The Unlikeliest Great Season

In March, Pat Bowlen became the Broncos’ owner, purchasing the team from Edgar Kaiser. He set a high standard, and although his first Broncos team didn’t achieve every goal, it did win more regular-season games than any Broncos team to come before it.

Statistical wonks might look back at the 1984 Broncos and be struck dumb. How could a team that boasted the No. 22 offense and No. 25 defense possibly finish with a winning record, let alone go 13-3?

The answer: takeaways.

As the Orange Crush began to blossom in 1976, forcing turnovers had always been a focal point. Sometimes the Broncos would get gashed for yardage, but with explosive defensive plays, they could compensate. Never was this the case more than in 1984, when the Broncos recovered 24 fumbles and intercepted 31 passes. That total matched the 1978 output for the Broncos’ best since the AFL-NFL merger. Eight of those takeaways were returned for touchdowns, the most in Broncos history.

Time and attrition had taken its toll on the Orange Crush of the 1970s. In the offseason after the 1983 campaign, Randy Gradishar had retired. But by 1984, new stars like defensive end Rulon Jones, safety Dennis Smith and linebacker Karl Mecklenburg had emerged and blossomed. When all of them arrived, they had a crash course in defensive coordinator Joe Collier’s defense: intricate, complex and flexible enough to adapt to almost any attack.

“You could never work any harder than Joe. He did absolutely everything that he could to be prepared,” Jones recalled in 2006. “He adapted to the players that he had. He wasn’t a type of guy that was totally set on what he did. He adapted to things as he saw the need per game.

“There was a lot more of the mental part of the game with Joe Collier as defensive coordinator because we did so many different things. A lot of teams maybe had 10 different defenses, where we may have had 60 or 100 or something like that. We had quite a playbook to draw from.

“Joe had a great influence on what I did obviously because I was one of his players and he took into account my abilities and every ones on the team. He was a very unique guy as far as that goes and a great coach.”

The 1984 season was a significant campaign for Jones, who had 11 sacks, the best total since his rookie season of 1980, when he amassed 11.5. Jones was hitting the prime of his career, and from 1984 to 1986, he had 34.5 sacks, played in two Pro Bowls and was a first-team All-Pro once.

The magnum opus of this opportunistic defense — and the one game from this season that everyone would remember — came all the way back in Week 7. With the Green Bay Packers in Denver and snow falling, the Broncos became the first — and still only — team to score two defensive touchdowns on the first two plays from scrimmage of a game.

With Jones creating havoc from his defensive end spot, Denver sealed its first AFC West crown in six years with a 31-14 romp at Seattle in the regular-season finale. As with the game at San Diego to close the 1979 season, this was winner-takes-all in Week 16 for the AFC West crown, but this time, the Broncos rolled. The game featured the eighth defensive return touchdown of the year, when Steve Foley sprinted 40 yards for a third-quarter touchdown that put the Broncos up 24-7.

The magic finally ran out on Dec. 30, when the 9-7 Steelers stormed into Mile High Stadium and handed the Broncos their first-ever home playoff loss, 24-17.

The defense had done its part to prevent this, recovering a pair of first-quarter fumbles by Steelers quarterback Mark Malone in Pittsburgh territory. But only one of those takeaways resulted in points: a John Elway touchdown pass that capped a five-play, 22-yard drive. The other fumble had led to a missed Rich Karlis field goal. This gave Pittsburgh the window to stay within shouting distance, setting up its subsequent comeback.

The loss was painful, and was the Broncos’ fifth consecutive playoff defeat dating back to Super Bowl XII. But it did not tarnish the season. Elway showed glimpses of greatness throughout the year, and the defense was a perfect complement.

Dan Reeves had won 60 percent of his games since taking the head-coaching job in 1981 and was establishing himself as one of the brighter stars of a new coaching generation that included Joe Gibbs, Bill Parcells, and fellow ex-Dallas staffer Mike Ditka.

But the Broncos couldn’t count on eight defensive touchdowns every year. The offense would have to improve with Elway at the controls for them to remain a title threat.

March 23, 1984: Pat Bowlen is introduced as the new owner of the Denver Broncos, assuming the title of President and Chief Executive Officer.

1984 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/2 cincinnati bengals 20-17
9/9 at chicago bears 0-27
9/16 at cleveland browns 24-14
9/23 kansas city chiefs 21-0
9/30 los angeles raiders 16-13
10/7 at detroit lions 28-7
10/15 green bay packers 17-14
10/21 at buffalo bills 37-7
10/28 at los angeles raiders 22-19
11/4 new england patriots 26-19
11/11 at san diego chargers 16-13
11/18 minnesota vikings 42-21
11/25 seattle seahawks 24-27
12/2 at kansas city chiefs 13-16
12/9 san diego chargers 16-13
12/15 at seattle seahawks 31-14
12/30 pittsburgh steelers (divisional playoff) 17-24

1984 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb john elway 14
qb gary kubiak 2
rb rick parros 2
rb don summers 1
rb gerald willhite 1
rb sammy winder 15
wr butch johnson 11
wr clint sampson 3
wr steve watson 15
wr steve wilson 1
te clarence kay 13
te john sawyer 8
te jim wright 9
c billy bryan 16
t winford hood 2
t ken lanier 15
t dave studdard 16
g keith bishop 14
g mark cooper 4
g paul howard 14

Jan. 27, 1985: Sammy Winder represents the Broncos in the Pro Bowl.

1984 defense

Pos Player Starts
de walt bowyer 1
de barney chavous 15
de rulon jones 16
nt rubin carter 15
nt scott garnett 1
lb steve busick 16
lb rick dennison 15
lb tom jackson 16
lb karl mecklenburg 1
lb jim ryan 14
lb ken woodard 2
cb mike harden 16
cb steve wilson 1
cb louis wright 15
s steve foley 16
s randy robbins 1
s dennis smith 15

Record: 13-3

First place, AFC West