Injuries prevent the three-peat

It seems hard to believe in retrospect, but the Broncos were tipped by many pundits as a Super Bowl contender in 1999, even though John Elway had retired. During the 1998 season, the Broncos played without Elway in four games, starting Bubby Brister. But the offense rolled along unaffected, averaging 31.5 points a game and winning by an average of 21.8 points in those games.

The defense returned intact, and added former Chiefs cornerback Dale Carter. All the other key skill components on offense returned: Rod Smith, Ed McCaffrey, Shannon Sharpe, Terrell Davis. The notion of a “three-peat” was in the air.

But the first earthquake hit when Shanahan opted to start Brian Griese ahead of Brister as the season dawned. There were perfectly logical reasons for this: Griese was regarded as the quarterback of the future, whereas Brister would merely be a bridge to it; Griese had a higher ceiling and would presumably only improve with playing time; when he had time to throw, he had machine-like precision. And the supporting cast, particularly Davis, would provide a buffer for him and ease the pressure he would face.

On paper, it seemed like a perfect plan. In reality, it was something different. A 38-21 season-opening loss to Miami on Monday Night Football sounded alarms, and a two-game road trip to Kansas City and Tampa Bay kept the Broncos skidding. With future Hall of Famers like Derrick Thomas, Warren Sapp, and Derrick Brooks staring down Griese in Weeks 2 and 3, the young quarterback struggled, and the problems multiplied from there.

Finally, in Week 4, the bottom fell out. With two minutes left in the first quarter, Griese was intercepted by Jets safety Victor Green, who was then tackled by Terrell Davis after a 15-yard return. In doing so, he shredded his right knee. Two ligaments — the anterior cruciate and medial collateral — were torn.

The Broncos were 0-4. The previous year’s Super Bowl MVP was retired; the 1998 league MVP, Davis, was on injured reserve. Linebacker John Mobley, defensive end Alfred Williams, and tight end Shannon Sharpe also missed a majority of games.

In the middle of this doomed season, the Broncos flew to Seattle to face the suddenly ascendant Seahawks. After missing the postseason for 10 consecutive seasons and finishing .500 or worse eight years in a row, owner Paul Allen was getting serious about building a winner. He threw a massive contract and full organizational control to lure Mike Holmgren from Green Bay; he invested heavily in free agents; he had a new stadium set to break ground in 2000. The Seahawks capitalized off the Broncos’ slow start and stormed to the AFC West lead by October.

At 3-6, Broncos limped into the Kingdome for the final time before its implosion on March 26, 2000. In the 1970s and 1980s, the concrete hulk was one of the league’s most raucous and formidable fortresses; the Broncos had one of their worst playoff defeats there, a 31-7 crumbling on Christmas Eve, 1983. But as the Seahawks declined under Ken Behring’s shaky ownership in the 1990s, ticket sales declined. When the Broncos visited, their fans would gobble up thousands of seats, similar to what happens in the 2010s for games at Dallas, San Diego and Minnesota.

The Seahawks’ renaissance under Holmgren changed that. Their fans were charged, smelling the two-time defending champions’ blood. And after the Broncos scored 17 points to take a third-quarter lead, Seattle rallied with 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Veteran quarterback Chris Miller, filling in for an injured Griese, struggled to call the signals. The noise was as loud as Mile High Stadium in its heyday. Seattle held on for a 20-17 win that felt like the end of an era.

Shanahan’s press conference lasted less than 90 seconds. He wanted to get out of the Kingdome—and perhaps on to the next season, as well. Although the Broncos played better and with enthusiasm down the stretch, their season was done at 3-7.

They limped home with their worst finish in nine years, going 6-10 and facing mounting questions about Davis’ knee, an aging defense and whether Griese could handle the pressure involved with succeeding Elway.

1999 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/13 miami dolphins 21-38
9/19 at kansas city chiefs 10-26
9/26 at tampa bay buccaneers 10-13
10/3 new york jets 13-21
10/10 at oakland raiders 16-13
10/17 green bay packers 31-10
10/24 at new england patriots 23-24
10/31 minnesota vikings 20-23
11/7 at san diego chargers 33-17
11/14 at seattle seahawks 17-20
11/22 oakland raiders 27-21
12/5 kansas city chiefs 10-16
12/13 at jacksonville jaguars 24-27
12/19 seattle seahawks (OT) 36-30
12/25 at detroit lions 17-7
1/2 san diego chargers 6-12

John Elway announces his retirement in a press conference at the Inverness Hotel and Golf Club in Englewood

Broncos players, coaches and staff receive their Super Bowl rings in a private ceremony

1999 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb brian griese 13
qb chris miller 3
rb terrell davis 4
rb olandis gary 12
fb howard griffith 16
wr andre cooper 1
wr ed mccaffrey 15
wr marcus nash 1
wr rod smith 15
te dwayne carswell 11
te shannon sharpe 5
c tom nalen 16
t tony jones 12
t matt lepsis 16
t trey teague 4
g chris banks 1
g dan neil 15
g mark schlereth 16

Biography: John Elway, QB

John Elway, a two-time Super Bowl champion, a member of the Hall of Fame Class of 2004 and the most accomplished player in Denver Broncos history, was elected to the franchise’s Ring of Fame in 1999. The only player for whom the customary wait for Ring of Fame induction was waived, Elway finished his magnificent […]

Denver has two players post 100 or more receiving yards in the same game for the first time in franchise history

1999 defense

Pos Player Starts
de harald hasselbach 2
de neil smith 8
de maa tanuvasa 16
de alfred williams 6
dt mike lodish 2
dt trevor pryce 15
dt keith traylor 15
lb glenn cadrez 15
lb john mobley 2
lb bill romanowski 16
lb al wilson 12
cb dale carter 14
cb tory james 4
cb chris watson 1
s tyrone braxton 15
s eric brown 10
s george coghill 5
s darrius johnson 2

Record: 6-10
Fifth place AFC West