March 9, 1981: Less than two weeks after Kaiser assumed control of the Broncos, head coach Red Miller and GM Fred Gehrke are fired.
New men at the top, and an old player’s renaissance
In short order in the offseason, the Phipps brothers sold the team to American-born Canadian businessman Edgar Kaiser, who in turn dismissed head coach Red Miller and general manager Fred Gehrke.
Shortly thereafter, Dan Reeves became the new head coach — and one of his first tasks was to shore up the quarterback position. Craig Morton had fended off one challenge after another to his starting position in the previous two seasons, and had earned a reputation as a survivor — of both hits from defenders and attempts to replace him.
But Reeves was a former teammate of Morton’s with the Dallas Cowboys. Eleven months younger than his quarterback, Reeves knew what Morton could do.
Reeves was the NFL’s youngest head coach in 1981; Morton was the league’s oldest quarterback. They came together for the best statistical season of any Broncos quarterback in the team’s first quarter-century of play.
Reeves and Morton were close as Cowboys teammates — so close, in fact, that Reeves was in Morton’s wedding party. But Morton didn’t reclaim the job because of old-school sentiment that dated back to the Cowboys’ Cotton Bowl years; he got it back because he could still sling the football, despite a laundry list of infirmities that left him immobile in the pocket.
“Give him time and he’ll throw the eyes out of the ball,” Reeves said during Morton’s renaissance season. “His arm’s as good as it ever was.”
With Morton slinging passes and a young Steven Watson setting a then-club record with 1,244 receiving yards, the Broncos finished with their fifth winning season in six years. Watson rang up his tally on just 60 catches — a 20.7-yard average that remains the highest for any Broncos receiver with at least 25 receptions in a single season.
The 95-yard Morton-to-Watson touchdown strike against Detroit on Oct. 11, 1981, remains the Broncos’ longest play from scrimmage since 1962; a 93-yard connection by the same men two weeks earlier against the Chargers is the second-longest in the last half-century.
But in the regular-season finale, which the Broncos needed to win in order to take the AFC West, Morton and the offense froze in the 14-degree chill of Chicago’s Soldier Field. He threw a pair of interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, and was sacked five times. Steve DeBerg relieved him and threw a pair of second-half touchdown passes that narrowed an 18-point deficit, but the Broncos fell to the Bears, 35-24.
“The wind was blowing and it was just cold,” defensive end Rulon Jones would later recall. “When it got cold, it was tough for him to move. We were sure we would win and go to the playoffs. Well, we didn’t win and it was probably the most uncomfortable game I have ever been in.”
The next night, San Diego defeated Oakland, taking the AFC West away from the 10-6 Broncos, who lost a tiebreaker for the division and the last wild-card spot, which went to the Buffalo Bills.