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.

Morton’s 21 touchdown passes were a career high, as was his 90.8 rating. His yardage total of 3,195 was also the best of his career, and broke Frank Tripucka’s 21-year-old franchise record.

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.

March 9, 1981: Less than two weeks after Kaiser assumed control of the Broncos, head coach Red Miller and GM Fred Gehrke are fired.

1981 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/6 oakland raiders 9-7
9/13 at seattle seahawks 10-13
9/20 baltimore colts 28-10
9/27 san diego chargers 42-24
10/4 at oakland raiders 17-0
10/11 detroit lions 27-21
10/18 at kansas city chiefs 14-28
10/25 at buffalo bills 7-9
11/2 minnesota vikings 19-17
11/8 cleveland browns 23-20
11/15 at tampa bay buccaneers 24-7
11/22 at cincinnati bengals 21-38
11/29 at san diego chargers 17-34
12/6 kansas city chiefs 16-13
12/13 seattle seahawks 23-13
12/20 at chicago bears 24-35

1981 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb craig morton 16
rb rick parros 16
rb dave preston 15
wr haven moses 6
wr rick upchurch 10
wr steve watson 12
wr steve wilson 1
te ron egloff 5
te riley odoms 15
c billy bryan 13
c glenn hyde 3
t kelvin clark 3
t ken lanier 1
t claudie minor 13
t dave studdard 16
g tom glassic 16
g paul howard 15

1981 defense

Pos Player Starts
de barney chavous 16
de rulon jones 16
nt rubin carter 16
lb larry evans 16
lb randy gradishar 16
lb tom jackson 16
lb bob swenson 16
cb aaron kyle 16
cb dennis smith 5
cb perry smith 3
cb louis wright 8
s steve foley 12
s mike harden 4
s billy thompson 16

Record: 10-6

Second place, AFC west