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. 36-40.
40. Steve Watson | WR | 1979-87
Tall, skinny and not particularly fast. Those were the attributes Steve Watson brought to Broncos training camp in 1979 as an undrafted free agent out of Temple. So most expected the wide receiver to be an early cut.
Then, a funny thing started happening. Watson kept catching passes. If the football was near him, he’d haul it in, making it impossible for the coaches not take notice. As a result, he slowly but surely worked his way up the depth chart.
Ultimately, Watson made the roster, but it took some time to become a part of the Broncos offense. During his first two seasons in Denver, the wideout caught just 12 passes, six in each campaign. That all changed in 1981.
In one of the most-unlikely breakout seasons in franchise history, Watson caught 60 passes for 1,244 yards and 13 touchdowns, becoming a favorite target of quarterback Craig Morton. He also became a surprising big-play option, catching a 93-yard touchdown in Week 4 and a 95-yard score two weeks later. Not surprisingly, Watson earned his only career Pro Bowl nod that year.
The next three seasons were equally productive, as the wideout had 555 receiving yards during the strike-shortened 1982 campaign, 1,133 in ’83 and 1,170 in 1984. The Broncos hadn’t seen that kind of production from a receiver since Lionel Taylor in the early 1960s. At the time he retired, Watson had posted the first-, fourth- and fifth-best pass catching seasons in team history.
To this day, the skinny wideout from an non-powerhouse college is sixth all-time in receiving yards (6,112), ninth in receptions (396) and receiving touchdowns (36), and boasts the third- and fourth-longest TD receptions in franchise history.
“Had a prolific career in the 1980s, averaging more than 20 yards per catch in ’81, which is still a Broncos record.” – John Davis
39. Eric Decker | WR | 2010-13
There’s a contingent of Broncos fans that scoff at the notion that Decker was a great receiver. They can’t get over the fact that he tripped over the 40-yard line against the Chargers or slid down before contact at midfield against the Texans. In addition, there’s the whole reality TV lifestyle that rubs them the wrong way.
All of those “issues” simply prevent naysayers from seeing what a productive receiver Decker was during his three seasons in Denver. And he did it in all sorts of ways.
Initially, the wideout was catching passes from Kyle Orton. Then, he was hauling them in from Tim Tebow. And eventually, he benefitted from playing with Peyton Manning. Each step of the way, Decker was able to put up numbers.
When the Broncos offense was sputtering under Orton, Decker was producing. When Denver was winning games despite throwing only two passes with Tebow behind center, the wideout was making the most of the rare opportunities that came his way. And when the orange and blue were lighting up the scoreboard in historic fashion with Manning at the helm, Decker was combining with Demaryius Thomas to be the most-prolific receiving duo in the league.
In 2012, Decker caught 85 passes for 1,064 yards and 13 touchdowns. The next year, he hauled in 83 for 1,288 yards and another 11 scores, helping Manning set the single-season record for TD passes and the Broncos reach Super Bowl XLVIII.
Unfortunately, that dreadful game was Decker’s last in a Denver uniform; he left for the Jets via free agency during the offseason. But that doesn’t diminish what the wideout accomplished during those first four seasons of his NFL career, no matter what the haters want to say.
“Ran precise routes. Really good hands. Tough wide receiver. A very hard worker; that’s why he was able to create a niche and be as successful as he was.” – Brandon Stokley
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
38. Malik Jackson | DE/DT | 2012-15
After being selected in the fifth round of the 2012 draft, it took Jackson some time to become a regular contributor on the Broncos defense. But by season two, even though he wasn’t a full-time starter, the defensive lineman out of Tennessee was making an impact, posting 6.0 sacks, 11 tackles for a loss, 50 combined tackles and a forced fumble.
This type of production continued in 2014, when Jackson was once again a rotational player in Jack Del Rio’s defense. He’d show flashes of greatness, tantalizing coaches, teammates and fans with his potential.
It all finally came together in 2015 when a new defensive coordinator came to town. That year, Wade Phillips made Jackson a permanent starter, unleashing him to become a dominate player. That season, the defensive lineman recorded 5.5 sacks, 16 quarterback hits, 8 tackles for a loss and 7 passes defended. He was all over the field, constantly disrupting the play in the opponent’s backfield.
It was a big reason why the Broncos had a historic defense that season. Getting that type of play from the middle of the defensive line allowed Denver’s outside rushers, Von Miller and Demarcus Ware, to have more freedom to get after the quarterback. And by season’s end, when the defense was leading the team to a win in Super Bowl 50, this perfect combination was on full display.
Miller’s strip sack of Cam Newton during the first quarter of that game, which was recovered by Jackson and returned for a touchdown that stake the Broncos to a 10-0 lead, set the tone on a championship Sunday. It was the perfect example of Denver’s front four working in unison.
Jackson left for greener (richer) pastures after the season, taking his talents to Jacksonville. There, he would record his best statistical seasons and earn his only Pro Bowl invite. But his greatest impact, at least in terms of helping a team win, came in the Mile High City.
“Malik was a tone setter. When the defense needed a jolt of energy, he would intentionally take a penalty. He was a great teammate. The Broncos should’ve never let him leave.” – Orlando Franklin
37. Rulon Jones | DE | 1980-88
The Broncos were a team in transition when they selected Jones in the second round of the 1980 NFL Draft. The famed Orange Crush was fading, so new head coach Dan Reeves and defensive coordinator Joe Collier were looking for someone to jump start that side of the ball. They found it in the kid from Utah State.
As a rookie, Jones recorded 11.5 sacks. The following year, he posted 9.5. Neither season counts toward his career total, however, as the NFL didn’t officially start counting sacks until ’82.
But he was certainly making an impact on the defense, becoming a permanent starter in just his second season in the league. As time went on, Jones became the cornerstone of a defensive line that helped the Broncos return to contention.
In 1984, he posted 11.0 sacks and helped Denver finish 13-3. The next year, it was 10.0 more sacks and a first Pro Bowl invite. In ’86, Jones had his best campaign, recording 13.5 sacks, returning to the Pro Bowl, earning first-team All-Pro honors and helping the Broncos return to the Super Bowl. And the next year, it was 7.0 sacks to help Denver once again with the AFC title.
As good as Jones was during the regular season, he was even better in the playoffs. During those back-to-back Super Bowl runs, the defensive end had 5.0 sacks in six games, one of which was a memorable safety in January 1987 to clinch a win over the Patriots at Mile High Stadium.
In an era when larger-than-life characters received most of the attention, the Broncos quiet pass rusher took a backseat to the likes of Lawrence Taylor and Mark Gastineau. But the 52.5 sacks he posted in the orange and blue put him atop Denver’s all-time list when he retired.
“A quiet guy, but he had a mean streak. The 1986 AFC Defensive Player of the Year was an underrated pass rusher during his career.” – Sandy Clough
36. Demarcus Ware | DE/LB | 2014-16
Before he signed with the Broncos prior to the 2014 season, Ware was already bound for Canton. The 117 sacks he racked up during nine stellar seasons in Dallas had all but guaranteed his eventual enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But for one of the greatest pass rushers in NFL history, there was still one thing to chase – a championship. After four-straight playoff-less seasons with the Cowboys, the clock was ticking for Ware. For a player in his early 30s, there was a sense of urgency to make a run at the Super Bowl.
That was kismet for the Broncos, as it put a premier defensive player on the open market when John Elway was revamping that side of the ball. After getting routed by Seattle in Super Bowl XLVIII, Denver’s general manager was intent on becoming faster and more aggressive on defense. Enter Aqib Talib, T.J. Ward and Ware via free agency.
All were a perfect fit, including the defensive end. During his first season in the orange and blue, he posted 10.0 sacks and forced a pair fumbles en route to a Pro Bowl invite. The next year, with Wade Phillips in as the team’s defensive coordinator, it was more of the same; playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, Ware had 7.5 sacks and once again earned postseason accolades.
During the 2015 playoffs, however, the pass rusher really showed his value. In wins over the Steelers and Patriots, as well as the Panthers in Super Bowl 50, Ware played like a man on a mission. The clock was turned back, as he recorded 3.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and a fumble recovery. He was all over the field, teaming with Von Miller to form one of the best pass-rushing duos in NFL history.
Speaking of Miller, that’s the other way in which Ware’s impact was felt in Denver. Serving as a mentor to the talented-but-troubled young linebacker, the veteran helped Miller transform from a player potentially heading down the wrong path to a model citizen. As a result, the benefit of Ware’s time in the Mile High City is still felt today.
To see the rest of the Sixty Since 60 list, CLICK HERE
- The Extra Mile: Adding more playoff teams is NFL 'embracing mediocrity'
- There's no end in sight in the search to replace Mel Tucker at CU
- Cheers/Jeers: So long Sark, and happy birthday Big Honey
- Around the AFC West: Bieniemy stays, Brady update, Okung skeptical
- 2020 NFL Scouting Combine Preview: Tight Ends