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. 16-20.
20. Tom Nalen | C | 1994-2007
When Nalen was selected in the seventh round of the 1994 NFL Draft, most people didn’t expect that the Broncos had found the anchor of their offensive line for nearly the next decade and a half. But after playing sparingly as a rookie, the center was entrenched in Denver’s starting lineup for nearly every game until the 2007 season.
During that time, the Broncos boasted one of the best running games in the league, cranking out 1,000-yard rushers like clockwork. While credit for that accomplishment goes to the backs churning out the yards and the Mike Shanahan system that created the opportunities, but the unsung heroes in the trenches were a big reason why Denver’s ground attack was prolific year after year.
The constant in that group was Nalen. Guards and tackles came and went, but the center was a constant. From 1995 through the first five games of the 2007 season, Nalen started 187 out of 197 games the Broncos played, directing traffic for an offensive line that was perennial among the best in the business.
Across the 12 seasons in which Nalen was the Broncos regular starter at center, the team produced a 1,000-yard rushing season on 11 occasions. Terrell Davis posted four, including a 2,008-yard effort in 1998, Mike Anderson and Clinton Portis each had two, while Tatum Bell, Reuben Droughns and Olandis Gary each had one. That’s an eclectic group of backs, from Hall of Fame caliber to the definition of pedestrian, that the Nalen-led offensive lines helped turn into productive NFL runners.
This certainly didn’t go unnoticed around the league. During his career, Nalen was selected to the Pro Bowl on five occasions and was named first-team All-Pro twice. He was also a two-time Super Bowl champion and was selected to the team’s Ring of Fame.
“The legacy of the greatest center in Broncos history is quiet but profound. He simply did his job better than any other center and arguably better than any other offensive lineman. But it was without fanfare, so he quietly epitomized the heart and soul of multiple generations of teams. Thankfully, he is able to display his intelligence and humor on a daily basis as one of the best talk show hosts in Denver radio history.” – D-Mac
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
19. Lionel Taylor | WR | 1960-66
After a forgettable season playing linebacker with the Bears in 1959, Taylor made the jump to the AFL when the fledgling league started play the next season. He signed with the Broncos, where the three-sport star from New Mexico Highlands switched back to his college position. Immediately, it was clear that wide receiver was a much better fit for Taylor.
During Denver’s inaugural season, the wideout was the team’s offensive star. While the team didn’t win many games, going 4-9-1 that year, the fans did have plenty to root for when Taylor was on the field. By the end of the campaign, he had hauled in a league-leading 92 catches for 1,235 yards and 12 touchdowns. Not surprisingly, he was selected first-team All-Pro.
The following year, Taylor proved that his first season wasn’t a fluke. While the Broncos again struggled, he still shined, catching 100 passes for 1,176 yards and four touchdowns. In the process, Taylor became the first professional wide receiver to eclipse the century mark in single-season receptions. He once again was first-team All-Pro, as well as a Pro Bowl invite.
These two seasons were a harbinger of what was to come. During his seven seasons in a Denver uniform, Taylor led the American Football League in receptions five times. He also eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark four times and caught 44 touchdowns. As a result, he was a four-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowl selection.
Obviously, Taylor held every Broncos receiving record when he retired. More than five decades later, he’s still fourth in yards (6,872) and receptions (543), and fifth in receiving touchdowns (44) on the franchise’s all-time list. For his efforts, Taylor was enshrined in the team’s Ring of Fame.
“‘Taylor led the AFL in receptions from 1960-65.” – Sandy Clough
18. Billy Thompson | S / CB | 1969-81
After being selected with a third-round pick in the 1969 NFL Draft out of tiny Maryland-Eastern Shore, Thompson made an immediate impact with the Broncos. In his rookie season, he started from day one, lining up at cornerback for all 14 games. During that initial campaign, Thompson proved to have a nose for the football, picking off three passes and recovering three fumbles; he also returned one interception for a score.
In addition, the rookie demonstrated playmaking abilities on special teams. During that 1969 season, he led the league in both punt return average (11.5 yards) and kick return average (28.5).
This trend continued for each of Thompson’s first four years in Denver. As the team’s starting cornerback on the right side, he intercepted 11 passes in 45 games, proving to be a very effective shutdown defender on a team that boasted a good defense and not much else. And as the team’s primary punt and kick returner, he consistently helped stake the Broncos offense to better field position by being among the league’s best on special teams.
While Thompson career was going well up until that point, it wasn’t garnering a lot of attention around the league. In part this was because Denver was a perennial cellar dweller. Both of those things started to change in 1973.
That year, defensive coordinator Joe Collier decided to move Thompson to safety, allowing him to use his speed to blanket the defensive backfield. It proved to be an immediate success, with BT intercepting three passes and the Broncos defense carrying the franchise to their first-ever winning season.
By 1977, that group was among the most dominant in NFL history. The Orange Crush led the team to the Super Bowl, with Thompson playing a key role. He intercepted five passes, was named first-team All-Pro and received his first Pro Bowl invite.
During the final five seasons of his career, Thompson never missed a beat. The veteran safety picked of 19 passes and made three Pro Bowls, including in his final year. From start to finish, BT played at a high level, earning himself a spot in the franchise’s Ring of Fame after an illustrious 13-year career.
“The long-standing member of the Orange Crush, Thompson was colossally underrated. Al Davis saw him as a Hall of Fame caliber player.” – Sandy Clough
17. Rod Smith | WR | 1995-2006
After unexpectedly making the team as an undrafted free agent out of Missouri Southern in 1995, it took a while for Smith to become a regular contributor. Yes, his first-ever catch came in Week 3 when he hauled in a 43-yard touchdown on the final play of the game to beat the Redskins at Mile High Stadium, but the highlights were few and far between after that moment.
In 1995, Smith had only six receptions for 152 yards. The next year wasn’t much better, as the wideout caught just 16 passes for 237 yards. But in the process, he caught the attention of Mike Shanahan. By the time 1997 rolled around, the head coach was ready to move on from veteran Anthony Miller, making Smith the team’s full-time starter.
The gamble paid immediate dividends. During that ’97 season, Smith became one of John Elway’s favorite targets, hauling in 70 passes for 1,180 yards and 12 touchdowns. The wideout was one of the key contributors on an offense that would power the Broncos to a victory in Super Bowl XXXII.
That was the first of six-consecutive 1,000-yard seasons for Smith, a level he reached in eight out of nine campaigns. During that prolific stretch, he was among the most-productive wide receivers in the NFL.
In 2000, Smith hauled in 100 passes for the first time in his career for 1,602 yards and eight touchdowns; he earned his first Pro Bowl invite in the process. The next year, he caught an NFL-leading 113 passes, setting a Broncos single-season record that stands to this day.
During those years, however, Smith tended to get overshadowed. On his own team, there were bigger stars (John Elway, Terrell Davis) and more colorful personalities (Shannon Sharpe), as well as a fan favorite at wide receiver (Ed McCaffrey). He was underappreciated in Denver, as well as around the league.
By the time his career ended, Smith had put himself atop the Broncos record book in receiving yards (11,389), receptions (849) and receiving touchdowns (68). By comparison, Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin posted 11,904 yards, 750 catches and 65 touchdowns during his career.
Smith is a member of the Broncos Ring of Fame, but is worthy of being enshrined in Canton, as well.
“A guy like Rod worked for everything he got. You saw why he was so successful; he had a tremendous work ethic. I’ve been around some great leaders and Rod Smith is high on the list.” – Brandon Stokley
16. Tom Jackson | LB | 1973-86
There’s little debate when the Broncos became a respectable franchise. After 13 consecutive losing seasons, including 10 in the AFL that made them the only team in the league’s history not to post a winning season, Denver finally finished with an above .500 record in 1973. Since then, they’ve been among the most-successful organizations in professional football.
Head coach John Ralston gets a lot of credit for the turnaround, as his “power of positive thinking” approach started to pay dividends. Defensive coordinator Joe Collier also receives a lot of kudos, as it was his defense that ultimately paved the way to most of the Broncos victories in the 1970s. But the transformation can also be traced to the arrival of a trash-talking linebacker from the University of Louisville.
Tom Jackson came to Denver as a fourth-round pick in ’73. By his second season in the Mile High City, he was a full-time starter on Collier’s defense. And he quickly became the player who gave the group its swagger. While there was plenty of talent on that side of the ball, they didn’t become dominant until Jackson inspired them through his play, chatter and actions.
This was never more evident that in the Broncos locker room after the beat the Raiders in the 1977 AFC Championship Game. While Jackson telling John Madden, “It’s all over fat man” toward the end of the game got most of the attention, his “Do they believe now?” rant to the media was more telling; it proved that he knew how good Denver’s defense was and it was only a matter of time before everyone else realized it, too.
That win came a week after Jackson helped the Broncos win their first-ever playoff game, picking off Terry Bradshaw twice in Denver’s 34-21 victory over Pittsburgh at Mile High Stadium.
Before a team can make the leap from bad to mediocre, and from mediocre to great, they need someone to believe in their abilities. A rah-rah coach helps, but it only goes so far. Instead, a player who can talk the talk and walk the walk is much more likely to inspire his teammates to reach new heights. In the history of the Broncos, no player has done that in more dramatic fashion than Tom Jackson.
“A leader and force on the field at linebacker. For old-school fans, he was John Elway before John Elway.” – John Davis
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE