Somewhere, over the Rockies, life stirs again among the Broncomaniacs, even if it did feel for most of the long, cold winter that the last Raider visit might have stamped it out forever.
But it’s a new season. In Denver they’re warming up for two of their favorite days rolled up into one: the opener and the annual Raider invasion, arriving simultaneously next Sunday.
In Denver, they live for a rematch. Two overtime losses to the Raiders a year ago and their 11-win season went down the drain. Even if they’re not anxious to repeat it where Raiders might read it, the Broncos seem to feel that they were the better team, they just lost the two games to the Raiders--"a team most of them consider to be inferior,” wrote the Sporting News’ Denver correspondent, Joseph Sanchez.
Why shouldn’t the Broncos have taken it hard?
Hadn’t they been 13-3 and AFC West champs the year before? Didn’t they lead the division last season, right up until Dec. 8, the day that will live in Bronco infamy, Barney Day, when the venerable old defensive end blew the overtime coin toss?
Didn’t they wind up with the distinction of becoming the fourth NFL team to win 11 games and miss the playoffs?
Has Coach Dan Reeves slept since?
“That was probably the toughest loss I’ve ever had to face,” said Reeves a couple of days ago from Denver. “All the Super Bowl losses, this was the one that stuck with me, just because of the error I made in overtime, not making sure the man understood me.
“Nobody makes a first down and we end up losing the ball game.”
The man was Barney Chavous, normally one of five captains sent out for coin tosses. That day, he was breaking the Bronco consecutive-game record and he was being honored by being sent out alone. He won the toss but elected to receive, sentencing his offense to drive into the face of a blizzard until Greg Townsend and Howie Long sacked John Elway who fumbled the ball away at his eight. Chris Bahr kicked a field goal on the next play.
“The thing that’s so hard,” says Reeves, "(is that) the officials immediately want your captains.
“It was snowing, the wind was blowing and we’d had a very poor second half, offensively. I grabbed Barney and went over to talk to Joe (Collier, Bronco defensive coordinator). I said, ‘Maybe we ought to kick off.’
“Joe said, ‘We gave them the ball in Los Angeles (in the OT two weeks before) and they drove down and kicked a field goal.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, but the weather wasn’t like this. I think we ought to kick off.’
“I told Barney, ‘If we win we’ll defend the south goal.’ Before the game, we normally say, we’ll take the ball or we’ll defend the south goal. He just assumed it was the same thing or he wasn’t paying attention.
“As soon as he did it, I knew he’d made a mistake but the officials wouldn’t let us change it. It’s not Barney’s fault, it was mine. It was my responsibility. Now we make our players repeat it back. That was the reason I couldn’t sleep that night, thinking of what I could have done.”
A week later, John Elway threw five interceptions and the Broncos had to come from behind in the fourth quarter--at home--to beat the lowly Kansas City Chiefs.
A week after that, the Broncos fell behind, 17-0, at Seattle, before rallying to win once more.
Since none of their rivals--the Raiders, Jets or Patriots--had lost, the Broncos were out, anyway.
The forecast in Denver that winter had just become like Clubber Lang’s for Rocky Balboa:
Over the last two seasons, or in other words since Elway got over being a raw rookie, these teams have played four games and split them. Three went overtime. The combined score is 80-80.
The Raiders, as befits their tradition and general demeanor, approach it with a certain swagger.
The Broncos tend toward love/hate or perhaps hate/love. Thus linebacker Tom Jackson, who has been called the team’s great Raider hater, remains one of Marcus Allen’s greatest boosters. After the game in Denver last season, in which Allen had torn 135 yards out of a Bronco defense geared to stop him, Jackson came into the Raider dressing room to congratulate him.
“I don’t particularly dislike any Raider,” Jackson says. “I just feel you have to be of a certain frame of mind when you play them.
“You have to have a lot of intensity. You can’t allow some of the things I’ve seen happen on the field throw your game off. They know what they are better than I do.
“I think I went through a period when I disliked a lot of things about the way the Raiders play football. But they’ve been successful at what they do.
“Of course, no one likes to get spit on. I don’t care who it is, whether you’re an accountant. That being used as a tactic, that’s still on our minds.”
Did they feel like they were the better team last season?
“I don’t think you can say you’re the better team if you lose the game,” he says. “We did a lot of things right in both those games. Particularly the one out in L.A. because it’s very difficult to put up 28 points against the kind of defense the Raiders present. But when you consider things like the onside kick at the start of the second half (Bahr’s kick and recovery that set up a 42-yard TD drive that tied the game, 21-21) that put them on the right track. . . . Their kicking game was fairly flawless that day (except for the 40-yarder that Bahr missed at the end of regulation, before kicking the 32-yard game-winner in OT).
“Those extras got them the victory. In this game, somebody might have to come up with something a little extra to get the victory. Somebody might say, ‘Yeah, Mr. Bahr recovered that onside kick.’ I think it was a bold move. It took a lot of guts. Very easily, that kick could have been recovered by the Broncos and we could have gotten good field position.”
In Denver, the Raiders are still the standard of comparison. Even before the teams met last season, a Denver radio interviewer asked a L.A. writer, “Do the Raiders respect the Broncos?”
Huh? After a 13-3 season in ’84 and a Bronco sweep of the season series?
But in their inimitable way, the Raiders reign as kings in the Bronco mind.
Take Vance Johnson, a flashy wide receiver who had a good rookie season and is said to have progressed to sensational. After his first game against the Raiders last season, Johnson made football history by announcing he’d been “intimidated.”
“I think I was,” he said last week. “Those guys, they’re great athletes. I was looking forward to going against them. It was like they were supermen, the media makes them so big. In college all you ever heard about was Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes.
“Lester was intimidating. He likes to play little games out on the field. It seems like he tries to put you to sleep and then he gets real aggressive. He threw me on the track last year when we played in L.A. I didn’t expect that. He pushed me down. I was really intimidated. He called me rookie quite a bit. But that’s last year. I don’t think I’ll be Mr. Nice Guy any more.
“I just like to say how I feel. I’m not ashamed. I was really intimidated. I hope it doesn’t happen this time. I’m planning on it not happening.
“I do think we kinda felt we were the better team but that wasn’t proven. We didn’t win the games. The best team is always going to win the games.”
One of last season’s Raider surprises was winning the overtimes. Before that, the Broncos had won six overtimes in a row, going back to 1978.
They were beginning to develop a Bronco mystique, a belief that the fifth period was their’s, that one of them was bound to make a big play, or several if needed. Thus last season in an overtime against the Chargers, Dennis Smith blocked a field-goal try, had it called back by a penalty, then blocked the next kick, too. Louis Wright picked it up and ran 60 yards into the end zone.
Manifest destiny obscured Bronco shortcomings. They needed the big play. They weren’t overpowering on either side of the ball. They averaged 4.8 yards per play and their opponents averaged 4.8. Like the Raiders, who had suddenly turned themselves into a power-running team, the Broncos were using what they had to the max.
In the Broncos’ case they had Elway, the ultimate bailout. Raider admiration for Elway’s gifts--that arm! those legs!--matches Bronco admiration for Marcus Allen. And Elway was starting to take over when things got tight.
The week between Raider games, the Broncos fell behind late in Pittsburgh, putting them face-to-face with a devastating loss. Elway hit four straight passes and marched them down the field for the game winner.
He played wonderfully in last season’s first Raider game (19 for 32, 3 TD passes, 0 interceptions, 2 scrambles, for 10 and 15 yards).
He started the second game, marching the Broncos 77 yards right through the Raider defense, finishing it with a five-yard TD pass.
After that, he threw an assortment of ill-advised passes, three of which the Raiders intercepted.
“I remember one interception,” Elway says from Denver. “I was trying to throw a screen pass away and I didn’t get it down low enough. That’s going to happen. There are going to be more balls I throw that are ill-advised. Even 14-year veterans do that.
“A lot of guys say we should have won it but we had a chance to get ourselves in it. We lost two games to the Raiders in overtime. We had our shot to be a shoo-in and we didn’t do it.”
It’s a new season in Bronco-land, but all their cares haven’t disappeared. They signed Mark Haynes, an all-pro cornerback who was supposed to play opposite Louis Wright and give the Broncos a Haynes-Hayes-type of combination that would allow them to blitz an extra defender and intimidate, Raider-style. So far, Mark Haynes hasn’t beaten out last year’s starter, Mike Harden.
They got a rookie tackle they liked, Jim Juriga, out of Illinois, to help restock their smallish offensive line. He tore up a knee a week ago and was lost for the season.
But next week, the Raiders come to town. All other concerns are secondary.