The Dan Reeves era of Denver Broncos history had been an unquestionable success. Reeves, backed by the powerful right arm of John Elway, had taken the team to the playoffs six times from 1983-91, including three trips to the Super Bowl. But tensions between the coach and quarterback were mounting and when a promising season fell apart, the 1992 Denver Broncos proved to be Reeves’ last run in the Rocky Mountains.
Change was already afoot in the coaching staff. Mike Shanahan had left as offensive coordinator to take the same job with the powerful San Francisco 49ers. Elway did not have a good year post-Shanahan. He struggled to a 55% completion rate, which ranked 20th among starting quarterbacks. His 7.1 yards-per-attempt was above the league average, but nothing spectacular. And the mistakes piled up. Elway’s 10-17 TD/INT ratio was awful and the 5.4% of passes he had picked off were among the league’s worst.
It wasn’t for a lack of targets. The tight end was a 24-year-old named Shannon Sharpe who caught 53 balls, made the Pro Bowl and ultimately the Hall of Fame before assuming his place across the debate table from Skip Bayless every morning on FS1. Mark Jackson, a veteran of the Super Bowl teams, caught 48 passes and averaged 15.5 yards-per-catch. Reggie Rivers, a young running back, made a nice addition to the passing game out of the backfield.
But between Elway’s struggles, his missing of four games with a shoulder injury and the utter lack of a running game, Denver’s offense only ranked 22nd in the NFL in points scored.
Wade Phillips was back in the fold as defensive coordinator and his career, both then and subsequently, have given him a well-deserved good reputation. But 1992 wasn’t one of his big moments.
The Bronco defense had talent—free safety Steve Atwater was the best in the league at his position and veteran strong safety Dennis Smith was a perennial Pro Bowler. Tyrone Braxton at the corner was emerging and would ultimately start on the 1997 Denver Broncos team that finally won it all.
Inside linebacker Michael Brooks made the Pro Bowl and 30-year-old outside linebacker Simon Fletcher had a big year rushing the quarterback, getting 16 sacks. In spite of all this, the Broncos only ranked 19th in a 28-team league in points allowed.
The warning signs were there early, at least for the offense, even as Denver won their first two games. They hosted the mediocre Los Angeles Raiders and were outrushed 152-47. The Broncos survived 17-13 because of a 54-yard fumble return for a TD by Brooks. The San Diego Chargers were next in old Mile High Stadium and a five-sack performance by the defense—including 2 ½ from Mike Croel—keyed a 21-13 win.
A visit to the contending Philadelphia Eagles was next and the flaws were exposed. Elway was held to an atrocious 8/18 for 59 yards. There was no running game, no pass defense and no points in a 30-0 loss. A 12-0 victory at Cleveland got the defense back on track and a balanced running game produced 188 yards. But it was still a win achieved without finding the end zone.
All of that made it less than surprising that Denver dug themselves a 19-6 hole in the fourth quarter at home against a good Kansas City Chiefs team. But it wouldn’t be Elway against KC coach Marty Schotteneheimer if Big John didn’t have something up his sleeve. He threw touchdown passes to Jackson and Vance Johnson late and stole a 20-19 win in front of a late Sunday afternoon national TV audience.
The Broncos again went on the road to face an NFC East power, this time the defending Super Bowl champion Washington Redskins. Again it was a disaster. They turned it over four times, Elway was sacked five times, lost rush yardage 117-26 and the football game by an embarrassing 34-3.
Denver might have been 4-2, but they weren’t seen as anything special. Oddsmakers made them a three-point home underdog to the Houston Oilers—a playoff team to be sure, but one that Denver had beaten on this very field the previous January in the AFC divisional round.
And they did it again. Reeves was able to find the running game. The Broncos rushed for 170 yards and Rivers’ 20-yard jaunt to the end zone was the difference in the 27-21 win.
Denver went on the road to San Diego where the Chargers were finding their footing after an 0-4 start. Elway made plays, going 21/39 for 260 yards, including nine balls to Rivers. Mark Jackson caught five passes for 113 yards. But Elway also made the plays going the other way, throwing three interceptions. The Bronco pass defense was shredded by San Diego’s Stan Humphries and the result was a 24-21 loss going into the bye week.
Back-to-back visits from the New York teams, both heading for sub-.500 campaigns were waiting on the far side of the bye and a rested Denver team took advantage. In the second quarter against the Jets, Elway hit Arthur Marshall with an 80-yard touchdown strike. Wyman Henderson added a Pick-6 and the Broncos cruised home 27-16. A 51-yard TD pass from Elway to Jackson got Denver off and rolling against the Giants, a game they won 27-13.
But Elway was only around long enough to give the Broncos a 14-zip lead in the game against the Giants. He injured his right shoulder. Denver was still 7-3 and in good shape for the playoffs, but now their quarterback would miss the next four games.
Tommy Maddox, a 23-year-old out of UCLA got the call. If we fast-forward almost a decade, Maddox would save the 2002 Pittsburgh Steelers season with an improbably great year. And he wasn’t awful as a young gun in Denver. But he wasn’t Elway, even Elway on a bad year.
Maddox’s 18/26 for 207 yards performance at the Raiders was negated by a couple interceptions, the usual lack of a running game and it led to a 24-0 loss. The young backup was worse on Monday Night at woeful Seattle. Even though the Broncos scored the first ten points, Maddox finished 11/26 for 127 yards and two more picks. The running game was its usual non-existent self and the result was a humiliating 16-13 overtime loss.
At 7-5, the schedule was about to get tougher. The two teams that would ultimately make the Super Bowl, Dallas and Buffalo were on deck. Reeves opted to split the snaps between Maddox and Shawn Moore for these games.
It nearly worked against the Cowboys. Maddox went 10/17 for 104 yards and three touchdowns against Dallas. Denver also got an 81-yard scoring pass of a trick play when Arthur Marshall hit Cedric Tillman. They led 27-24 in the fourth quarter. But Troy Aikman led a game-winning drive that stole a game the Broncos desperately needed.
The split-QB system didn’t work out the following Saturday afternoon in Buffalo. Moore was picked off three times, Denver dug themselves a 21-0 hole and lost 27-17. Elway was coming back for the final two games, but the record was 7-7 and the division title was all but gone, with both the Chargers and Chiefs at 9-5. The most promising route to the playoffs looked to be catching the Oilers, who were 8-6, but the Broncos had the head-to-head win over Houston.
But Denver got unlikely help on the Saturday afternoon of the season’s penultimate week. Kansas City showed up flat in the Meadowlands and lost to the Giants. Denver would travel to KC for the final week of the season, meaning if they could win out, they would pass the Chiefs and make the postseason.
There was still the matter of winning football games and that again didn’t come easily, even with Elway and even with playing the Seahawks at home (Seattle was an AFC West team prior to the realignment of 2002). Elway threw three interceptions and—stop if you’ve heard this before—there was no running game. But the defense bailed them out with eight sacks, two apiece from Fletcher and veteran linebacker Karl Mecklenburg. Denver avoided embarrassment and elimination with a 10-6 win.
It set up a winner-take-all showdown for a playoff berth in Kansas City. If this happened today, this game would surely have gotten flexed to Sunday Night, the stakes and the Elway-Marty storyline too good to pass up. In 1992, the schedule was set in advance so it kicked off in the 1 PM ET window.
That was just as well for the Broncos. They started out well enough, with Elway throwing an early touchdown pass and taking a 7-0 lead into the second quarter. But with the score tied 7-7, Elway threw two interceptions in his own end and both were taken to the house. Denver was suddenly in a 21-7 hole. They gave up another defensive TD and fell behind 35-13 in the fourth quarter, ultimately losing 42-20.
The tensions between the coach and QB were no secret and the Reeves era was quickly ended when the season was over. Everyone would end up okay—Denver would be back in the playoffs in 1993, as would Reeves with the New York Giants. The Broncos would win a couple Super Bowls later in the decade. One of them was against an Atlanta Falcons team that Reeves took to their first Super Bowl.
But 1992 was a tough year for Reeves, Elway and everyone in Denver, opening with promise, but marked by disappointment throughout.