It wasn't hard to get all nostalgic about football players from bygone eras yesterday, amid the godawful and spiritless performance of the Denver Broncos against the workmanlike Indianapolis Colts -- who, unlike their decrepit hosts, managed to seem at least mildly interested in heading on to the AFC championship game. After the first drive, not only was the Broncos' play on the field close to unwatchable -- blown coverage, overthrown and dropped balls, a shanked punt, unimaginative coaching, three-and-outs, none of it suggestive of a team of playoff caliber -- but a halftime tribute to the Orange Crush defense of the 1970s served to remind those of us stuck in overpriced seats on a bleak, lackluster day just what football in this much-maligned cowtown used to be all about.
It was about heart.
This past season was the latest in a long procession of heartbreaks for Bronco fans. Once again, things started with high hopes and a blizzard of media hype, all of it pointing to postseason glory. This year's story line was even more extravagant than last year's, raising outsized expectations of a return to the Super Bowl and revenge for last year's 35-point hammering. (Someone really ought to take a full count of all the baseless, errant predictions unleashed by Woodrow Paige, the mother of all homers.) Once again, it all ended with a "shocking" -- but not exactly unanticipated, for those who take off the orange-colored glasses and take a harsh look at this team -- defeat, followed by quick cries to ax the coach, the quarterback, the whole lousy bunch.
But ditching John Fox or Peyton Manning isn't going to magically put an end to Bronco angst. What strikes me most about the way this season went down is how little fun seemed to be involved in the quest, for both the players and the fans. There was a time when a 12-4 record would be considered pretty decent, but now nothing less than perfection will do. The Broncos weren't putting up the kind of points they did last season -- who could? -- and were struggling from week to week, especially on the road. Even the victories against clearly outclassed teams lacked savor because, heck, the prevailing fan sentiment is that they should have been more dominant than they seemed to be in many of those contests.
Which brings me back to that crowd of geezers waving at the crowd at halftime, the Orange Crush alums. Guys like Barney Chavous and Steve Foley, Billy Thompson and Randy Gradishar. In my tender youth, I used to have a seat in the South Stands in the old Mile High No Corporate Logo Stadium and watch these guys swarm and terrorize one offense after another. They were legends here, generally snubbed and unknown by the national media (and the Hall of Fame selection process). As a rule, the Broncos didn't get much respect, even in the '77 Super Bowl run. Nobody expected them to do much because the offense wasn't particularly memorable. For many years, it consisted of Floyd Little running off-tackle; then it was largely on the shoulders of Otis Armstrong and creaky Craig Morton, standing like a statue in the pocket until the last possible moment, before firing off an amazing pass to Haven Moses or Riley Odoms.
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But oh, that D. Good God, Gradishar had 2,049 tackles in his career; compare that to 2,061 for the much-hyped Ray Lewis (who played seven more seasons than Gradishar did). The Crush were an absolute pleasure to watch, not simply because they were so scary-good but because you could tell they were loving it, loving their underdog status and their ugly uniforms and blue-collar work ethic and constantly showing up the media darlings. Many of them spent their entire career as Broncos, back in the days before the game got so cutthroat that superstars jump from team to team and coaches get axed four games into the season.
Nobody really started taking the Broncos seriously until Elway arrived -- and even then, it took fourteen long years of toil and missteps until the team that was built around him managed to win a Super Bowl. Since that time, the pressure's been on every Bronco coach (and quarterback) to get back to the big game and take it all. And with those grandiose expectations have come one crushing disappointment after another.
Of course, it's not possible to lateral back to supposedly simpler times. But maybe what the Broncos need is less hype and more emphasis on players with some kind of fire in their guts -- the kind of determination displayed by C.J. Anderson yesterday in a fourth-down run to keep hope alive (shades of Floyd Little). Maybe the team needs fewer masterminds, less swagger and more ache -- a kind of realignment that starts with the coaches and gets embraced by the players because it makes the game something more than a job.
And maybe it wouldn't hurt to be the underdog again, ready to surprise everybody with a flash of real teeth. Have a tip? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.