On September 9, 1960, the Broncos played in the upstart American Football League’s first-ever game, beating the Patriots 13-10 in Boston. On September 9, 2019, Denver will kick off the 60th season in franchise history when they travel to Oakland to take another of the AFL’s original teams, the Raiders.
Sixty seasons. Starting in 1960. It’s all too symmetrical and perfect not to celebrate.
From that first season through today, thousands of players have donned the orange and blue (and even the brown and yellow). Plenty came and went, having forgettable careers in the Mile High City. But a select few stood out. And a handful of Broncos became legends, in this town and beyond.
Who falls into that category? In the coming weeks, 1043TheFan.com will count down the 60 greatest players in Broncos history.
It continues today, with Nos. 51-55.
55. Lyle Alzado | DE / DT | 1971-78
Alzado played in Denver before the league starting officially counting sacks, so it’s hard to quantify his impact through numbers. But anyone who watched the Broncos in the 1970s, when they matured from one of the league’s doormat franchises to a Super Bowl contender, knew that he was the heart and soul of the team.
To say that Alzado played with passion would be an understatement. He was a scrapper, a street fighter from Brooklyn who once reportedly decked in his own father to protect his mom and siblings, the defensive lineman made it all the way from tiny Yankton College to the NFL. From day one, through the end of his career, he never lost the chip that was on his shoulder.
As a part of the famed Orange Crush defense, Alzado was perhaps the toughest for opponents to deal with on a weekly basis. He was constantly in the backfield, harassing quarterbacks, tackling runners and generally wrecking havoc. During the 1977 season in which the Broncos won the AFC title, it was Alzado who won the biggest accolades, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
He was a larger-than-life character, a player the city embraced. At one point, more people in Denver recognized him than could identify President Carter. But the team tired of his off-field antics, namely a boxing match with Muhammad Ali at Mile High Stadium, and eventually traded him to Cleveland.
Years later, Alzado would have a second stint in the limelight, this time as the bad guy on the Raiders early-1980s teams. But his best football was played in Denver, where he was a dominant for eight seasons.
“‘Three-Mile Lyle’ played with the fury that gave the ‘Orange Crush’ much of its fire.” – Sandy Clough
54. Otis Armstrong | RB | 1973-80
It’s difficult to follow a legend, but that’s the task put in front of Armstrong when he was selected by the Broncos in the first round of the 1973 NFL Draft. Floyd Little, the running back who saved the franchise from moving to Birmingham and would eventually be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was entering the final years of his career. So it was Armstrong who was tabbed to be his replacement.
That wasn’t an easy job for other reasons, namely because the Broncos weren’t very good in those days, particularly on offense. With a relatively anemic passing game, it was the running backs who were called upon to carry the load. Everyone in the stands knew who was getting the football, as did the other team, so Armstrong didn’t earn a lot of easy yards.
Nonetheless, he had a breakout season in 1974, helping Denver to post its first winning season in franchise history. On the year, Armstrong rushed for a league-leading 1,407 yards, averaging more than 100 yards per game. He was also second on the team in receptions with 38, for another 405 yards. All told, the running back posted more than 1,800 combined yards and scored 12 touchdowns.
It was enough to earn Armstrong first-team All-Pro honors, as well as his first of two Pro Bowl invites. Injuries cut short his next season, and plagued him throughout the rest of his career. While only one more 1,000-yard season was in the cards, Armstrong remains the team’s fourth all-time leading rusher, behind only Terrell Davis, Floyd Little and Sammy Winder.
“The ninth-overall pick in 1973, Armstrong led the league in rushing in ’74, when he averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per carry.” – Sandy Clough
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
53. Tony Jones | OT | 1997-2000
Jones was a key fixture on an offensive line that powered the Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl victories and opened holes for a 2,000-yard rusher. And he did it in a manner that demonstrated unique versatility.
After nine seasons in Cleveland / Baltimore, the Broncos lured Jones to Denver prior to the 1997 season. He was brought in to protect John Elway’s blindside, with future Hall of Fame left tackle Gary Zimmerman set to retire. But after the team talked Zim into playing one more year, Jones moved to the other side of the line, playing right tackle for the first time in seven years; he looked like a natural.
That season, the Broncos beat the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII to earn the franchise’s first-ever championship. The next year, when they repeated with a win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, Jones was back on the left side of the line. And he played at an exception level.
During that historic campaign, in which the Broncos started 13-0 and Terrell Davis rushed for 2,008 yards, Jones earned his only Pro Bowl nod. It was a well-deserved honor, as he seamlessly switched positions and replaced a legend in the process, while Denver’s offense actually improved.
Zimmerman, Mark Schlereth, Tom Nalen and Brian Habib might get more publicity than Jones, but he was very much their equal on a terrific offensive line. His contributions are a big reason why the Broncos won their first two Lombardi Trophies.
“Signed to take over at left tackle for (Gary) Zimmerman. Nine months later, he dominated Reggie White in Super Bowl XXXII while playing right tackle. Makes perfect sense.” – Tom Nalen
52. Brandon Marshall | WR | 2006-09
During his four-year stint with the Broncos, Marshall received more attention for his non-playing antics than what he did on the field. That was quite a feat, given how productive of a pass catcher he was in Denver’s offense.
Instead, the headlines focused on domestic issues, drunk driving arrests, mysterious injuries that occurred when he supposedly slipped on a McDonald’s bag, nearly getting a penalty after a game-winning touchdown for an excessive celebration and punting the football away from head coach Josh McDaniels during a practice. And that’s the abbreviated list of troubles.
As a result, Marshall’s play on the field went partially under-appreciated. During his three seasons as a starter in Denver, the wideout caught more than 100 passes each year, racked up 1,325, 1,265 and 1,120 yards, and found the end zone 23 times. He was a big receiver before that was entirely en vogue in the NFL, making him a favorite target of both Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton.
In 2008, he set a Broncos team record with 18 receptions in a single game at home against the Chargers. A year later, he bested that mark and broke the NFL’s record for catches in a game when he hauled in 21 passes in Indianapolis. On the field, Marshall was a pass-catching machine.
Unfortunately, he wore at his welcome, getting shipped to Miami when he couldn’t get along with McDaniels. From there, the wideout has bounced around from team to team. But those early years in Denver, when he was a raw talent out of UCF who blossomed into a premier wide receiver in the NFL, were special.
“Brandon Marshall had the ideal body type, big-play ability and attitude on the field that most NFL teams covet in playmakers outside the numbers. I would’ve loved to have played against him.” – Nick Ferguson
51. Gene Mingo | RB / K | 1960-64
Mingo’s story epitomizes the early years of the Broncos, as he joined the franchise during their inaugural season and played five wild and wooly years in Denver. How he made his way to professional football, as well as the versatility that earned him a spot on the roster, made him one of the most unique and memorable players in team history.
Having never played college football, Mingo read about a the upstart American Football League and sent a letter to the Broncos seeking a tryout. Thanks to his wide array of talents, he made the team.
In the league’s first-ever game, those skills were on display. Mingo kicked an extra point after Denver’s first touchdown and then returned a punt 76 yards to put the Broncos up for good, leading the team to a 13-10 win in Boston against the Patriots.
It was a sign of things to come, as Mingo kicked a field goal to score the franchise’s first points at Mile High Stadium. He’d go on to boot 17 more, along with 33 point-after attempts, four rushing touchdowns and a receiving score, on his way to leading the AFL in scoring during that inaugural campaign. He’d repeat that feat two years later, when he scored 137 total points and earned second-team All-Pro honors.
During his time with the Broncos, Mingo would score touchdowns in every way imaginable. He caught them, ran for a few and even threw some. Along the way, he also continued his duties as the team’s placekicker. As a result of his far-flung abilities, Mingo remains the eighth all-time leading scorer in team history, earning him a spot in the franchise’s Ring of Fame.
“Mingo made a lot of history. He produced 123 points in Denver’s inaugural season, was the first African-American placekicker and secured the Broncos first win with a 76-yard punt return in Boston.” – Sandy Clough
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE