Broncos' story all too familiar 

Every week, new memories replace old ones. Every week, the aging quarterback provides another imitation of a long-ago predecessor.

Every week, the Denver Broncos carve out another happy ending.

Every week, the short-sighted cynics and pessimists of Orange Nation insist the end is near, and the Broncos' 2015 season will disintegrate at any given moment.

And every week, this historian chuckles again, thinking back to a different team and its remarkable run that bears so much resemblance to what's happening now.

This feels like 1977 and history repeating itself all over again.

As Denver pulled out yet one more crazy victory Sunday, a 26-23 overtime conquest at Cleveland to make the Broncos 6-0 heading into their bye week, my mind kept going back to 38 years ago. That was my first autumn in Colorado, first chance to cover the National Football League — and the Broncos.

So many people now, many not old enough to really remember, are talking about how Denver's defense has become so reminiscent of the original Orange Crush from 1977 that led the way to the Broncos' first Super Bowl berth.

True, there are similarities. That defense had great players everywhere: linebackers Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Joe Rizzo and Bob Swenson; down linemen Lyle Alzado, Barney Chavous and Rubin Carter (plus veteran Paul Smith off the bench); cornerbacks Louis Wright and Steve Foley; safeties Billy Thompson and Bernard Jackson. Oh yeah, and a wily old defensive coordinator, Joe Collier, as respected then as Wade Phillips is now.

In half of Denver's 14 regular-season games that year (the NFL went to 16 games in 1978), the Orange Crush gave up fewer than 100 yards rushing. Eight times, the opposition failed to score 10 points. And thanks to flurries of interceptions and fumble recoveries, Denver was a whopping plus-12 in turnover margin.

There is no Gradishar now, but many other comparisons would be favorable.

Beyond that, though, nobody realizes how much the Broncos' sputtery offense today compares to that of 1977. Denver had a slow-moving veteran quarterback, just as now. Craig Morton had spent 12 years building a nice NFL resumé, with one Super Bowl ring in Dallas (Roger Staubach got the credit) to show for it. But Morton was anything but mobile, thanks to a series of injuries through the years. He would make the Peyton Manning of 2015 look like an Olympic sprinter.

Tom Jackson, the NFL's greatest quote machine, described Morton this way:

"He's the only guy in the world whose knees are looking at each other."

In that 1977 season, Denver ranked 17th in the NFL in total offense. Nine times in 14 games, Morton passed for fewer than 150 yards — though he had some great targets, including Haven Moses, Rick Upchurch and tight end Riley Odoms. No Denver back rushed for 500 yards that season. And those Broncos won games by scores like 7-0, 14-7, 17-9 and 24-14.

But when they needed a big play or drive, Morton found a way. Moses, Upchurch, Otis Armstrong, Rob Lytle or Jon Keyworth would deliver.

The defense carried that 1977 team, just as now, and everyone understood that. But somehow the Broncos would grind it out, week after week, going 6-0 before a loss to Oakland, then winning six more before a meaningless defeat at Dallas (with the AFC's No. 1 playoff seed already clinched). Morton hit the wall in Super Bowl XII, a rematch against Dallas, but that didn't diminish a phenomenal season.

Now, the defense looks like Orange Crush II, and Manning is reprising Morton's script. That sudden, out-of-the-blue, 75-yard touchdown pass to Emmanuel Sanders at Cleveland looked like Morton to Moses, all over again.

What's ahead? Yes, after the off week, the Broncos' final 10 games will be rugged, including Green Bay, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Diego twice and others. But they already have lapped the AFC West, with Oakland having three losses, San Diego four and Kansas City five.

Also, six of those final 10 games are at home, because Denver already is 4-0 on the road. The next game, Sunday night of Nov. 1 hosting Green Bay, will tell a lot.

And as we know, it's all about the Broncos pacing themselves through, saving as much as possible for the stretch run with defense and a fading quarterback.

Just like 1977.


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