What do you do for an encore?

Craig Morton’s struggles in Super Bowl XII and his ever-growing list of medical concerns had the Broncos thinking about the future when the 1978 season began.

Morton was the starter but was injured by October. In a three-week stretch in October, the Broncos started three different quarterbacks. First, Morton gave way to Norris Weese. Then it was back to Morton, and then on to Craig Penrose, a fourth-round pick in 1976 from San Diego State who had started the final two games of his rookie year before being benched for Morton in 1977.

Weese had credibility from leading the Broncos’ only touchdown drive in Super Bowl XII, but his scrambling style was never going to be ideal for the offense, and would only expose him to injury. He was an energetic, if unrefined, quarterback, and the offense was inconsistent when he had the chance to run it.

Penrose got the star turn; he was at the controls for the first half of the Broncos’ Monday Night Football game against the Chicago Bears on Oct. 16. This game was his big chance, and he was effective enough, completing 7-of-11 passes for 74 yards and then sustained a rib injury late in the second quarter that nagged him the rest of the season. Morton returned to close out the 16-7 win, and Penrose made just one more start in his Denver career.

Although Penrose had “the strongest arm among Denver quarterbacks,” according to the Broncos’ 1979 media guide, he only threw five passes that season and was part of a trade with the Jets for quarterback Matt Robinson the following year.

In 1978, the defense allowed Denver to overcome its instability under center en route to their second consecutive division title. But a playoff rematch with Pittsburgh was nothing like their Christmas Eve duel in 1977. No team had adapted better to the NFL’s massive rules changes for the 1978 season than the Steelers, who used the restrictions on contact between defenders and receivers to unleash a deep passing game that complemented their still-potent power running attack of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Two long touchdown passes in the fourth quarter turned a competitive game into a rout, and the Broncos fell, 33-10.

During that game, Miller replaced Morton with Weese, echoing the change made during Super Bowl XII 11.5 months earlier. It was not enough to prevent a disappointing end to the Broncos’ 10-6 season.

1978 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/3 Oakland Raiders 14-6
9/11 at Minnesota Vikings (OT) 9-12
9/17 San Diego Chargers 27-14
9/24 at Kansas City Chiefs (OT) 23-17
10/1 Seattle Seahawks 28-7
10/8 at San Diego Chargers 0-23
10/16 Chicago Bears 16-7
10/22 at Baltimore Colts 6-7
10/29 at Seattle Seahawks (OT) 20-17
11/5 New York Jets 28-31
11/12 at Cleveland Browns 19-7
11/19 Green Bay Packers 16-3
11/23 at Detroit Lions 14-17
12/3 at Oakland Raiders 21-6
12/10 Kansas City Chiefs 24-3
12/16 Pittsburgh Steelers 17-21
12/30 at Pittsburgh Steelers (Divisional Playoff) 10-33

1978 offense

Pos Player Starts
QB Craig Morton 13
RB Otis Armstrong 9
RB Jon Keyworth 16
WR Jack Dolbin 14
WR Haven Moses 16
TE Riley Odoms 16
C Billy Bryan 12
OT Claudie Minor 16
OT Tom Neville 15
G Tom Glassic 10
G Paul Howard 13
K Jim Turner
KR Lonnie Perrin
PR Rick Upchurch

1978 defense

Pos Player Starts
DE Lyle Alzado 16
DE Barney Chavous 16
NT Rubin Carter 16
LB Randy Gradishar 16
LB Tom Jackson 16
LB Joe Rizzo 15
LB Bob Swenson 15
CB Steve Foley 16
CB Louis Wright 16
S Bernard Jackson 16
S Billy Thompson 16
P Bucky Dilts

Record: 10-6
First place, AFC West