Skip to main content
Original Issue

Denver Is Standing Mile-High Once Again

Craig Morton, the oldest player in the NFL, has led the rejuvenated Broncos into first in the AFC West

Tom Glassic, Denver's left guard and Napoleonic-history buff, studies the Broncos' amazing rise to a 5-1 first-place record in the AFC West and tries to put it in some historical perspective.

"Our two victories over Oakland can be equated with Napoleon's two victories over the hated Prussians on the same day in 1806. While Napoleon was defeating them at Jena, Davout took a force of 26,000 men and defeated 54,000 Prussians farther north at Auerstadt. The Prussians wore black, just like the Raiders. There was a deep hatred there."

How about Denver's shocking 42-24 win over San Diego? The Broncos had a 35-0 lead before Air Coryell had gotten off the landing strip.

"Austerlitz," Glassic says. "A total team effort. All branches of the army coordinated. The Austrians wore yellow and white, sort of like the Chargers."

The Broncos' 28-10 victory over Baltimore "was a typical Napoleonic triumph. Call it Wagram." The 13-10 loss to Seattle "represented a small setback, Eylau, Napoleon's first in a major battle. A frontal assault repulsed by the rugged Russians."

Sunday's 27-21 victory over Detroit in Mile High Stadium, in which an infantry assault led by Billy Sims, who charged for 185 yards on the day, was repulsed at the Denver 17 with seconds left, was Borodino. "The rugged Russians again," Glassic says. "A slugfest, a battle in the trenches. The Russians were pushed from the field at the end, but not before they'd made a tough fight of it."

Four years ago, when the Broncos reached the Super Bowl under Coach Red Miller, Glassic compared the fiery redhead to the British general, Sir John Moore, a favorite of the troops, a man of the people. What happened to Sir John?

"Killed by Napoleon's troops at the Battle of Corunna during the British retreat from Spain," Glassic says. "Before then the British had been giving Napoleon's forces fits and he decided enough was enough. He came in and took charge personally."

The parallel is obvious. Edgar Kaiser, Denver's new owner, bought the Broncos from the Phipps family last winter and fired Miller 10 days later. Edgar Kaiser is Glassic's Napoleon. And Dan Reeves, Kaiser's new coach who had the Dallas playbook with him when he arrived in Denver, how about him?

"I haven't figured that out yet," Glassic says. "I'm working on it."

There are a lot of pieces of the Denver puzzle that haven't settled firmly into place. Reeves, who spent 15 years in the Dallas organization, four of them as offensive coordinator, says, "I don't know how good we really are. Maybe some people didn't take us seriously at first. I know we have a defense that can keep us in any game."

The offense was Reeves's baby with the Cowboys, and it was no secret what he was going to do in Denver. Call it Dallas Northwest. Multiple formations and sets, motion all over the place, misdirection—"Some people call it trickery," Reeves says—and, finally, when all the movable parts have reached their destinations and the ball is snapped, a reliance on the running game to control the ball.

The world was waiting to see what Dallas Northwest would look like first time out. It didn't look like much. The Jets blew it away 33-7 in the Broncos' opening exhibition game. Denver didn't complete a pass in the first half and balanced it off with a running attack that went nowhere.

"A total coaching failure," Reeves says. "As long as I've been coaching, I've never prepared an offense that poorly. The players had no chance."

Dallas Northwest scored only eight touchdowns in four exhibition games. The Broncos beat Oakland 9-7 in their regular-season opener on a gift touchdown pass; on that play Wide Receiver Rick Upchurch stepped out of bounds while running his pattern, but the ref didn't notice it. After the loss to Seattle, the Broncos had scored 19 points in two games, and analysts were pointing out that, despite all the fancy window dressing, the Broncos were lining up with the same people who had manned the NFL's fourth worst attack in 1980.

The offense had been a sore point in the Miller era. In his first year, the Super Bowl year, it was a holding operation. Hold the score down until the defense could get on the field, that wild and flamboyant defense that scored touchdowns and forced turnovers. In 1980 the Broncos' yardage sank from 12th in the league to 25th. The defense wore out, finally. It cracked.

"We were banged up and we were weary," Inside Linebacker Randy Gradishar says. "Every game it seemed like we were going to be on the field for 75 to 80 plays."

So along came Reeves with a whole playbook full of ideas, but the same people to run them. The quarterback, Craig Morton, was 38 years old, the oldest player in the NFL, one year older than the coach, less than a year younger than the owner.

After the loss to Dallas in the '78 Super Bowl, when the Denver offense turned the ball over eight times, Bronco officials rubbed their hands and said, "Well, the first thing we have to do is replace Morton."

Oh, the Broncos worked at it. They tried trades and drafts and free agents. But like an old and weather-worn sea wall, Morton beat off wave after wave of challengers—Norris Weese, Craig Penrose, Matt Robinson and, this year, Jeff Knapple and Mark Herrmann. And when Denver lined up for the first snap of the 1981 season, there Morton was behind the center again. He has got a pair of knees that practically face each other. When he drops back to pass, you hear chains clanking. But Reeves knew this about Morton: "Give him time and he'll throw the eyes out of the bail. His arm's as good as it ever was."

They go back 16 years together, all the way back to the Cowboys' 1965 training camp at Thousand Oaks, Calif., when Reeves was a free agent/running back/quarterback/defensive back—you-name-it back—out of South Carolina and Morton was a first-round choice, the fifth player picked in the NFL draft, right behind Tucker Frederickson, Ken Willard, Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers.

"The first time I ever laid eyes on him," Reeves says, "he was guiding miniature cars around a track on the floor of his room at camp. I was getting something like $10 a day and my wife was pregnant with our first child [they now have three] and I was sending everything I had back home. Then I walked into Craig's room and saw him playing with those little cars. They had to cost more than I made in a week.

"He threw a ball that was extremely tough to catch. Everything he threw was hard. It didn't make any difference if the receiver was five yards away or 55. His first day of practice he split the webbing between two fingers on one of Bob Hayes's hands. And he hit Buddy Dial in the nose. Dial looked like W.C. Fields."

Sixteen years later Morton says he doesn't feel odd about being the oldest player in the NFL—"just happy that I'm still around." After the Baltimore game, after his second touchdown pass had put him over the 25,000 mark for career yards, reporters asked him to describe himself. "Persistent," he said.

"In 16 years I've seen about all of it," he said last week, "the good and the bad. I'm healthy now. I'm playing in a system I'm used to. Sure, I was excited about Danny bringing in the Dallas system, about him getting the job here. We're good friends. He was in my wedding party. It's good now, but there have been times it wasn't so good.

"I've had four knee operations, one shoulder operation and one on my elbow. One year they had to take a tendon out of my foot and put it in my shoulder so I could throw again."

Morton has lost no time to injury this year, and on Sunday he showed the Lions the kind of tricks you pick up after 16 years of service. He built his remarkable long-ball stats—13 for 18 for 283 yards and three TDs—on two biggies, a 95-yarder to Steve Watson on Denver's first possession and a 40-yarder for another score to Watson later in the first half. He gave the Lions his whole repertoire on those two; he play-faked, pump-faked, looked the safeties off and then delivered on the money. He has thrown 13 touchdowns in six games, one more than he threw all last season. He has thrown only six interceptions, and his history has been more interceptions than TDs, 166-162 before this season.

The Broncos' offense is traveling at a clip of 359.7 yards per game, the best they've ever had over a season and 80 yards a game better than in their Super Bowl year. The emergence of Watson and Fullback Rick Parros has helped, but these aren't entirely new faces. Parros, a fourth-round draft choice from Utah State in 1980, was on injured reserve last year. Watson was a situation sub the past two years, a guy they'd put in in hopeless situations, when he'd run deep routes into double-coverage. This season he has surfaced as a speedy and dedicated wide receiver who has caught 24 passes for a league-leading (with San Diego's Chuck Muncie) seven touchdowns and an amazing 24.1-yard average.

The defense is No. 1 overall in the NFL and No. 1 against the pass. It's up there in sacks—21 compared with 39 all last year and 19 two years ago. But defense has been a tradition with the Broncos. The big difference is on offense, and last Sunday Reeves cut back on the amount of stuff he put in and simplified things a bit.

"See this," Reeves said last Friday, holding up the ready-list for the Detroit game. "There are three inches blank on the front of the page. The Dallas list used to run down to the bottom, and the whole back of the page would be filled. Our back page is double-spaced and it still isn't filled. Right now I'm probably using 75% of the Dallas offense playwise, and 60% formationwise.

"I learned two things here. I learned I had to slow down. I was putting in too much too fast. Fifteen to 20 plays doesn't seem like much to the coaches, but to the players it's an astronomical number to perfect in a week. And I had to learn a great deal of patience."

Still, there have been some humorous moments. In training camp two running backs, Rob Lytle and Dave Preston, started in motion at the same time and knocked each other flat. In the second Oakland game, a 17-0 shutout, Tight End Ron Egloff and Morton and Reeves conferred on the sideline and decided on an intricate maneuver in which Egloff would go in motion, left to right, shift left and go back in motion right. It wound up totally fouled up. Morton screamed, "Stay there!" after Egloff had run his first swerve. Egloff stepped back. Haven Moses, the flanker, had to jump up to the line of scrimmage. They ran the play anyway, and the Raiders, as confused as the Broncos, watched Parros dart 20 yards for a touchdown.

"We call the maneuver Camelhead Motion now," Egloff says. "Camelhead's my nickname."

The operation is becoming more orderly, though. The defense, given some deep-breathing room as the offense controls the ball for huge chunks of time—its average of 33:08 minutes per game is No. 3 in the NFL—is playing up to the old ferocity of 1977. And in the owners' box, Kaiser sits back and enjoys himself. "What's the good of having a team." he says, "if you can't have fun?"

He's an interesting fellow. His credentials in the business world, as chairman and chief executive officer of Kaiser Resources Ltd., a family-owned energy conglomerate, can rank with those of any owner in the NFL, but his biography in the Broncos' press book takes up only half a page. He gets down on the field with the coaches before the kickoff. On plane trips he goes over the game plan with Reeves. "Hey, he's the coach, and I'm certainly not going to interfere with the football end of things," Kaiser says, "but it's a lot more fun to know what's going to happen.

"When I came here I felt there were two things I had to do. One, keep my mouth shut, and two, turn this into a profitable enterprise." The Broncos were the only NFL team that declared a loss last year. He says he was "shocked" when he looked at the team payroll—the highest in the league. Gradishar, the All-Pro, was called in to renegotiate his $370,000 salary—downward. It was either that or be traded. "Fine," said Gradishar, who had played hurt for the last couple of years. "Trade me."

"That was a great mistake, an embarrassment," says Grady Alderman, Kaiser's new general manager, who abandoned that approach. "My mistake. I was the one who came up with that idea. I was new in the job. Hey, I'm from Detroit and I figured Chrysler did it, why shouldn't we? What the hell, we learn from our mistakes."

The word went around the league that all the higher-priced Broncos were up for trade. Alderman says only two were, Gradishar and Linebacker Bob Swenson, who was holding out at the time. The rest of the names were sent out as mere feelers and foolers.

Matters still aren't completely settled. Reeves doesn't even have a contract. "What's so strange about that?" Kaiser says. "Grady Alderman doesn't have one, either. I believe the man is more important than the contract. Anyway, we're working on it."

It's not that easy to brush off. Friends of Reeves say he won't sign a contract until he's certain that some aspects of the operation are clearly defined, such as trades. He wants to make sure that when a quickie deal has to be made, when a bang-bang, take-it-or-leave-it opportunity comes up, he can move quickly.

The bottom line, though, is that right now the Broncos are very successful in the area where it shows first, won-lost. But the Orange Crush mania of '77, the frenzy that gripped the town and the team and made the Broncos sentimental favorites around the entire country, will never be repeated. It was a one-shot thing.

"It's hard to explain, but it'll never be the same," says Safety Billy Thompson, a Bronco for 13 years. "That was 1977, we were younger, we were all caught up in the excitement. Now we're more efficient. We're businesslike."

Or as Tom Glassic says, "Waterloo is not in our plans."


Morton threw for 283 yards and three TDs as Denver rallied to beat the Lions 27-21.


With Napoleonic èlan, the bearded Glassic throws a classic block for Tony Reed.


Reeves and ex-Cowboy teammate Morton have pointed Denver in the ways of Dallas.


Kaiser likes to mix with the players but promises he won't mess with the playbook.


Rick Kane got the old Orange Crush, but the Lion runners squeezed out a lot of yards.