An era of John Elway’s career came to an end in 1992, when head coach Dan Reeves was fired. Elway and Reeves didn’t always see eye-to-eye, but they had reached Super Bowls together in 1986, 1987 and 1989. Wade Phillips was elevated from defensive coordinator to the head coaching job. Elway picked up where he left off and the Broncos returned to the playoffs after a one-year absence.
Now 33-years-old, Elway put together a Pro Bowl season with excellent numbers across the board. He completed 63 percent of his throws for 7.3 yards-per-attempt. He threw 25 touchdown passes and was only intercepted 1.8 percent of the time. All of those numbers ranked ninth or better among starting quarterbacks.
Elway benefitted in no small part from the emergence of Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe. With 81 catches for nearly 1,000 yards, Sharpe was 1st-team All-NFL. Derrek Russell and veteran Vance Johnson rounded out the receiving corps.
The passing attack had to carry the offense, as the lack of good talent up front led to pedestrian production from Rod Bernstine and Robert Delpino in the backfield. But with Elway and Sharpe leading the way, Denver ranked third in the NFL in points scored.
Karl Mecklenburg was the defensive equivalent of Elway—33-years-old and an important holdover from the Super Bowl years. Like Elway, the inside linebacker had a Pro Bowl campaign in 1993. Simon Fletcher, an outside linebacker in Phillips’ aggressive 3-4 scheme, rang up 13 ½ sacks. Shane Dronett provided a quality pass rush from his defensive end spot.
The secondary had a couple Pro Bowl safeties who could lay the heavy lumber. Dennis Smith was the veteran, 34-years-old at strong safety. Steve Atwater was the up-and-comer, age 25 and roaming at free safety. Smith and Atwater rounded out a defense that ranked a solid 10th in the league for points allowed.
Denver opened the season in the Meadowlands, facing a New York Jets team that would contend deep into the season for a playoff spot. Elway was sharp, going 20/29 for 269 yards and no interceptions. The Broncos led 26-6 after three quarters and closed out a 26-20 win.
San Diego had won the AFC West a year earlier and they came to Mile High Stadium for the home opener. After a scoreless first quarter, Elway opened up. He tossed a couple second-quarter touchdowns, finished 24/34 for 297 yards and led a 34-17 win.
A big Monday Night visit to Kansas City was up next. The Chiefs had just acquired Joe Montana in the effort to make the leap from playoff team to Super Bowl contender. But neither great quarterback was the story in this game. The story was that the Broncos got pounded in the trenches, losing rush yardage 160-35. Elway’s 28/45 for 300 yards night was mostly empty numbers in a 15-7 loss.
After a bye week, Denver hosted the Indianapolis Colts. Elway carved up a bad team, going 20/30 for 230 yards, two TDs and zero mistakes. The running game advantage was 196-83. The Broncos were up 28-zip by halftime and won 35-13.
Green Bay was aiming for a breakthrough year with second-year quarterback Brett Favre. The Packers would indeed make the playoffs this season. The Broncos dug themselves a 30-7 hole on the Sunday Night stage in Lambeau Field, thanks in part to 13 penalties. Elway nearly pulled off some magic. He went 33/59 for 367 yards. Vance Johnson caught 10 balls for 148 yards. Denver closed to within 30-27, but couldn’t come all the way back.
At 3-2, the Broncos hosted the Los Angeles Raiders, another Monday Night game against a rival with designs on contending in 1993. Bernstine had a good night on the ground, rushing for 101 yards. But this time it was the passing game that failed. Elway was sacked seven times. When he did get his throws off, he was only 16/30 for 188 yards. Denver lost 23-20 and slipped to .500.
It was time for a second bye. This was the one season the NFL experimented with a double bye. It was a concept that went over poorly with everyone, although the timing was providential for Denver, coming off two straight losses. They returned at home against Seattle with their play considerably cleaned up. Elway was 23/36 for 255 yards. The Seahawks were the team that committed the penalties. Dronett was the player getting the sacks. The Broncos were the team winning the football game, 28-17.
Denver went on to Cleveland, facing a Browns team that was improving under Bill Belichick, but a year away from being playoff-caliber. Elway went up top to Russell from 38 yards and Sharpe from 33. The Broncos controlled the game in all phases and won 29-14.
That was followed by jumping out to a 20-3 lead over playoff-bound Minnesota at home, with Elway going 30/40 for 290 yards and Sharpe going over 100 yards receiving. But there was no running game and they couldn’t hold the lead. The Broncos dropped a tough one, 26-23.
At 5-4, Denver needed to pick up the pace, especially with an AFC playoff contender in Pittsburgh coming to town next. Elway was making big plays, going 18/25 for 276 yards and no mistakes. Defensively, Mecklenburg and Fletcher picked up two sacks apiece. The Broncos crushed a good team, 37-13.
A week later they beat a bad one in Seattle (the Seahawks were an AFC West team prior to 2002) 17-9 thanks to six more sacks, with Fletcher and Mike Croel leading the way.
The Chargers were struggling through a mediocre season, but Denver could not escape San Diego with a win. Elway was erratic, he was sacked five times and there was no running game. Even though the Broncos led 10-3 after three quarters, they couldn’t close this one and lost 13-10.
At 7-5, Denver was in the middle of a jam-packed wild-card race. They were two games back of Kansas City in the AFC West. The league structure of the time had just three divisions per conference, meaning there were three wild-cards. It looked like Miami, at 9-3 and chasing Buffalo in the AFC East, had a hold on the first one. The Broncos, Raiders, Steelers and Jets were all 7-5 in the push for the final two spots.
The Chiefs came to Mile High and it was a terrific game. Elway threw two TD passes to Sharpe and Bernstine rushed for 90 yards. The Broncos still trailed 21-17 in the fourth quarter. The Elway-to-Sharpe combination came through one more. They pulled out a 27-21 win and not only strengthened their playoff hopes, but kept the division title in play.
A visit to mediocre Chicago in the early afternoon the following Saturday, saw a tough game on a cold and wet day. Bernstine rushed for 103 yards, the defense forced five turnovers and Denver won it 13-3. They still trailed KC by a game in the AFC West and the Chiefs had the tiebreaker. But the Broncos, along with the Raiders and the suddenly slumping Dolphins, were all 9-5 and had control of the wild-card spots. The Steelers and Jets continued to be in chase at 8-6, but Denver had a head-to-head win over both teams.
So maybe there was some urgency missing the following week at home against a bad Tampa Bay team. There were no big plays on either side of the ball. The Broncos fell flat as a two-touchdown favorite and lost 17-10. But everyone else in the wild-card picture also lost. It wasn’t the most inspiring way to clinch a playoff berth, but the Broncos were back in.
The season finale was in Los Angeles against the Raiders. By the time kickoff arrived, it was established that these teams would be in the 4-5 spots in the AFC bracket and playing each other in the wild-card round. The winner of this game would host the next one.
For the better part of three quarters, it looked like Denver would have one more home game. Elway threw a couple touchdown passes to Sharpe, one from 54 yards. Elway finished 25/36 for 361 yards and the Broncos led 30-13.
Then came a complete defensive collapse that didn’t stop until the season was over. Denver gave up big plays in the passing game and blew this one, 33-30 in overtime. The following week, even with Elway and Sharpe hot again, the wild-card game was in a 21-21 tie at halftime. Then the rush defense fell apart in the second half. The Raiders pulled away to a 42-24 win and sent the Broncos home.
It was a bitter end to an otherwise pretty good season. The Broncos had looked much better than a 9-7 team that lost in the first round of the playoffs. But, as the saying goes, you are what your record says you are. The Broncos followed up the late fade of 1993 with non-playoff years the next two years. Not until 1996, when Mike Shanahan was the head coach, did the last great run Elway’s career begin.