ENGLEWOOD, Colo. -- If you really want to feel what the Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders rivalry should be, what many of those who fill the seats in each city in each football weekend expect it to be, you’re going to need a few things.
A good memory, as in a really, really good memory. You know, almost Mensa.
Oh, and quarterbacks. Game-changing, rivalry-stoking quarterbacks.
As the Broncos and Raiders prepare to open up AFC West play for each on Monday night, these two ships will again pass in the night. The Broncos, with Peyton Manning at quarterback, consider themselves a Super Bowl contender, complete with plenty of eight-figure contracts and a parcel of off-the-field drama in tow.
The Raiders are in Year 2 of not just a re-build job, but they have largely scrapped the lot and elected to start from the ground up. With that the team's decision-makers, including general manager Reggie McKenzie and coach (and former Broncos defensive coordinator) Dennis Allen, have handed the offensive keys, at least for the moment, to quarterback Terrelle Pryor, their latest hope behind center.
The bottom line is it’s been quite some time since this long-standing, annual battle between two of the AFL’s original eight, has been a give-as-good-as-you-get rivalry. Even with all of the road the two have traveled together, the fact is they have rarely been good together, facing off at the peak of their powers.
One of the two has most often been up, flexing potential postseason muscle, and the other has basically been the welcome mat. There have been just five seasons when both the Raiders and Broncos made the playoffs in the same year. And since the start of the 1992 season, they have both made the playoffs in the same year just once -- in 2000 when the Raiders won the division at 12-4 and the Broncos were a wild card at 11-5. That’s a long way from the zenith, the 1977 season when the two didn’t just meet in the playoffs, they met in the AFC Championship with a Super Bowl trip at stake.
Or as Broncos Ring of Famer Randy Gradishar put it; “Now that’s what a rivalry looks like. If people ever want to know what it looks like, what it feels like, that was it right there."
Since, however, there’s also the Shanahan effect. When Mike Shanahan was hired by the Broncos, it was his second stint as an NFL head coach since his first stint had ended rather unceremoniously in Oakland four games into the 1989 season. Shanahan and the late Al Davis also had a long, well-chronicled tiff over some bonus money after the firing, adding some emotional hot sauce. So, needless to say, Shanahan liked beating Davis’ team and made it an organizational priority. And Shanahan did it a lot, going 21-7 against the Raiders in his time with the Broncos.
Current coach John Fox is 3-1 against the Raiders in his two previous seasons on the Front Range. The only time since Shanahan’s first season in Denver the Raiders have had an upper hand against the guy wearing the big headset for the Broncos was during Josh McDaniels’ just-under-two-year tenure when the Raiders were 3-1 against the Broncos.
But like most things in the league these days, success and failure over the long haul can often be traced back to what happened at quarterback, how the draft went and just how many ill-conceived contracts were handed out to free agents who didn’t perform.
While the Broncos have certainly had their draft/checkbook stumbles over the past two decades, they have had fewer than the Raiders. Even as the quarterback search in the post-Elway era has had some ups and downs in Denver -- seven different quarterbacks have started against the Raiders for the Broncos since Elway retired following the 1998 season -- it has gone far better than the mistake-filled search behind center for the Raiders.
Brian Griese, Jay Cutler and Peyton Manning have been named Pro Bowl quarterbacks for Denver in the post-Elway era while Gus Frerotte, Tim Tebow, Jake Plummer and Manning each started postseason games for the Broncos over the past 15 years. By contrast the Raiders have started 13 different quarterbacks against the Broncos since the start of Shanahan’s first season in Denver. And Rich Gannon is the only Raiders quarterback to have started at least five consecutive meetings with the Broncos over that span.
Sure, Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey will often say "we don't like them and they don't like us," when the division games come rolling by, but Broncos-Raiders is really a remember-when rivalry right now, something maintained and nurtured because folks feel it’s the right thing to do along the way. The bones are there, though, just waiting for both teams to cooperate and make it what all involved always seem to hope it will be.