The 1984 Denver Broncos: John Elway’s First Rodeo

1984 was the first season that John Elway was unquestionably The Man in Mile High Country. In his rookie year, he split time with veteran Steve DeBerg. Here we look back on both the tremendous season of the 1984 Denver Broncos, as well as the disappointing finish that proved to be the young quarterback’s growing pains.

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Denver had become a reasonably successful franchise over the previous seven years. It took them 17 years from their founding to produce a playoff team, but when they did, the team won the 1977 AFC title. Two more playoff years followed, and the Broncos returned to the postseason in 1983 with the Elway/DeBerg tag-team before losing in the wild-card round.

Elway would rely on his ground game in 1984. Sammy Winder rushed for over 1,100 yards and was a versatile back, whose 44 receptions were the second-most on the team. Steve Watson was Elway’s top target, with 69 catches for nearly 1,200 yards. Butch Johnson, who had a fabulous Super Bowl catch against Denver seven years earlier when he played in Dallas, was now a competent veteran target, catching 42 passes.

There was not a single Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line or the defense. That’s what makes the defensive performance so much more impressive. Under the leadership of coordinator Joe Collier, Denver produced the #2 scoring defense in the NFL. They trailed only the eventual Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers and were superior to the Buddy Ryan defense in Chicago that was gathering steam and would take the league by storm a year later.

Elway’s numbers weren’t spectacular—the 56% completion rate was decent by the standards of the time, and the 2,598 passing yards acceptable. The 18/15 TD-INT ratio could be lived with, along with the 6.8 yards-per-pass. It’s fair to say that most of Elway’s career was a case of him carrying mediocre talent to great heights. The defense carried more of the load in 1984 than the 11th-ranked offense, but the career pattern was starting to emerge.

Denver opened the season at home against mediocre Cincinnati. There was little evidence that this would be a special season for Elway—after a nice start, of 8/13 for 127 yards, he was knocked out. The best passer of the day was Bengal quarterback Ken Anderson, who threw for 323 yards. And this Bronco comeback was orchestrated by backup Gary Kubiak, who hit tight end Clarence Kay on an 8-yard touchdown pass for a 20-17 win.

Elway returned in Chicago for Week 2, although he might have regretted it. He went 2/3 for 11 yards against Ryan’s swarming defense. Kubiak came in and went 3/6 for 40 yards. Head coach Dan Reeves also tried third-stringer Scott Stankavage, who managed a 4/18 for 58 yards. Denver was outrushed 302-53 and lost 27-zip. To call it embarrassing would be an understatement.

Sunday Night games were a rarity in 1984, and Denver played one in Cleveland. These two franchises would eventually be interlocked in history after a couple epic AFC Championship Game battles in 1986-87.

For now, future Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar was still in college and Cleveland wasn’t any good. After digging a 14-0 hole, Denver got a 62-yard touchdown pass from Elway to shift momentum, another TD pass to tie it and a defensive touchdown sealed the deal in a 24-14 win.

The Broncos played their best game of the young season at home against Kansas City, with Winder going for 139 yards and the defense spinning a shutout, 21-0. The Los Angeles Raiders, the defending Super Bowl champions came into old Mile High Stadium next and Denver was a (+4) home underdog.

It was Elway’s chance to shine, although it was again the running game that stole the show. The Broncos outrushed Raiders and Marcus Allen 231-70, with Winder and Gerald Wilhite sharing the load. Denver pulled out a 16-13 win when Wilhite scored the go-ahead touchdown.

The Broncos were 4-1 and had beaten the champs, but there were still skeptics. Denver was a (+3) underdog going into Detroit, a team that would finish 4-11-1. While the Lions had won a division title at 9-7 the year before, they were off to a 1-4 start this time around, so what they were in 1984 was becoming apparent. Elway posted his best numbers of the season, going 15/22 for 210 yards in a 28-7 rout.

The Monday Night stage was next and the possibility of a quarterback battle between Elway and Green Bay Packer gunslinger Lynn Dickey loomed. Mother Nature intervened and dumped a blizzard on the Rocky Mountain area. Denver scored two defensive touchdowns immediately, with Steve Foley and Louis Wright each returning fumbles for scores. The Broncos took care of the ball, only fumbled twice and recovered both. The Packers fumbled seven times in all and lost four. Denver won 17-14.

A road trip to woeful Buffalo resulted in another defensive display. The Broncos got 5 ½ sacks, two by linebacker Karl Mecklenburg, and they intercepted four passes in a 37-7 rout. Denver was now 7-1, but Elway had again been knocked out. He would only miss one game, but as it turned out, that game was the return trip to Los Angeles to play the Raiders.

Falling behind 12-0 with a backup quarterback on the road generally isn’t a formula for winning. But Kubiak stood tall, went 21/34 for 206 yards and trailing 19-6, threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns to tie the game. The TD should have been able to win it, but for a botched PAT, but Denver won in overtime 22-19. They were 8-1 and riding high.

A home date with a competitive New England Patriots team was next, and Elway returned to go 26/40 for 315 yards. The Broncos didn’t run the ball well in this game, nor did they stop the run. They trailed 19-12, but Elway threw a short TD pass to tie it. The Patriots were driving for the winning points when safety Dennis Smith recovered a fumble on the Denver 36-yard line and took it to the house. They won 26-19.

The magic year continued in San Diego. Again running the ball poorly, Denver trailed 13-6 in the fourth quarter. Winder ran in from a yard out to tie it and Elway led a drive for a field goal to get the win. The Broncos finally made their lives a little easier at home against the awful Minnesota Vikings. Elway was 16/19 for 218 yards and rifled five touchdown passes. Denver led 42-7 after three quarters before giving up a couple inconsequential touchdowns in the fourth period.

With a record of 11-1, the Broncos should have been running away with the division, but the AFC West was the best division in the NFL. The Seattle Seahawks, aligned in this division prior to 2002 were 10-2. The Raiders were in the rearview mirror at 8-4. The final four weeks of the season would see both Denver-Seattle games and it started in Mile High Stadium on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Elway played well, going 15/25 for 275 yards, but the defense, uncharacteristically, did not. They surrendered 406 passing yards to Dave Krieg, allowed an 80-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and the Broncos lost 27-24.

Things got worse a week later. The Chiefs were on their way to an 8-8 season, but ready to play spoiler. Denver led 13-7 after three quarters, but Elway was erratic, going 16/36 for 183 yards. Kansas City chipped away for a trio of fourth quarter field goals to win 16-13. The bitter road loss dropped the Broncos a game back and while the playoffs were clinched, even hosting a wild-card game was in doubt, as the Raiders were now 10-4.

Denver hosted San Diego in the regular season’s penultimate game, and good news came early. Kansas City, continuing its spoiler policy, had crushed Seattle in the day’s 1 PM ET games. The Broncos could tie for first and set up a winner-take-all battle with the Seahawks next week.

Elway played pretty well, going 18/31 for 193 yards. The rest of his team seemed ready to kick away the opportunity though. They turned it over four times, losing three fumbles and did not force any turnovers of their own. Eventually though, the Broncos rallied for a 16-13 win on a Rick Karl field goal.

Now there were six days to get ready and go up to the old Seattle Kingdome to play a late Saturday afternoon game on national television for the division crown. As if the AFC West title weren’t enough, there was a double revenge factor—the game a few weeks earlier, plus the wild-card game in this same building in 1983 that Denver lost on Christmas Eve.

What’s more, Denver had a shot at the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs. If they won, and the Miami Dolphins lost on Monday Night, the Broncos got homefield advantage. Seattle didn’t hold the tiebreaker on Miami, so they could only get to #2, but for Denver, this was a whole lot at stake.

John Elway has played some incredibly clutch football games in his Hall of Fame career. This was not one of them. He went 9/21 for 148 yards and threw four interceptions. But the Bronco defense forced three turnovers of their own and mitigated the damage.

Meanwhile, Winder keyed a 143-79 edge in rushing yardage. Denver led 17-7 in the third quarter when Foley made the decisive play, picking off Krieg and going 40 yards for a touchdown. It was the dagger blow and the 31-14 road win gave Denver the AFC West crown. Miami won on Monday, so the Broncos settled for the #2 seed. But they had a week off and a chance to get ready for a Super Bowl run.

Whether Denver won the Super Bowl or not, it seemed like some sort of storybook finish was in the works. So long as the Broncos took care of the mediocre Pittsburgh Steelers, who had won a division at 9-7, then Denver could play Miami in an AFC title battle that would be Elway against Dan Marino. If Denver won that one? The Super Bowl was to be held at Stanford, Elway’s alma mater. If the chalk held (and it did), the 49ers and Joe Montana would be the foil.

So long as they took care of Pittsburgh…but about that Pittsburgh thing. Elway was a pedestrian 19/37 for 184 yards and was outplayed by Mark Malone. The running game and defense couldn’t step up in this one, as the Steelers got 25 first downs and outrushed the Broncos 169-51. A touchdown with three minutes left gave Pittsburgh a 24-17 win.

The future belonged to Elway. He made the first of his five Super Bowl appearances two years later. 1984 was his first real rodeo, from the exhilarating highs to the growing pains at the end.