The good news is that the Denver Broncos are heading to the Super Bowl for the eighth time. The bad news is the blizzard of blather that we can expect right up until kickoff. Once again, our city is drowning in a tidal wave of Orange Gush.
Every time the Broncos have marched into post-season play, the team has been mobbed by a horde of fawning, cheerleading, jock-sniffing, rabble-rousing Broncomaniacs — and that’s just the local media. The fans, of course, get really excited.
And there’s plenty to get excited about. Seven Super Bowls to date, five blowout defeats. Arguably, it’s better to be humiliated in the biggest game of all than to not get there at all, but the Broncos have been exceptional in their quest to achieve a level of futility undreamed of by lesser sports franchises. We’re talking dynasty here.
Can Manning and the most ferocious defense in the NFL pull off an upset on Super Bowl Sunday? Of course: A team that can maul and stifle the heavily favored and hype-anointed New England Patriots is capable of anything. But as the hype machine kicks into overdrive, it’s best to remember the ways in which that contraption has misled us in the past. The following capsule history of Broncos hype should remind us all that, no matter how tough things may get on the field on Super Bowl Sunday, it won’t be half as embarrassing as what goes on in the press box.
1960: Designated sixteen-point underdogs, the Denver Broncos upset the Boston Patriots 13-10 in the first regular-season game of the upstart American Football League. The game receives only a few paragraphs in the sports sections of both dailies, which are preoccupied with the Denver Bears’ chances of winning a minor-league pennant.
1967: The Broncos land on the front page of the Denver Post by defeating the Detroit Lions 13-7, the first time an AFL team has beaten an NFL team. The Post’s Dick Connor writes that the win “erased for all time the ragtag label the Broncos have worn through seven previous years.” Unfortunately, the victory is an exhibition game; the ragtag Broncos will wait another seven years for their first winning season.
1977-78: The term “Broncomania” surfaces in a front-page Post article. “If you have Broncomania,” writes Dana Parsons, “enjoy this year, because it may never be this much fun again.” The Post is quick to capitalize on the Super Bowl-bound Orange Crush, offering a ghastly poster of coach Red Miller for fifty cents and cranking out predictable stories about zany fans and their wacky Broncos fight songs. The Rocky Mountain News consults an astrologer, who predicts that the Broncos will beat Dallas by a narrow margin. Governor Dick Lamm declares a state holiday in honor of the team, then rescinds it after a brick sails through a window of the Governor’s Mansion. One hundred thousand people show up for a Broncos parade before the big game. Woody Paige and Bob Collins of the News and Connor and “Candid” Cameron of the Post all pick Denver to win handily. Craig Morton is intercepted four times (a Super Bowl record), and the Broncos fall 27-10. A measly thousand fans greet the losers at Stapleton.
1981: Edgar Kaiser buys the Broncos from Gerald and Allan Phipps for $30 million and replaces Miller with Dan Reeves, who models his moptop haircut for the toadying press with visible discomfort. KCNC outbids KUSA for the right to air Broncos pre-season games, advancing the hilarious notion that exhibition games are worth televising.
1983: Kaiser steals John Elway from the Baltimore Colts. The Post launches the Elway Watch, chronicling the crown prince’s turn-ons (video games; red meat and potatoes; Petticoat Junction; his girlfriend, Janet) and turn-offs (chick flicks; quiche; Frank Kush). HE JUST WANTS TO BE ORDINARY, a Post headline sighs. “John’s not perfect,” Elway’s dad tells reporters. “He’s been known to have a beer, and he chews tobacco.”
1984: After trying to buy the Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys, Pat Bowlen settles for the Broncos, shelling out a reported $70 million. Heavily favored at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver manages to lose its fourth playoff game in four appearances since 1978, choking off the Super Bowl chatter.
1986-87: Sportscaster Jim Celania is fired after a series of gaffes make him unpopular with Broncos management and fans. Broncos talk shows multiply on the airwaves, and as the team heads for the playoffs, the media blitz takes off, with the usual madcap stories about zany fans and their wacky fight songs. The News dusts off the hoary question of how the altitude will affect the visiting New England Patriots. Local sportscasters high-five the team on their way off the field after the game. Denver’s playoff victory dominates the media the next day.
INJURED ELWAY PLAYS FLAWLESSLY, the News declares, making Elway the first flawless quarterback to complete 13 of 32 passes.
The Drive in the AFC championship game in Cleveland sends the headline writers into rapture. ELWAY HELD IN AWE BY THE VANQUISHED, swoons the Post. The News consults a biorhythms analyst and psychic Lou Wright, who both predict that the Broncos will win it all this time. In a time of shrinking editorial budgets, the Post pays novelist/fan Leon Uris $10,000 to cover the Super Bowl. The Denver media sends a total of 125 people to Pasadena to cover the game, roughly 120 more than they’d send to cover a major earthquake. All but two of Denver’s sportswriters ignore the obvious strengths of the favored New York Giants and pick the Broncos to win; Dick Connor says Denver ought to win by at least twenty points.
When the big day arrives, Phil Simms completes a Super Bowl record 22 of 25 passes, and the Broncos flame out, 39-20.
1987-88: Local sportscasters are denied seats in the crowded press box for the AFC title rematch between Denver and Cleveland. Both papers recap The Drive in numbing detail, and the Post decides that the altitude should have no effect on the Browns. DAWGGONE SUPER!, enthuses the Post, after The Fumble wins the game for the Broncos. The News again consults psychic Lou Wright, who sees the Broncos winning the Super Bowl by a narrow margin. Woody Paige, Buddy Martin and eight of ten News sportswriters pick the Broncos to beat Washington. The thundering herd of scribes stampedes to San Diego, but it’s getting tougher to freshen up the stories about zany fans, wacky fight songs and wide receiver Vance Johnson’s earring. “The Super Bowl is bringing out the animal in all of us,” burps Paige. The Redskins set a Super Bowl record for most points in one quarter (35) and butcher the Broncos 42-10. An indeterminate number of fans show up in freezing cold for the post-game losers’ parade. Adopting the kind of hushed tone usually reserved for pondering the Holocaust or the nuclear-arms race, News columnist Jay Mariotti muses, “The pervading concern is whether two Super Bowl losses will devastate the franchise to the point it cannot rebound.”
1988: The Broncos finish 8-8, out of the playoffs. The Denver media quickly rediscovers the National Western Stock Show.
1989-90: Mariotti predicts that the revamped Broncos will finish 8-8 again. Getting tough, the News reports that Elway is a lousy tipper, gives crummy Halloween candy and likes to have a beer now and then. Between television shows and chocolate-bar endorsements, Elway complains that the press is suffocating him. The Broncos whip the Browns in the AFC title game. KCNC leads off its evening news with seven minutes of Broncos celebration before noting the death of a mother and four children from carbon monoxide poisoning. The News gives up on Lou Wright and consults a tarot-card reader, who says the Broncos will win the Super Bowl by a narrow margin. From the moment a panicky-looking Elway hurls his first wild pass into the Superdome carpet, the game is never in doubt. San Francisco 55, Denver 10.
One week after the massacre, the News publishes a story about Vance Johnson’s history of domestic violence. The reporter — not a member of the paper’s sports department, which was less than eager to tackle the subject while the Broncos were driving for the Super Bowl — receives death threats.
1996: Bowlen finally has the coach he wants (Mike Shanahan), a running back who can take the offense off Elway’s aching shoulders (Terrell Davis), and the ear of the state legislature. He promises cheap tickets, affordable beer and world peace if the taxpayers cough up $180 million for a new stadium. But everyone knows any possible stadium vote may hinge on the team’s performance.
As the 13-3 Broncos march into the playoffs with home-field advantage, the feeding frenzy begins. Even though Elway hasn’t made a Super Bowl appearance in ages other than in halftime Frito-Lay commercials, the Post’s Adam Schefter declares that the entire country is rooting for his return: A NATION RALLIES BEHIND ELWAY. Mark Wolf and Bob Kravitz of the News confidently predict that the Broncos will whump the Jacksonville Jaguars by two touchdowns. Not to be outdone, the Post’s Paige figures Denver will smoke the pathetic “Jagwads” by three touchdowns. Such hubris provides Jacksonville with just enough motivation to stiff the homeboys 30-27. The upset devastates the hype-mongers, who now have to scrap all those Super Bowl stories already in the hopper. For solace, they turn to the team’s most prolific hype generator, Shannon Sharpe, who says the defeat “will set the organization back four years. It’s going to be at least the year 2000 before we recover from this loss.”
1997-99: Snakebit and gun-shy, the infallible press corps doesn’t know what to make of its beloved Broncos anymore. They can’t make up their minds about the new uniforms or the old Elway, whose shoulder problems loom as career-threatening and then vanish with the snip of a tendon.
Over at the Post, confusion reigns. A hoax about Elway having a nipple ring makes its way into the paper, followed by an alleged interview with a Broncos flack about the new stadium that turns out to be a case of mistaken identity.
A wild-card underdog in the playoffs, the Broncos embark on a “revenge tour” that will right all past wrongs. After the team beats Jacksonville, the local TV crews swarm the locker room, shoving microphones into every available sweaty orifice, asking if this wasn’t the greatest Broncos victory of all time (never mind the 1977 AFC title game). After the AFC championship is secured with an eighteen-yard Elway pass to Sharpe, the stadium-hungry Bowlen calls the play “the biggest first down in the history of the franchise” (so much for The Drive). The nation pulls for Elway again, and his team manages to win the Super Bowl two years in a row, sending fans and hypemongers alike into ecstasy.
2011-12: After a lost decade of post-Elway mediocrity, the touts and hucksters have found a new messiah in Tim Tebow, the genuflecting Heisman winner. A fearless scrambler who’s also brimming with nice manners, Christian cheer and rugged good looks, Tebow wows the home crowd as he takes the Broncos into the playoffs for the first time since 2005. His passing yards (316) and yards per completion (31.6) in a victory over Pittsburgh have pundits pondering John 3:16 and other Bible verses. But after an abysmal thumping by the Patriots, Tebow is traded to a team in the fleshpots of New York.
2012-13: With a rejuvenated Peyton Manning at the helm of a sizzling offense, the Broncos are expected to cruise through the playoffs. Shades of the ’96 thud of disappointment, they fall in the divisional round in a heart-stopper against the Baltimore Ravens. “I cover sports for a living, but times like this make me wonder why sports consumes so many lives,” muses Post writer Mike Klis, without a detectable trace of irony.
2013-14: Wacky fans. Zany videos. Explosive hype and reckless optimism from the usual suspects. Manning has quite possibly the best regular season by any quarterback in NFL history. But the Big Game starts with a safety on the first play from scrimmage and goes downhill from there. Worst. Super. Bowl. Ever.
2015-16: The stage is set, the story line recycled from 1998: The Sheriff returns for one last showdown. An entire nation rallies behind him — well, okay, maybe a few shamelessly sentimental sportswriters. The oddsmakers give his team no chance. But, hey, you never know. Epic comeback starts right now. Got another week to hum that one. Let the games begin.