ENGLEWOOD, Colo. – The names still roll off the tongues of the die-hards in this football-mad region, especially those longtime ticket holders with more than a little gray in their hair whose memories of the Denver Broncos go to any year B.E. – before Elway.
The likes of Rubin Carter, Lyle Alzado, Barney Chavous, Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Joe Rizzo, Bo Swenson, Steve Foley, Louis Wright, Bernard Jackson and Billy Thompson, the names of the Orange Crush defense that not only powered the Broncos to the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 1977, but into the franchise’s first of what has now been seven Super Bowl trips.
They were the Orange Crush. And Denver Broncos defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio turned back the clock at a team function this week, just as he had to open training camp, and showed the current Broncos a collection of highlights from the ’77 team. That’s because Del Rio wants some Crush 2.0.
“Despite all our offensive prowess, the productivity and how special our offense is, this town loves its team to play great defense," Del Rio said after practice Thursday. “And I look forward to bringing back some of that Orange Crush feel."
“Oh, I like that a lot," said Joe Collier, the Broncos’ longtime defensive coordinator, including in ’77. “That’s good, that was a year you love to be a part of, it’s great Jack thought enough to do that. That was the year that kind of got it going here, I always call it that ‘get over the hump’ year for the franchise."
Del Rio has spent much of the offseason extolling the potential virtues of the Broncos’ current defense in the team’s quest to get back to its 2012 status, when it finished among the league’s top five scoring defenses and top five defenses overall.
The Broncos dove into free agency to sign safety T.J. Ward, defensive end DeMarcus Ware and cornerback Aqib Talib. They selected cornerback Bradley Roby in the first round of the draft. They have a recovered Chris Harris Jr. And they have a rejuvenated Von Miller, who is fully recovered from knee surgery and has his weight back down to where it was in 2012, when he had 18.5 sacks.
The Broncos hope they are a far cry from a defense that was missing five starters, all on injured reserve, in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Broncos finished in the bottom half of the league in many defensive categories.
"We’re talented, we’re deeper and we understand there are a lot of challenges in front of us, so we’re just gearing up to play good football," Del Rio said. “ … I tell our guys all the time, you know, Coach Fox says it, just show me. We want to see it. Because we know that this is a good, talented group, but it’s about coming together, playing together, playing well, feeding off each other at home, getting the crowd into it, giving them something to cheer for."
Gradishar was honored by Del Rio's sentiment. “I’m surprised, and honored, Jack would reach back almost 30 years to show them something," Gradishar said just after quickly naming the other 10 starters in the unit. “We were proud of the way that defense played, proud of what we did. We had great coaches, had great players. But I’m excited to see what these guys can do. If they keep themselves focused, they have a Super Bowl team, a Super Bowl-winning team."
After a predictably vanilla preseason with Del Rio sticking to the basics – Harris didn’t play at all while Miller played just nine snaps, as both are returning from knee surgeries – Sunday night’s opener against the Indianapolis Colts will be the first time the team shows the changes that arrive with the new personnel and the starters who are returning from injury.
“At the end of the day, this is an offensive-minded regime," Ware said. “But we’re trying to be the No. 1 defense and we’re bringing that Orange Crush back."