With NFL training camps starting nationwide this week, it’s a good time to reflect on the past while looking forward to the future.
This week’s series has to do with coaches and systems. Today’s article focuses on the way the Denver Broncos have implemented change since becoming a successful franchise back in the mid 1970’s. Articles coming later in the week focus on the nuts and bolts of change.
Training camp at the NFL level brings an old adage every year.
Out with the old, and in with the new.
This year in Denver has been an intriguing one for the new regime, so it’s time for a retrospective prior to moving forward.
Gone is the one figure that survived in Denver football since 1995. Mike Shanahan, and his seemingly can’t miss personality.
The only coach to have brought a pair of Super Bowl Championships to Denver is now a part of Broncos legend and lore as he was let go immediately following the teams last game in San Diego.
The thing that coaches in general are well known for are the systems they implement that become part of their identity and legacy. Looking back can occasionally help one's perspective moving forward.
In Denver, going back to the John Ralston era, the evolution of the first successful system was never fully developed before a regime change was in order. Ralston was better known as a master at the draft than he ever was as a head coach.
He pulled the trigger on assembling the Orange Crush defense before they had their identity. Players like Randy Gradishar, Bill Thompson, Louis Wright, Bob Swenson, Joe Rizzo, Tom Jackson, Lyle Alzado, and Rubin Carter among many others were assembled long before the memorable 1977 season began.
Ralston was replaced after a number of players requested a change at the top. His replacement made his presence known immediately.
Robert “Red” Miller was hired as the head master in Denver primarily for his system. Red brought a more methodical approach on offense, though very conservative even for that era of NFL football, and the attitude that the defense would set the offense up for success.
As it turned out Miller was correct in his approach, as the defense caused a league leading number of turnovers and offense scored just enough points most games to win. The Broncos finished the regular season 12-2, 14-3 after the Super Bowl. By far this was the greatest season the Broncos had ever seen in their history.
The years following the first Broncos Super Bowl run were challenging however, as teams started to challenge the Broncos offense and defense in more dynamic ways. Injuries to the aging defense over the course of a number of seasons led to the end of Millers time at the helm.
The Broncos had a new young owner in Edgar Kaiser when he decided to clean house and bring in Dan Reeves as the new head coach in 1981. Reeves was brought on board because of his time as a player and coach with the Dallas Cowboys. His knowledge of one of the most successful systems in football was paramount to his being hired to get the Broncos back on track.
The Broncos had become an 8-8 football team at the end of Red Miller's time in Denver. While the Broncos had higher expectations, they had an aging quarterback in Craig Morton and an unproven Steve DeBerg and Mark Herman working to become the QB of the future.
That is until the 1983 season when John Elway was traded to Denver for Mark Herman, Chris Hinton (the Broncos number one draft pick) and a first rounder that later became Colts OG Ron Solt.
Elway and Reeves combined to reach the Super Bowl three times in four seasons; however each Broncos Super Bowl would end as a blowout. Part of the criticism over the years was that Reeves system never allowed Elway to open up the offense and defenses were keyed on this.
That made it more challenging and essential for Elway to rack up the comebacks, as he retired as the all-time leader in fourth quarter comebacks and victories. Brett Favre has since past Elway in all-time wins; however Elway still owns the all-time comeback number at 47.
When Reeves decided to draft Tommy Maddox it was clear he had intentions to replace John Elway sooner than later. It also became known much later on that Reeves was working on a trade that would send Elway to Washington before it was shot down.
Reeves had also previously terminated QB Coach/Offensive Coordinator Mike Shanahan for conspiring with Elway on calling plays differently than what Reeves claimed he wanted run. This was always adamantly denied by Elway and Shanahan. Nonetheless these maneuvers by Reeves and gaps in communication added to a fizzling relationship between Elway and Reeves.
Reeves was terminated following the 1992 season and owner Pat Bowlen really wanted Mike Shanahan to become the head coach, but Mike, for a number of personal reasons, declined taking the position at that time. The Broncos promoted defensive coordinator Wade Phillips to head coach, but the team remained mediocre at best.
After Mike Shanahan and former Broncos backup QB Gary Kubiak won a Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers against the San Diego Chargers as offensive assistants, Bowlen pleaded with Shanahan to make a return to Denver.
In 1995 Mike Shanahan became the head coach in Denver and immediately worked on changing the culture of the team. Along with the cultural change, Shanahan brought a few players from San Francisco; most notably Ed McCaffrey and Coach Gary Kubiak to help bring high expectations back to Denver.
One primary thought was Denver had the best QB in the NFL, but he needed a better system and team around him to reach the Super Bowl in order to win the big one. The Broncos started the work of raking in free-agent talent and selected Terrell Davis in the sixth round of the 1995 draft.
Shanahan began to develop a west-coast system that was similar to San Francisco’s attack, only more run-centric with the emergence of Terrell Davis. Additionally much of the focus was on placing greater protection around John Elway. Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, and Shannon Sharpe became the nucleus of a lethal group of receivers for Elway to throw to.
In 1996, the Broncos selected John Mobley with the first overall selection and acquired Bill Romonowski and former CU Buff Alfred Williams.
After losing in one of the biggest upsets of all-time to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the 1996 playoffs, the team saw the greater need to solidify the defense. Rival pass rusher Neil Smith was attained as a free agent signing from the KC Chiefs, an essential piece of the puzzle to push the Broncos over the top and into a memorable run to the Super Bowl.
The Broncos began their “revenge tour” once they reached the 1997 playoffs. They labeled the tour since it would require winning against teams that kept them from winning an AFC Title the year previous and the 1997 division title.
The Broncos reeled off wins against Jacksonville, divisional rival Kansas City, and Pittsburgh. After beating the Steelers in a tightly contested AFC Championship, the Broncos reached the Super Bowl and would face the highly favored Green Bay Packers.
Ironically enough, Elway had one of his worst Super Bowls on a personal level, as Terrell Davis and the Broncos found a way to win the most important game of John Elway’s career. An upset in some peoples minds and par for the course in the minds of the Broncos faithful.
In 1998 the Broncos followed up their first championship by defeating the Jets in a come-from-behind victory in the AFC Championship. The Broncos faced the Atlanta Falcons, a team that clearly upset the Minnesota Vikings. The Broncos beat an Atlanta Falcons team that paid the price for its success on and off the field.
From that time forward, things changed in Denver.
John Elway retired amid great appeal from the team and fans that he play one more year.
Mike Shanahan wound up replacing Bubby Brister as the next Broncos starter with Brian Griese prior to the 1999 season. The Broncos started 0-4 and sparking a media storm after Sports Illustrated ran an article where an anonymous player had stated that the Broncos were finished.
The Broncos did miss the playoffs that season; in fact they only made cameo appearances in the playoffs in all but one season for the remainder of Mike Shanahan’s tenure.
The Broncos reached the AFC Championship in 2005 but failed to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in Denver, as the Steelers wound up winning their fifth overall Super Bowl.
The 2009 off-season in Denver was a firestorm, first started by Mike Shanahan’s termination, then the hiring of a very young Josh McDaniels to be the new head coach.
That was followed by a falling out between starting quarterback Jay Cutler and Josh McDaniels and a number of transplants that came with McDaniels from New England where he coached Tom Brady and Matt Cassel.
Josh was hired for his offensive knowledge and overall experience as being an understudy to New England head coach Bill Belichick, having won three Super Bowls with the organization.
The waters in Denver have been turbulent; with the trade of Jay Cutler, the release of half of last season’s roster, the signing of Brian Dawkins and other defensive backs, and an interesting draft class.
Then there is the disgruntled Brandon Marshal worried how he can possibly fit into the new system long-term.
Currently the Broncos are facing some challenges to take the next step into the playoffs while taking on one of the NFL’s toughest schedules this season. New QB Kyle Orton will be at the controls of Coach McDaniels new system in Denver.
That really leads us to this one thought to camp out on until next time.
Maybe training camp should be renamed system camp or roster spot camp since most of the training is already in place.
All that’s left is the competition in camp, OK maybe competition camp.
Never mind, stick with training camp, and just kick it into high gear because the football season is upon us all, bringing with it a new wind of change.