A middling season followed by massive changes

Moments after the crushing wild-card loss in Houston to close the 1979 season, head coach Red Miller set the tone for 1980, telling reporters, “We must analyze and do something about our offense next year. That’s my first concern at this time.”

The still-elite Orange Crush defense had just one limitation: It couldn’t play more than half the possessions in a game. Miller and general manager Fred Gehrke tried a bold and well-intentioned plan, but the idea did not work.

In the offseason, Broncos sent first- and second-round draft picks and backup quarterback Craig Penrose to the New York Jets for quarterback Matt Robinson. Miller and the Broncos gambled that Robinson would be the quarterback of the near- and long-term future. The Broncos hoped Robinson would end the shuffling between Norris Weese and Craig Morton that defined the frustrating 1979 season.

Robinson finally beat out Morton at the end of training camp, and the collaboration started off well enough. In Robinson’s second start and first at Mile High Stadium — he ran for two touchdowns and led the Broncos to a 41-20 rout of Dallas, as the Broncos piled up more points on the Cowboys’ famed Doomsday Defense than anyone had in a decade.

The sun was shining — literally and figuratively — on the Broncos on that September afternoon. The gambit to mortgage the future on Robinson seemed set to pay massive dividends.

Then the Broncos lost their next two games, scoring 14 fewer points in them than they did against Dallas alone. The second of the defeats, a 23-14 loss at New England, was marred by the conduct of Schaefer Stadium fans, with scores of arrests of drunken, disorderly patrons and dozens of fights throughout the stands.

The New England crowd collectively lived up to the brewer’s longtime slogan: “the one beer to have when you’re having more than one.” Meanwhile, the Broncos staggered and never quite recovered.

“We are not used to losing,” Miller said.

Neither were Broncos fans, but they didn’t react with the vitriol evident nine years earlier after Lou Saban settled for that infamous draw against Miami.

Robinson was yanked late in the second quarter of a Monday night game against Washington two weeks later, having thrown for just 43 yards on 5-of-11 passing with an interception. Denver went on to defeat Washington, 20-17, and Morton remained the starter.

But the 1980 Broncos kept stepping on the banana peels they avoided the previous years, making for one of the most difficult seasons in Broncos history. It didn’t match the early years for hopelessness, but the 8-8 finish was the team’s first non-winning season in five years and first out of the postseason in four.

Denver fans had quickly become accustomed to the playoffs, and their expectations and hopes soared after the Robinson trade. But by December, Robinson was effectively finished as a quarterback. He started the meaningless season finale, completing just nine of 23 passes. The following August, Robinson was waived.

The Broncos beat Seattle, 25-17, to conclude the .500 season on Dec. 21. Within two months, the Phipps brothers would sell the team to Edgar Kaiser, who then jettisoned Miller and Gehrke as part of an organizational youth movement. Amazingly, Miller, who went 42-25 as the Broncos’ head coach, would never stalk an NFL sideline again.

1980 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/7 at philadelphia eagles 6-27
9/14 dallas cowboys 41-20
9/21 san diego chargers 13-30
9/29 at new england patriots 14-23
10/5 at cleveland browns 19-16
10/13 washington redskins 20-17
10/19 kansas city chiefs 17-23
10/26 at new york giants 14-9
11/2 houston oilers 16-20
11/9 at san diego chargers 20-13
11/16 new york jets 31-24
11/23 seattle seahawks 36-20
12/1 at oakland raiders 3-9
12/7 at kansas city chiefs 14-31
12/14 oakland raiders 21-24
12/21 at seattle seahawks 25-17

1980 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb craig morton 9
qb matt robinson 7
rb otis armstrong 6
rb jim jensen 13
rb jon keyworth 3
rb dave preston 10
wr haven moses 14
wr rick upchurch 14
wr steve watson 1
te ron egloff 4
te riley odoms 15
c billy bryan 16
t kelvin clark 5
t dave studdard 12
g tom glassic 14
g paul howard 13
g glenn hyde 5

Oct. 5, 1980: Randy Gradishar returns an interception 93 yards for a TD vs. Cleveland, the longest such return in team history and the NFL’s longest in 1980.

Jan. 17, 1981: Red Miller and the Broncos’ coaching staff coach the South team in the 1981 Senior Bowl. It will turn out to be Miller’s last game as a Broncos head coach.

1980 defense

Pos Player Starts
de barney chavous 16
de rulon jones 1
de brison manor 15
nt rubin carter 16
lb larry evans 12
lb randy gradishar 16
lb tom jackson 16
lb rob nairne 16
lb joe rizzo 4
cb aaron kyle 9
cb perry smith 1
cb louis wright 15
s steve foley 16
s maurice harvey 3
s bernard jackson 4
s billy thompson 16

Record: 8-8

Fourth place, AFC west

Sept. 14, 1980: Denver defeats Dallas, 41-20 for the Broncos’ first-ever win over the Cowboys in regular-season or postseason play.