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. 31-35.
35. Mark Schlereth | G | 1995-2000
When Schlereth signed with the Broncos prior to the 1995 season, the franchise was one in transition. Wade Phillips was on his way out, while Mike Shanahan was coming in. And the new head coach wanted to find players who could execute his offense.
Schlereth was a key addition, as he embodied the type of quicker, more athletic offensive lineman that would be a fit in Denver’s scheme. While most expected an offense built around future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway, it was really the running game that became the team’s signature. That became evident from the get-go.
In 1995, rookie Terrell Davis won the starting running back job, rushing for 1,117 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 starts. The next season was even more impressive, as the Broncos carved up opponents for 2,362 yards on the ground, helping them to a 13-3 records and the No. 1 seed in the AFC.
But after a shocking loss to the Jaguars in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, the franchise was at a crossroads. Many believed the devastating defeat would set the franchise back for years to come.
That’s where having Schlereth really benefited the Broncos. On a talent roster, he possessed something that every teammate lacked; he knew what it took to win in the postseason, having been a part of a Redskins team that won a Super Bowl in 1991. That experience became invaluable as Denver grew into a championship contender.
The following season, Schlereth was an anchor on an offensive line that powered the Broncos to a title, opening holes for Davis to win MVP honors in Super Bowl XXXII. And the next year, he and his teammates in the trenches helped the running back break the 2,000-yard barrier.
Schlereth was a great player, one of the best offensive linemen in team history. But his biggest impact on the franchise may have come from his ability to show what it took to be a champion.
“Besides being the best radio partner a guy could ask for, this man truly did ‘dispense justice!’ Mark was the prototypical smash-mouth guard. He was incredibly physical and legendarily tough, coming back from almost 30 surgeries. For all of his toughness, though, ‘Stink’ was very cerebral about his craft. Make no mistake about it, he approached football with painstaking attention to detail and it showed in a career that netted him three Super Bowl rings.” – Mike Evans
34. Haven Moses | WR | 1972-81
After five seasons in Buffalo, Moses arrived in Denver midway through the 1972 season, joining a team that was in desperate need of a big-play threat. The wide receiver paid immediate dividends.
In eight games with the Broncos, Moses only caught 15 passes, but five of those grabs wound up in the end zone. And late in the season, when Denver posted back-to-back wins over the Chargers and Patriots to cap the year with 38- and 45-point performances, respectively, the wideout found pay dirt twice in each game.
That type of production continued the next season, when Moses earned a Pro Bowl berth thanks in large part to catching eight touchdown passes and averaging 18.5 yards per catch. He was a big part of the Broncos posting their first-ever winning season.
All of those accomplishments aside, Moses truly became a legend in Denver during the team’s magical 1977 season. During a campaign in which they went 12-2, made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history and earned a trip to Super Bowl XII, the wide receiver’s “M&M Connection” with quarterback Craig Morton became the Broncos big-play counterpunch to the ferocious Orange Crush defense.
In the playoffs, Moses came up big for Denver, catching eight passes for 234 yards and a pair of scores. Both of those touchdowns came in the AFC Championship Game, when the wideout caught five passes for 168 yards, including a 74-yard score that got the Broncos on the board and a 12-yard TD to ice the game in the fourth quarter.
To this day, Moses is still sixth in Broncos history in touchdown catches (44), ninth in receiving yards (5,450) and 11th in receptions (302). And his per catch average of 18.0 yards is the best among the team’s top-25 receivers of all-time.
“Moses was a mild-mannered game-breaker who broke open the 1977 AFC title game against the Raiders.” – Sandy Clough
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
33. Clinton Portis | RB | 2002-03
Had Portis played longer in Denver, he’d have probably gone down as the greatest running back in franchise history. That’s a bold statement, given that two of the Broncos enshrined in Canton – Floyd Little and Terrell Davis – played the position, but the numbers support the claim.
As a 21-year-old rookie in 2002, the phenom from The U rushed for 1,508 yards and 15 touchdowns. The following season, Portis matched that performance, chalking up 1,591 yards on the ground, scoring another 14 touchdowns and earning a Pro Bowl nod.
He was the perfect fit for Mike Shanahan’s system. Portis had great vision and balance, making him ideal for the one-cut scheme. And his breakaway speed made him a home-run threat on every play.
No game summarized Portis in a Broncos uniform better than a match-up with the Chiefs in December 2003. That day, the running back carried the ball 22 times, racking up 218 yards in the process. In addition, he posted a team-record five touchdowns, scoring on runs of 1, 11, 28, 53 and 59 yards. It was a dizzying performance, one that everyone in attendance that day at Invesco Field won’t ever forget.
After the season, Shanahan had the opportunity to make a blockbuster trade, sending Portis to the Redskins in exchange for Champ Bailey. The Broncos wound up with a Hall of Fame cornerback, so it’s hard to criticize the head coach’s decision.
Nonetheless, it’s tantalizing to think about what Portis would’ve done had he played a few more years in Denver. His career rushing yardage (9,923) and touchdown (78) totals would put him atop the Broncos all-time lists in those categories, by a wide margin. Had he remained in orange and blue, it’s not a stretch to imagine Portis as a 10,000-yard, 100-touchdown type of running back.
“After rushing for 3,000 yards in two seasons, he may have broken every team record had he stayed. But hey, we got Champ Bailey and Tatum (Tinker) Bell.” – Tom Nalen
32. Barney Chavous | DT | 1973-85
At the time he retired after the 1985 season, nobody had played more games (183) in a Broncos uniform than Chavous. During a stellar 13-year career, he missed a grand total of 15 games, despite battling in the trenches every Sunday; he was one of the all-time ironmen in franchise history.
Prior to 1982, the NFL didn’t keep sacks as an official league statistic. So the first nine seasons of Chavous’ career are hard to quantify via numbers. That said, in his final four campaigns, despite being well into his 30s, the defensive end racked up another 23.0 sacks; that total is still good enough for 10th all-time in franchise history.
His “unofficial” total of 75.0 would place him behind only Von Miller, Simon Fletcher and Karl Mecklenburg. Two of those players are already members of the team’s Ring of Fame, while the third is probably bound for Canton. That’s some pretty lofty company.
During his career in Denver, other players garnered more attention, but few were as consistently productive. Lyle Alzado got the headlines in the 1970s, with Rulon Jones becoming the team’s featured pass rusher in the 1980s. But it was Chavous who provided the stability in the trenches to help those types of players thrive. A second-round pick in 1973, the defensive end was a linchpin of Joe Collier’s defense for 13 seasons.
“A steady, run-stopping defensive lineman, Chavous was the perfect temperament to have opposite of Lyle Alzado.” – Sandy Clough
31. Ryan Clady | T | 2008-14
During his first five seasons in the NFL, Clady took away all of the stress for the Broncos when it came to filling one of the most-important positions on the field. From the opening game of his rookie season in 2008, the team could put him at left tackle and move onto other concerns; he was automatic, starting in 60 out of 60 games during that time.
Along the way, Clady became one of the best in the business, earning Pro Bowl invites in 2009, ’11 and ’12. More impressively, he was named first-team All-Pro in ’09 and ’11, heady territory for a second-year player.
Equally as impressive was Clady’s ability to adapt to any scheme. In year one, he was blocking for Jay Cutler in Mike Shanahan’s system. Then, it was two years under Josh McDaniels with Kyle Orton. There was also the crazy eight-game stretch with Tim Tebow behind center, which was followed by three seasons with Peyton Manning running the show. That’s an eclectic collection of offenses.
Unfortunately for Clady, his durability and versatility wasn’t rewarded, at least in terms of wins and losses. When the Broncos reached Super Bowl XLVIII, he was sidelined with a foot injury. After bouncing back to earn another Pro Bowl berth, Clady suffered a torn ACL during OTAs prior to the 2015 season; as a result, he wasn’t on the field when Denver won Super Bowl 50 over the Panthers.
During the offseason, he was traded to the Jets, where he played one final partial season. A player of Clady’s stature deserved a better ending. In six out of seven seasons with the Broncos, he played in all 16 games; that’s a cornerstone at left tackle that few franchises enjoy for that length of time.
Quiet and unassuming, the 12th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft more than lived up to the hype.
“It was frustrating to watch him play because he made it look so effortless. I tried to model my game after him, watching and studying him. But my body doesn’t do the things his was able to do. A very smart, quiet guy. Very cool under pressure.” – Orlando Franklin
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE