The Denver Broncos came into the 1988 season looking to take the final step. They had gone to the Super Bowl in 1986 and 1987 behind the strong right arm of John Elway. Blowout losses had left a bad taste in the mouth and the Broncos made a bold move to get over the top, acquiring Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett. But at 34-years-old, Dorsett’s tank would prove to be running on empty and this 1988 Denver Broncos edition would prove to be a disappointment.
Dorsett barely cleared the 700-yard mark in ’88 and retired after the season. Sammy Winder, the top runner the previous two years, added over 500 yards to the cause, but both Dorsett and Winder were held under four yards per carry behind an offensive line that lacked any standout talent.
That kept the burden on Elway and the Hall of Fame quarterback had a bad year. His final numbers of 55 percent completion rate, 6.7 yards-per-attempt and 17-19 TD/INT ratio were all below the league average.
There was still a good collection of wide receivers, with Vance Johnson, Ricky Nattiel and Mark Jackson all big-play threats on the outside. Steve Sewell could come out of the backfield and Clarence Kay was a reliable tight end. But the offense overall ranked 15th in points scored in what was then a 28-team league.
The defense was worse, ranking 20th. Simon Fletcher had nine sacks at the outside linebacker spot and free safety Mike Harden picked off four passes. There were notable veteran names in linebacker Karl Mecklenburg and cornerback Mark Haynes. But on this team that had been a contender for five straight years, there was not a single Pro Bowler to be found in 1988.
Denver opened the season at home against Seattle. The Seahawks were an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002, and they were a contender in the 1980s. This opening game at old Mile High Stadium saw the Broncos get pounded on the ground, losing rush yardage 178-76. This Dorsett experiment was not off to a good start, Elway threw a couple interceptions and Denver lost 21-14.
A home date with a weak San Diego Chargers team went better. Dorsett got rolling with 113 yards. Elway was a sharp 17/28 for 259 yards with no mistakes. Denver cruised to a 34-3 win. But another game with a weak divisional foe, this one in Kansas City, turned into disaster. The Broncos were outrushed 130-70 and Elway was picked twice. It was a virtual carbon-copy of the Seattle game and ended in a 20-13 loss.
The schedule was frontloaded with AFC West opponents and Denver now hosted the Los Angeles Raiders on Monday Night Football. The Raiders were coached by a man who was already familiar to Broncos fans—Mike Shanahan had been the offensive coordinator here in Mile High and would later return in the mid-1990s as head coach to win a couple Super Bowls.
For one half of football, the Monday Night stage looked like Denver’s breakout moment. Dorsett ran for a couple touchdowns and ended with 119 yards on the night. The Broncos were rolling, up 24-0 at the half.
But Elway’s night was a disaster. He threw four interceptions and almost singlehandedly got the Raiders back in the game. Denver suffered an embarrassing 30-27 loss in overtime. A 1-3 record is problematic in any circumstance and certainly when all those games are against your divisional rivals.
A fifth straight AFC West game was waiting in San Diego. The Bronco defense was locked in, holding the Chargers to 20 yards rushing. The offense consistently drove and held the ball, with nearly 38 minutes of possession time. Even though they didn’t finish drives, the four field goals were enough to get a 12-0 win and keep the season alive.
Denver went on to San Francisco, a consistently great team in the 1980s and who would win the Super Bowl this season. On a day when three Hall of Fame quarterbacks played—Joe Montana and Steve Young for the 49ers joining Elway—it was the defenses who dominated. The Denver defense intercepted three passes. The San Francisco defense sacked Elway five times. The game went OT, but the Broncos got a huge 16-13 win.
A home date with a weak Atlanta team saw Denver take a 17-14 lead into the fourth quarter. Dorsett ran for 86 yards. Elway went 16/25 for 235 yards and the Broncos pulled away to win 30-14. But Elway was also knocked out and Gary Kubiak had to come in and finish up. Kubiak was still under center in Pittsburgh the following Sunday. Even though this Steelers team was bad, Kubiak threw three interceptions, the Broncos were crushed in rush yardage 256-40 and lost 39-21.
There was more humiliation in the trenches on Monday Night in Indianapolis. The Colts had won the AFC East in 1987 (there was no AFC South prior to 2002 and each conference had only three divisions) and would be on the playoff fringe this season. Elway was back, but the Broncos were pounded for 244 rushing yards, trailed 45-10 at the half and lost 55-23.
Denver desperately needed to get back on track when Kansas City came to Mile High. It wasn’t pretty but with the rush yardage numbers swinging back the Broncos direction, 131-90, they ground out a 17-11 win.
The Cleveland Browns had been Denver’s great rival in the previous two AFC Championship Games. This years’ Browns team wasn’t quite as good, but they would still make the playoffs. Even so, Elway continued to torment the fan base of Cleveland. He was an efficient 21/30 for 207 yards, two TDs and no mistakes. Fletcher’s two sacks keyed a defense that got home six times against Browns QB Bernie Kosar. The Broncos cruised to a 30-7 win.
New Orleans was another team on the playoff fringe and when Denver went to the Bayou, they made the Saints look like a Super Bowl team. Elway was erratic. The running game was non-existent. The rush defense got hammered again, allowing 196 yards on the ground. The final was a humiliating 42-0.
Denver was 6-6 and had three losses—to the Steelers, Colts and Saints that were to eventual non-playoff teams by a combined score of 136-44. But the AFC West was the NFL’s weakest division this year. The Broncos were actually in a three-way tie for first with the Seahawks and Raiders. Denver only trailed Cleveland and New England by one game in the race for the final wild-card spot. There was still time to make something of this season.
A big home date with the playoff-bound Los Angeles Rams was next. Elway and Jackson got cooking, hooking up on touchdown passes from 39, 58 and 14 yards. The Broncos were up 35-10 in the third quarter and won 35-24. Meanwhile, the Seahawks knocked off the Raiders. The Patriots lost.
Denver and Seattle were tied at 7-6 in the AFC West. Cleveland’s 8-5 led the race for the last wild card, but the Broncos had the head-to-head tiebreaker. They were still in good position for the season’s decisive moment, consecutive road games with the Raiders and Seahawks.
The trip to the Los Angeles Coliseum went poorly. Trailing 14-0 in the third quarter, Elway had the Broncos on the move when he threw an interception that went 86 yards the other way. Even though Denver tried to rally behind Jackson’s 145 receiving yards, the three-touchdown hole was too deep, and they lost 21-20.
At least Seattle had lost to New England, so the division race was back to a three-way tie at 7-7. With the Browns at 9-5, the wild card was a major longshot, but the AFC West title was still begging for someone to take it.
That someone would not be Denver. Before the national TV audience on Sunday Night in the old Seattle Kingdome, the rush defense again got hammered, allowing 230 yards on the ground. The Broncos trailed 28-7 by the half. Elway hit the deck four times. The final was 42-14. Denver was now 0-4 against their two key divisional rivals and were formally eliminated.
They still had the chance to play spoiler in a Saturday afternoon kickoff with New England. The Patriots were playing to grab the final playoff spot away from the Browns. Elway did the people of Cleveland a service after all the torment he’d inflicted. An efficient game from the quarterback and 150 combined rushing yards from Dorsett and Winder produced a 21-10 win and set up the Browns to make the playoffs the following day.
The final game of the season showed that Denver still had heart, but the results of the entire season showed they had problems. The following spring, the Broncos made some big fixes. They drafted running back Bobby Humphrey, who provided the jolt that Dorsett no longer could. And they drafted strong safety Steve Atwater, who embarked on a Hall of Fame career. By 1989, Denver was back on top of the AFC. The 1988 season was just a disappointing interlude rather than the start of a trend.