An injury, a QB shuffle, and the end of the Reeves Era

When John Elway suffered a right shoulder injury 10 games into the 1992 season, the Broncos were 7-3 and looked to be rolling along to their eighth winning season and seventh playoff appearance in a decade.

But behind the scenes, the ties between Elway and head coach Dan Reeves were fraying.

The Broncos had used their first-round pick that year on UCLA quarterback Tommy Maddox. Maddox would eventually start in the NFL, and win a playoff game. But that was a decade, four NFL teams, and three leagues away. In 1992, he looked out of his comfort zone in his first two starts, which the Broncos lost by a combined 40-13 margin.

The Dallas Cowboys lurked in Week 14, and the Broncos’ fading postseason hopes rested on an upset of the eventual world champions. Desperate for answers, Reeves turned back to a tactic he saw when working in Dallas under Tom Landry: he alternated quarterbacks on every play, exchanging Maddox for Shawn Moore.

“Rookies have so many things to think about,” Reeves said. “I felt I’d give them a little more time to think about the execution, talking to them on the sideline from there to when they got in the huddle.”

It got a bit awkward when the Broncos needed to run the two-minute offense. When that happened, each quarterback was given multiple plays, so he could stay on the field until the clock stopped. With the Broncos trailing 31-27, Maddox ran two plays, Moore two, Maddox one, Moore two and Maddox the last one — an interception by Cowboys cornerback Kenneth Gant with 1:16 left that squashed the upset threat. Maddox threw three touchdowns, but had four interceptions. Moore avoided the big mistakes and brought the threat of the run.

But the best passer that day was wide receiver and punt returner Arthur Marshall, who hit Cedric Tillman for an 81-yard touchdown. To this day, Marshall has the best quarterbacking career stat line in Broncos history: two completions on two attempts, 111 yards, two touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating.

The Maddox/Moore rotation continued for another week, but Moore threw three interceptions in a loss at Buffalo. Elway returned for Weeks 16 and 17, but it was too little, too late; the Broncos split the games and finished 8-8.

One day later, Reeves was dismissed, with barely a month left on his contract.

“Life goes on,” said Reeves, who wasted no time landing the same job with the New York Giants. He would coach another 11 seasons in the NFL, go to the Super Bowl once more, and win four playoff games. But he never had another quarterback like Elway, and the slight decline in his results reflected that reality.

The Broncos still had the quarterback; Elway would return for the 1993 season. As it turned out, his best was yet to come.

1992 Schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/6 Los Angeles Raiders 17-13
9/13 San Diego Chargers 21-13
9/20 at Philadelphia Eagles 0-30
9/27 at Cleveland Browns 12-0
10/4 Kansas City Chiefs 20-19
10/12 at Washington Redskins 3-34
10/18 Houston Oilers 27-21
10/25 at San Diego Chargers 21-24
11/8 New York Jets 27-16
11/15 New York Giants 27-13
11/22 at Los Angeles Raiders 0-24
11/30 at Seattle Seahawks 13-16
12/6 Dallas Cowboys 27-31
12/12 at Buffalo Bills 17-27
12/20 Seattle Seahawks 10-6
12/27 at Kansas City Chiefs 20-42

1992 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb john elway 12
qb tommy maddox 4
rb gaston green 13
rb greg lewis 2
rb sammy smith 1
fb victor jones 1
fb robert perryman 1
wr mark jackson 13
wr vance johnson 7
wr arthur marshall 1
wr derek russell 6
wr cedric tillman 1
te reggie johnson 7
te clarence kay 13
te shannon sharpe 11
c keith kartz 15
c dave widell 1
t russell freeman 16
t ken lanier 16
g jeff davidson 16
g doug widell 16

Dec. 28, 1992: Pat Bowlen announces that the franchise will not renew the contract of Dan Reeves, thus creating a coaching vacancy in Denver for the first time since 1981.

1992 defense

Pos Player Starts
de shane dronett 2
de brian sochia 13
de kenny walker 15
nt greg kragen 16
lb michael brooks 14
lb mike croel 16
lb simon fletcher 16
lb karl mecklenburg 16
lb keith traylor 3
cb tryone braxton 13
cb charles dimry 8
cb wymon henderson 11
cb le-lo lang 1
s steve atwater 15
s john granby 1
s alton montgomery 1
s dennis smith 16

Record: 8-8

third place, AFC west