The Denver Broncos made the Super Bowl in 1977. They won an AFC West title in 1978. The 1979 Denver Broncos again made the playoffs, but a late slump to a wild-card and a quick exit continued the progressive decline and pointed to tougher days on the horizon.
Head coach Red Miller had built this first period of franchise success around the “Orange Crush” defense that ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed. The Broncos had Pro Bowl linebackers on the inside, with Randy Gradisher, and the outside with future ESPN analyst Tom Jackson. Cornerback Louis Wright was a 1st-team All-Pro and Steve Foley picked off six passes on the other corner.
It was offense that was the problem. There was never any real stability at quarterback. Craig Morton started ten games and Norris Weese started six. Both had respectable completion percentages in the mid-50s and were decent in yards-per-attempt, each hovering above seven. But interceptions were a problem, especially for Morton who threw 19. While a 16/19 TD-INT ratio wasn’t as unthinkable as it is today, it was hardly a blueprint for success.
Nor did the running game compensate for the shortcomings. Denver split duties among four different backs, from Otis Armstrong to Jim Jensen to Rob Lytle to Jon Keyworth. None accumulated more than 500 rushing yards for the season.
Wide receiver Rick Upchurch was a Pro Bowler, with 64 catches/937 yards, but the Pro Bowl honor was still as much for his work as a return man as anything else. Tight end Riley Odoms had his moments, but was not a consistent threat. The offense as a whole ranked 20th in the NFL in points scored.
Denver opened the season at home against a terrible Cincinnati Bengals team. Weese started and played well, 13/20 for 202 yards and no mistakes. The Broncos controlled the ground game, winning rush yardage 199-95 and won a 10-0 game.
They were a similar defensive-oriented game a few days later on Thursday night home date with the Los Angeles Rams. Thursday nights weren’t the norm in those days, and this was a juicy matchup between two contenders. The Rams would end up making the Super Bowl, and they would end up stealing this win. Denver led 9-6 in the fourth quarter, but lost a fumble inside their own 5-yard line for a gift touchdown that cost them the game.
Weese continued to play in Atlanta. The Falcons would end up the year 6-10, but had reached the second of the playoffs the prior year. Denver’s pass defense had a tough time with Steve Bartkowski, allowing 326 passing yards. But Weese played efficient football, 13/22 for 215 yards and ran for two TDs. Denver stole a 20-17 overtime win on the road.
The Seattle Seahawks were an AFC West rival prior to the realignment of 2002. Denver dug a 10-0 hole early, a 20-10 hole at halftime and when they fell behind 34-10 in the third quarter, they looked finished. Morton entered in at quarterback riding on his white horse. He went 11/16 for 178 yards and threw three touchdown passes. Odoms caught five passes for 125 yards and Denver rallied for a stunning 37-34 win that would only look bigger as the AFC West race unfolded.
Morton got the call the next week in Oakland and didn’t play nearly as well. He went 13/30 for 172 yards and the Broncos were routed 27-3. The offense wasn’t much better in a big home game with San Diego a week later, scoring only seven points. But the defense rescued them against one of the league’s most high-powered attacks, with Dan Fouts at quarterback and Joe Gibbs as the Charger offensive coordinator. The Broncos intercepted Fouts three times, two by 33-year-old free safety Bill Thompson and preserved a 7-0 win. Thompson kept it going the next week in Kansas City, returning a fumble for a touchdown and Denver coasted to a 24-10 victory.
With a 5-2 record, the Broncos were primed for a Monday Night visit to Pittsburgh. The Steelers were the defending Super Bowl champs and had routed Denver in the previous year’s playoffs. The Broncos kept this one close for a quarter, with a 7-7 tie. Then the roof fell on them—or more accurately, the Steel Curtain fell on them. Pittsburgh would win another Super Bowl the following January, their fourth in six years and they outrushed Denver 236-53 in a 42-7 rout.
The Broncos did a good job of putting the prime-time humiliation behind them, with Kansas City making the return trip to Mile High Stadium. Morton played efficient football, going 20/32 for 254 yards. Odoms, with seven catches for 114 yards was a prime target, and Upchurch caught two touchdown passes, one of them from Keyworth off a trick play. Denver won 20-3, and then shut down mediocre New Orleans a week later in a 10-3 home win.
Another key game awaited, this time against New England. The Patriots had won the AFC East title in 1978, were contending again and this game had the potential to shape tiebreaker scenarios and the wild-card picture the rest of the way.
Denver dominated every way possible. Nose tackle Rubin Carter scored a touchdown off a fumble. The Broncos blocked a punt for another touchdown. Morton was 13/18 for 194 yards and didn’t beat himself. Denver treated the home fans to a 45-10 rout.
The San Francisco 49ers were a terrible team, going 2-14 in their first year with head coach Bill Walsh and rookie quarterback Joe Montana trying to work his way in the lineup. Much better days were ahead, but in 1979, it took Denver playing a poor game to keep this one close. The Broncos trailed 21-10 at the half.
This was a game where Morton repaid the defense by bailing them out. He went 19/34 for 225 yards and three touchdowns. With a 31-21 lead and the 49ers driving, linebacker Bob Swenson returned a fumble 88 yards. The final was 38-28 and Denver had escape embarrassment on the Bay.
Oakland was in the first year of the post-John Madden era and fighting to make the playoffs under Tom Flores when they came to Denver on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. The Broncos ran the ball well, with Lytle gaining 102 yards, but Morton reverted to form and was erratic and mistake-prone, going 13/35 with three interceptions. Denver lost 14-10.
Three games remained and Denver was still in good position at 9-4. San Diego led the AFC West at 10-3, but the Broncos would play the Chargers in the season’s final Monday Night game. Oakland and Seattle were both giving chase at 7-6.
There were two wild-card berths available in a format that had three division champions. The Houston Oilers, pushing Pittsburgh in the old AFC Central, were in command for one of those spots. New England was 8-5 and joining the AFC West in the race for the final berth.
Buffalo was on the fringe at 7-6 and that’s where Denver went next. They trailed 10-3 at the half and the Bills were driving for more. Wright intercepted a pass and took it 78 yards to the house. Even though the extra point was misses, Morton followed with a 46-yard touchdown pass for a 16-10 lead. Buffalo drove into the red zone twice, but Denver forced a field goal each time. The game went to overtime where Bronco kicker Jim Turner won it 19-16. The Bills were finished and when the Chargers lost, Denver was tied for first.
A Saturday date at the Seattle Kingdome was next. The Seahawks had just lost to the Chiefs and played themselves out of contention. But they could still play spoiler. In a surprise duel of quarterbacks, Jim Zorn was a little bit better than Morton as Denver lost 28-23. San Diego won on Sunday, but since the Broncos were in position to sweep the season series with the Chargers, they would still win the AFC West with a head-to-head win in the finale.
There were a wide range of playoff possibilities. Denver could rise as high as the 2-seed if AFC East champ Miami lost. They could also miss the playoffs—Oakland was right on their heels, a game out and in control of the tiebreakers thanks to sweeping the Broncos.
The run-up to Monday Night couldn’t have gone much better for Denver. On Saturday afternoon, Miami lost, opening the door to the 2-seed behind Pittsburgh. Even better news came on Sunday when Oakland, an eight-point favorite at home against Seattle, lost. The Broncos were in the playoffs for sure.
Denver came out in San Diego and played like a team just happy to get to the postseason. They took a 7-0 lead, but the game turned sloppy. Fouts threw three interceptions, but Denver outsloppied San Diego, as Morton threw four picks and the Broncos lost 17-7. They would go to Houston for the wild-card game.
In a late afternoon kick from the Astrodome, Denver took a 7-3 lead, but the offensive line collapsed. Not only was the running game its usual non-existent self, but Morton was sacked six times. Houston took the lead by halftime and though the Orange Crush kept the game close, the Bronco offense never got close to scoring again in a 13-7 loss.
The 1979 season was the last high point for Red Miller. After an 8-8 season in 1980, he was fired and replaced with Dan Reeves. By the time the Broncos made the playoffs again it was 1983, and this kid quarterback named Elway was working to establish himself.