The 1983 Denver Broncos ushered in the greatest era in the history of the franchise—the John Elway era. It had a lot of rocky moments, especially at the beginning. But by the end, they had made the playoffs and Elway was starting to flash the potential that would eventually take him to the Hall of Fame.
Denver was coming off a 2-7 season in the strike-shortened year of 1982. They had the fourth pick in the draft, although having gone 10-6 in 1981 in the first year for head coach Dan Reeves, they clearly had a stronger foundation than the ’82 record indicated. Denver’s pick was offensive tackle Chris Hinton.
Elway had gone first to the Baltimore Colts, but made it plain he had no intention of playing for the woeful franchise whose owner was on the verge of moving them to Indianapolis. A minor league baseball in the Yankees system who was well-regarded, he had options. Not as promising as football of course, but enough to push the Colts to deal him to Denver for Hinton.
The offensive supporting cast for a young quarterback wasn’t very good. There was no Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line and 24-year-old Sammy Winder only rushed for 757 yards. The receivers were the key strength. Steve Watson had an excellent year, catching 59 passes for over 1,100 yards. Rick Upchurch was a big-play threat himself, 40 catches for 639 yards. But overall, the offense ranked just 21st in the league as Elway went through serious growing pains.
It was the defense that led Denver in 1983. Linebacker Randy Gradishar and corner Louis Wright were both Pro Bowlers. Tom Jackson, the future ESPN analyst, was a 32-year-old linebacker and got 5 ½ sacks. Strong safety Dennis Smith was only 24 and beginning a career that would see him become a Pro Bowl perennial. The defense ranked ninth in the NFL in points allowed.
Elway’s highly anticipated debut came in Pittsburgh against a team that would ultimately win its division. It was inauspicious to say the least—he went 1/8 for 14 yards and had to be yanked for 29-year-old backup Steve DeBerg. The defense forced seven turnovers and bailed the team out in a 14-10 win.
A road trip to Baltimore saw Elway play marginally better, but not much—9/21 for 106 yards. Denver still trailed 10-3 in the fourth quarter and DeBerg again come on in relief. He went 9/11 for 158 yards and pulled out a 17-10 win.
Elway got another start at home against a subpar Philadelphia team and finally threw his first touchdown pass—a 33-yarder to fullback Rick Parros. Elway went 18/33 for 193 yards, but there was no running game to speak of and the Broncos lost 13-10. Another home loss followed, this one to an outstanding team in the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Raiders. Elway and DeBerg both struggled in a 22-7 loss.
The situation got worse in Chicago against a Bears team that was mediocre, but growing into the team that Mike Ditka would make a playoff perennial starting the following year. Elway started 4/10 for 36 yards and then was knocked out of the game. DeBerg came on and played well, 17/30 for 235 yards, but the running game was a problem, while the Bears’ Walter Payton had a big day. A 31-14 defeat was the result.
DeBerg now had the job with Elway on the shelf and given the difference in performance, it’s hard to imagine that Reeves was all that disappointed. A road trip to play the woeful Houston Oilers resulted in a 26-14 win. Winder had his best game of the year with 165 rushing yards, outperforming the great (albeit declining) Earl Campbell, who ran for 101. Another win came against so-so Cincinnati, as DeBerg threw a seven-yard touchdown pass to Parros in the fourth quarter to beat the Bengals 24-17.
The DeBerg-led winning streak produced two more wins, these against AFC West opponents. They didn’t play well in a home game against the weak San Diego Chargers, trailing 6-0 in the fourth quarter. But backup running back Dave Preston ran for 99 yards, DeBerg threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Upchurch and the Broncos escaped 14-6.
In a home date with Kansas City, DeBerg went 21/41 for 350 yards, making good use of the receivers. Upchurch and Watson each caught six balls and combined for 264 receiving yards. Denver roared to a 27-10 lead and hung on to win 27-24.
After four straight wins, DeBerg struggled in Seattle, an AFC West rival prior to 2002 and a contender with Denver for playoff spots in 1983. The Broncos fell behind 20-3, and the now-healthy Elway came in. He played pretty well, 8/15 for 134 yards. Even though they lost 27-19, he got his job back for a road trip to play the Raiders.
Elway lost the job as quickly as he got it. He was erratic, the Broncos were outrushed 140-63 and only a defensive touchdown kept the game close in a 22-20 loss. With Seattle making their return trip to Mile High Stadium, it was time for Door #3 in the quarterback carousel. Reeves went to 22-year-old Gary Kubiak. The Broncos won 38-27, though it was mostly about the defense getting eight turnovers and Winder outrushing talented Seattle rookie Curt Warner 92-70.
Reeves still went back to Elway in San Diego, who threw three interceptions in a 31-7 loss. Denver was now 7-6 and in the middle of a jam-packed race for two wild-card spots, their home game with the 7-6 Cleveland Browns loomed large.
Given how Elway would torment Cleveland in the latter part of the decade, maybe it was appropriate that this proved to be a breakout game. He went 16/24 for 284 yards, throwing TD passes of 39 & 49 yards to Clint Sampson in a 27-6 rout. It was the best performance of his still-young career.
At 8-6, the Broncos were tied with the Bills while the Seahawks, Patriots, Browns and Jets were all in chase at 7-7. Denver hosted Baltimore for the penultimate regular season game (scheduling rules at the time had last-place teams in the same conference play each other twice). With all the money on the table, the Broncos were playing horribly and trailing 19-0.
It was then that Elway showed the comeback mojo that would eventually make him a legend. He threw three touchdown passes to three different receivers, all from 20-plus yards out. Denver won 21-19 and the right confluence of events elsewhere in the league clinched a playoff spot.
The Broncos were in position to host the wild-card game, with a 9-6 record (the Raiders had run away with the AFC West title). But in a road game at Kansas City, Elway went 13/34 for 143 yards and threw four interceptions. The 48-17 loss, combined with Seattle winning meant that the Broncos would visit the Seahawks for the wild-card game.
It was late afternoon on Christmas Eve when Denver went to the Seattle Kingdome. The Seahawks played a flawless and efficient game. Both Elway and DeBerg played and were both so-so. Even though the game was tied 7-7 after the first quarter, Seattle’s clean football and steady running game helped them pull away to 31-7.
The season wasn’t always easy and Elway’s final numbers were weak—a 47.5% completion rate, only 6.4 yards-per-attempt and a 7-14 TD-INT ratio. But he delivered the big wins over the Browns and Colts to get Denver to the playoffs. The new era had begun.