came to an end because the insufferably corporatized league decided to enact a 2007 rule which required all players to make themselves available to the media. In 1997, the Broncos won their first 13 games. They returned to the Super Bowl, and while Elway continued to play like a headless dodo, Davis shouldered the Broncos and ran for three touchdowns as Denver, finally, came out on the high end of a thrilling, hard-fought 31-24 victory against the heavily favored Green Bay Packers. The next season, the Broncos returned to the Super Bowl to face Dan Reeves's newest team, the Atlanta Falcons. This time, Elway finally defeated his old Super Bowl yuks, defended Denver's title, and won the Super Bowl MVP in what was the final game of his spectacular football career.
Davis looked like the further keystone to success from there, but he was also a running back, and NFL running backs have notoriously short careers. He was one of the greats while playing, but injuries kept him from fulfilling his true potential.
Denver has since become one of the league's oddest teams. They've had only three losing seasons since Elway's retirement - 1999, 2007, and 2010. For what it's worth, they've been riding the best quarterback carousel of bad quarterbacks the league has probably seen. First there was Brian Griese - Bob's kid - who compiled a 34-30 record from 1999 to 2002. In 2003, the Broncos plucked Jake Plummer from the Arizona Cardinals, and his record as quarterback was an excellent 49-26 in Denver. In 2005, Plummer took them to the AFC Championship, which they lost to Pittsburgh. The next season, Denver picked up quarterback Jay Cutler in the draft. Although Cutler currently owns the team record for single-season passing yards, a late-season collapse cost them the division title and the Broncos, for some reason, swapped Cutler to Chicago one-on-one for their starting quarterback, Kyle Orton. Orton did well, but the team waffled over his future, and in 2010 they drafted Tim Tebow in the first round of the draft.
In 2011, fan pressure eventually forced the team to play Tebow. The team started 1-5 that year, and Tebow became their magic man. Seriously. That's the only way to describe the way they managed to make an 8-8 season into a divisional title despite Tebow's very obvious inability to play quarterback. Tebow is a lot of things, but an NFL quarterback just isn't one of them. At best, so far he's an intangible player: He leads and wins despite the lack of any obvious ability to do the job well. He even managed to beat the Steelers in the playoffs. His religious faith has been the subject of a lot of controversy. Even Kurt Warner, who has been criticized for his own outward, prevalent displays of faith, suggested Tebow tone it down. The hype hit an apex when, in that playoff game, Tebow threw for 316 yards in a game that got a 31.6 TV rating. Tebow's favorite Bible passage is John 3:16, so the more religious factions among us began mistaking his performance for an actual miracle from God. I never thought I'd be so thankful to see the New England Patriots win a playoff game, but they steamrolled Denver the next week, thus shushing the miracle talk. I can only imagine the ensuing religious mania that would have resulted from Denver winning again, reaching or even winning the Super Bowl.
Denver is probably the only team in the league distinguished by their city's altitude. The stadium, Mile High Stadium, is in fact accurately named because it sits perched in the Rocky Mountain heights, 5280 feet - exactly one mile - above sea level. After the name, the stadium displays several different references to its altitude, including a mural just outside the visiting team's locker room. You have to admire this unique method of the Broncos trying to get an edge. Everyone knows such altitudes are hard enough to play in, and the constant reminders probably provide a psychological edge as well.
Denver has fielded seven Hall of Famers, great for an AFL team: Willie Brown, John Elway, Gary Zimmerman, Floyd Little, Shannon Sharpe, Tony Dorsett, and Jerry Rice. Zimmerman, Little, Sharpe, and Elway are in based significantly on their contributions to Denver. Brown was a Raider for most of his career, while Dorsett and Rice are among the most recognized faces of their former teams, the Cowboys and 49ers respectively. Rice, though, is noteworthy because he was the greatest wide receiver who ever played in the NFL. Little made some very strong contributions to Denver, but Sharpe - primarily a Bronco for his career - is the best and most prolific tight end in NFL history, and Elway is in the conversation for quarterbacks.
When the Broncos appeared, their uniforms drew more attention than their play. Their original colors were an ugly combination of brown and yellow, and their socks featured giant vertical stripes. Those eyesore were mercifully put down two years later for a combination of royal blue and orange, with a logo of a bucking bronco emerging from a D. In 1997, the Broncos changed the designs again to darker blue and orange, and orange will soon take over as the primary jersey color. The team's fan base is reputed to be among the most knowledgeable and devoted, proving once again that sports fans out west are just as fervent and nutty about their teams as the more prominently-covered fans in the east.
The Broncos didn't start out as NFL royalty. They worked their way into it after a lot of blood, sweat, and tears were shed. They gave Denver a kind of name it didn't have a few decades ago. And people like and pay attention to the Broncos. For that, I'm giving them my highest rating among the AFC teams.
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Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
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The Denver Broncos participate in the National Football League (NFL) and are based in Denver, Colorado. Denver plays its games in the West of the AFC. The Denver Broncos, founded in 1960, play home games at INVESCO Field at Mile High and have won two NFL Titles (1997, 1998).