He Puts the D in Denver : Joe Collier Has Been Bronco Defensive Coordinator for 18 Seasons, 5 Head Coaches

Times Staff Writer

The way Joe Collier sees it, it's only a matter of time before defensive players in the National Football League are required to wear handcuffs. Or balls and chains. Or blindfolds.

Collier has been around pro football since 1960, and he's seen all the trends. He doesn't much care for the current one.

In Denver, defense has been spelled C-O-L-L-I-E-R for 18 years. When Lou Saban hired him in 1969, Collier was 36. Now, at 53, he is working under his fifth head coach as the Broncos' defensive coordinator.

His current boss, Dan Reeves, calls him "the greatest assistant coach in football."

Going into Sunday's game with the Raiders at the Coliseum, the Broncos, from 1976 to the present, are tied for first in fewest touchdowns allowed, 306, the same as Chicago. Denver ranks fourth in the seasons from 1981 to the present.

That's not an official NFL statistic. It's one kept by the Broncos. And it includes kick runbacks for touchdowns. It does suggest, though, that the guy in charge of Denver's defense hasn't been asleep at the switch.

The NFL doesn't compile yearly yardage-allowed figures for defenses, either. But the Broncos say such a stat would probably rank them somewhere between the middle and the bottom. That's called bend-but-don't-break football.

Collier will be easy to spot Sunday. He'll be the guy in the orange cap--no one else on the Denver sideline is allowed to wear one--figuring out how to keep the Raiders out of the end zone.

The boss, Reeves, summed up his club's outlook this week as he prepared for Denver's challenge in the Coliseum: "We're 7 and 1, and they're 5-3. For them to have a chance (to make the playoffs), they must beat us. But we have a chance to put them deep in the hole with six games to go. Or is it seven? I don't know."

It will be seven, Dan.

Collier sees the Broncos' defensive challenge in simple terms: Subtract the human element and football is a simple game.

"Championship NFL teams are the ones that can score 17 or 20 points and hang on to win," he said.

"For us to be successful against the Raiders, the defense can't be on the field all afternoon. We're at our best when our defensive plays in a game number in the 50s. Against the Raiders, we're almost always in the 60s. If we go into the 70s or 80s against anybody, we're in trouble.

"So the one thing we don't want to have happen is for them to control the ball, and that means holding (Marcus) Allen to within reason. Defensive football is really a simple proposition. If you can play good defense against short-yardage running plays and also apply consistent pressure to the quarterback, you're going to win a lot of football games."

But every time they change the rules, it gets harder. Rule changes in recent years favoring the offense have changed the game, he said.

"There's an influx of huge, 300-pound offensive linemen coming into the game now," he said. "Guys that size used to be rare. Now they're common. They're not agile, because they don't have to be. The reason is that new rules allow offensive linemen to use their hands more on defensive linemen. And defensive players can no longer 'chuck' pass receivers downfield.

"A few years back, someone decided pro football was getting dull, that the game needed to be opened up? Why? The TV ratings were high, the stadiums were full. I've never understood it.

"In the first years of the AFL, it was a wide-open game because there weren't enough quality linebackers around to enable teams to play man-to-man. Then, after the merger, the game grew conservative because (Vince) Lombardi and then (Don) Shula were so successful with the run and the pass-only-when-necessary philosophy. With a few exceptions, it remained that way through the '70s. Now, the trend is to open the game up again.

"So when people ask me to compare this defense to the good ones we had in the '70s, I can't. The game has really changed that much. You can't compare statistics because the rules are different.

"I'll say this, though. This defense has a chance to be a very good one."

Collier has spent a week of 18-hour days figuring out how to contain Allen Sunday. The assignment is a familiar one.

"In the early days of the AFL, when I was coaching defenses at Buffalo and Boston, the Chargers had Keith Lincoln," he said.

"He was the Marcus Allen of his day. He could run, pass and kick. And he was a great blocker. He could beat you so many ways. To my mind, he's still one of the great backs of pro football. The great running backs today are Allen, (Eric) Dickerson, (Curt) Warner and (Walter) Payton. Containing athletes like that requires special defensive preparation, alertness and execution."

Denver beat Seattle, 20-13, last weekend but not because the Broncos shut down Warner. He ran for 130 yards against Collier's defense. The Broncos sacked Seattle quarterback Dave Krieg five times, however, marking the sixth consecutive game that Collier's defense has registered five or more sacks, an NFL record.

The man who has been called a genius dislikes being called one and almost angrily dismisses the idea.

"There are no geniuses in this profession," he said. "Again, it's simple. You design defenses whereby your athletes are in the proper position to make the plays you want them to make. Anyone can draw up good plays. But what good are great X's and O's if you have your athletes 10 yards from the play you want them to stop?"

Collier created one of the memorable defensive juggernauts of the '70s, the Orange Crush defense. In 1977, the year the defense carried the Broncos to the Super Bowl, Denver allowed more than 14 points only once in the regular season.

And yet he credits luck as the key factor in the Broncos' '77 season.

"We had great defensive teams in 1975 and '76, too, but people don't remember them," he said. "The difference was that in '77 we were lucky. We didn't have a single disabling injury. It's always amazed me how highly-regarded coaches can suddenly turn dumb when they start losing players to injuries."

In 1982, a dark gloom descended on the Broncos' training facility, 10 miles north of downtown Denver. Word was out that the Chargers' Don Coryell was trying to hire Collier. There was an interview in San Diego, a subsequent interview in Denver. Collier got a raise and stayed. His players cheered.

"I shudder to imagine what the Chargers would be like today if they'd gotten Joe," 12-year Denver cornerback Louis Wright said in 1985.

On the day Reeves was hired as the club's coach in 1981, he said at the morning news conference that his No. 1 priority was to find "the best defensive coordinator available." He talked to Collier in early afternoon. In late afternoon, the club announced that Collier would be retained.

Tom Jackson, who has been one of Collier's linebackers for 13 seasons, said constant change is Collier's trademark.

"One reason why Joe has been so successful is he's constantly changing our defense," he said. "We're always learning new stuff. He knows that something that works for us two or three games in a row isn't going to work for two or three more games, because people will have figured it out by then.

"He's a very cool, disciplined coach. In 13 years, I've heard him raise his voice on the practice field maybe once.

"When I came into the NFL, most of the teams were run-oriented. They lined up against you and said, 'OK, let's see you stop this.' Joe adapted very quickly when the rules started favoring the passing game. Our philosophy now is that you may gain a lot of yards on us, but we don't want you scoring many touchdowns."

On Sunday, Jackson hopes the Broncos score early and often.

"The best thing for us Sunday would be if we get ahead early," he said. "I'd prefer (Marc) Wilson throwing the ball against us to having them trying to control the ball with Marcus Allen.

"The difference between the great backs like Allen and Dickerson and all the others is that they see the seams. Allen, on a sweep, for example, when a defense is flowing across the field toward him . . . there's always a seam or two. Allen sees the seams, and a lot of other backs can't.

"He's reversed field on us three or four times in the last three seasons for big plays. We have to somehow prevent him from doing that."

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