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. 41-45.
45. Ed McCaffrey | WR | 1995-2003
McCaffrey came to Denver in 1995 as an unheralded free agent. After stints with the Giants and 49ers, there was little reason for anyone in Broncos Country to take much notice of his signing. During his first four years in the NFL, McCaffrey had started a grand total of four games. But those paying attention knew he had talent; the 49-catch, 610-yard, five-touchdown season he posted during his second year in New York was a glimpse of what was to come.
The receiver’s connection with Mike Shanahan was also a sign. The Broncos new head coach had worked with McCaffrey during the wideout’s lost year in San Francisco, so he was able to see beyond the anemic statistics. Shanahan knew the unique combination of talents that McCaffrey possessed, seeing them as a perfect fit for his offense.
It didn’t take long for McCaffrey to prove the head coach correct and make an impact in Denver. By 1996, he was a full-time starter, becoming a reliable target for John Elway, especially in the red zone. And as his connection with the future Hall of Fame quarterback grew, the Broncos offense also started to trend upward.
During Denver’s back-to-back championship seasons, McCaffrey was a key contributor, especially in 1998; that’s the year in which McCaffrey blossomed, eclipsing the 1,000-yard plateau for the first time in his career en route to a second-straight Lombardi Trophy. But it was his block, and finger point, in Super Bowl XXXII that is perhaps his signature play.
McCaffrey would post three 1,000-yard seasons, capped by a career-best 1,317 yards in 2000 that came via 101 receptions. Unfortunately, the wideout was injured in the opener the next year, derailing his career just as it was starting to take off. He’d return to play two more seasons in orange and blue, but was never quite the same receiver.
Currently, McCaffrey sits fifth all-time in franchise history in receptions (462) and receiving yards (6,200), and is fourth in touchdown catches (46). But it’s the two Super Bowl rings that make him a fan favorite to this day.
“Grossest injury I ever saw in person. Oh, and he caught the ball. Pretty neat. The world changed 10 hours later.” – Tom Nalen
44. Alfred Williams | DE | 1996-99
When Williams signed as a free agent prior to the 1996 season, he was already well known to Broncos fans; a standout college career during the heyday of CU made him a household name in Colorado. But from a football perspective, there were some reasons to be skeptical of the move. After all, Williams hadn’t lived up to the first-round hype during his first five years in the NFL.
Almost immediately, the defensive end proved that it was his situation, and not his abilities, that had been the issue early in his career. During his first year with the Broncos, Williams helped transform the defense. On the season, he racked up 13.0 sacks, earning his first Pro Bowl invite and landing on the first-team All-Pro squad, and Denver returned to contention with a 13-3 record.
While his numbers never again reached that level, Williams remained an emotional leader on an opportunistic defense that would help the Broncos win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and ’98. Along the way, he even got a little revenge on his former team, returning a fumble recovery 51 yards for a touchdown to cap a Week 4 victory over the Bengals.
Injuries started to slow Williams during that second championship season, limiting him to 10 games and zero starts. And the following season, he only managed to get on the field seven times. But that doesn’t diminish his impact on the franchise.
The Broncos needed some swagger when he came to town, especially on the defensive side of the football. Williams provided that, helping to ignite one of the greatest three-season stretches in NFL history, as Denver went 39-9 and won two Lombardi Trophies from 1996-98.
When his days in the orange and blue were over, the defensive end had posted solid numbers. In just 49 games, Williams recorded 28.5 sacks, the eighth-most in franchise history. But his impact went well beyond stats; he provided way more that what can be recorded on paper.
“Alfred Williams played with a ton of heart. He had what scouts call ‘violent striking hands’ and was a freakish athlete for a man his size. I believe that Alfred would be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame had he begun his NFL career with a better team than Cincinnati.” – Cecil Lammey
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
43. Bill Romanowski | LB | 1996-2001
Every great defense has to play right on the edge, teetering the fine line between aggressive and dirty. Few players in the history of the NFL have ever walked that tightrope quite like Romanowski, one of the game’s all-time most-polarizing players.
If he was on your team, you loved him. But if he was on the opposition, “Romo” was despised. Broncos fans got to experience both ends of the spectrum.
First, Romanowski was loved in the Mile High City. He signed as a free agent prior to the 1996 season, part of a class that helped transform the Broncos defense into a group that would help the franchise become a contender again.
During his first three seasons in Denver, Romanowski earned a pair of Pro Bowl invites while helping the Broncos win a lot of games. He got under the skin of the opposition, most notably by mocking Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart during the 1997 AFC Championship Game, playing a key role on back-to-back Super Bowl teams.
Along the way, however, Romo also crossed the line. He broke the jaw of Kerry Collins during a preseason game and the infamously spit in the face of J.J. Stokes on “Monday Night Football.” Those were the types of moments that were impossible to defend.
After six productive seasons in Denver, Romanowski signed with the hated Raiders. There, Broncos fans discovered just how irritating the linebacker’s on-the-edge play could be.
“Great guy to have on your side during regular season. Not so much during camp. Hated all people in opposing colors.”– Tom Nalen
42. Craig Morton | QB | 1977-82
When Morton arrived in Denver, he wasn’t the same player he had been during earlier stops of his career. At 34 years old, the veteran quarterback’s wheels were gone, as his botched knees made moving around the field a painful process.
Nonetheless, he was able to do something no other signal caller in Broncos history had been able to do – win. Prior to Morton donning the orange and blue, Denver had never played in a postseason game. So his immediate success was remarkable.
During that 1977 campaign, Morton was a critical part of Bronco Mania. Yes, it was the Orange Crush defense that got most of the fanfare, but the quarterback also jumpstarted an often-dormant offense. His famed “M&M Connection” with wide receiver Haven Moses became one of the best batteries in franchise history.
That year, the Broncos finished with a 12-2 record, beat the Steelers during the middle of their dynasty in the first-ever playoff game in Denver and knocked off the defending-champion Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. It was uncharted territory, as Morton guided the Broncos to a place fans thought they’d never get – the Super Bowl.
That match-up with the Cowboys turned into a disaster, with Morton getting out of a hospital bed to play one of the worst games in NFL history. But that performance couldn’t diminish the thrill of a miraculous season.
By the time Morton’s six years in Denver were complete, he was atop almost every passing category in franchise history. To this day, he trails only John Elway and Peyton Manning in passing yards (11,895), touchdown passes (74) and wins (41), while sitting fourth in all-time completions. It why he resides in the franchise’s Ring of Fame.
“Thought to be ‘washed up’ when he arrived in ’77, he outplayed Terry Bradshaw and Kenny Stabler in memorable playoff games.” – Sandy Clough
41. Aqib Talib | CB | 2014-17
Numbers don’t do Talib’s time in Denver justice; during his four seasons as a Bronco, the cornerback hauled in a respectable, but not eye-popping, 11 interceptions. His impact went well beyond the stat sheet.
Talib arrived in Denver prior to the 2014 season, with the Broncos coming off of a very good season. But a 43-8 loss to the Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII put a stain on an otherwise glorious year; that defeat, when Seattle dominated by being more physical, changed the course of the franchise.
Yes, Peyton Manning had posted the greatest offensive season in NFL history en route to that Super Bowl. But Denver was a “finesse” team; they weren’t ready to respond when an opponent punched them in the mouth. So John Elway set out to immediately change that demeanor during free agency, with Talib atop the list of players signed to transform the defense.
It happened immediately, as the Broncos defense had a whole new swagger in 2014. And the following year, with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips calling the shots, they took it to a whole other level. The Talib-led “No Fly Zone” was a flashy, boisterous bunch of playmakers on one of the greatest defenses in NFL history, a group that led Denver to a victory in Super Bowl 50.
Along the way, the cornerback certainly tested the patience of his coaches. He pushed the rules, both on the field and off. He was an overly demanding teammate at times. But he was a dominant player who set a standard for winning that was needed.
During his four years with the Broncos, Talib earned four Pro Bowl selections and was first-team All-Pro in 1996. And his six interceptions returned for touchdowns, more than half of his total picks, show why; the cornerback had a flair for the dramatic and always came up big.
“Aqib Talib’s production during his four years with the Broncos rival any four-year stretch of any defensive player in this history of the Broncos. He was arguably the best cornerback in the NFL. How about this for a cherry on top statistic? In just four years in Denver, Talib recorded the most pick-sixes in Broncos history, twice as many as Champ Bailey had in 10 seasons in the Mile High City.” – Zach Bye
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE