And Elway will return the favor.
"That's one of the main differences between this team and our Super Bowl team—the ability of the offense to take charge when the defense runs into trouble," says Tom Jackson, the outside linebacker on the weak side, as he was in '77-78. "It's the first time in my career that we've had a team like that. We beat the Raiders in a 38-36 shootout after we were down 36-28 in the fourth quarter. John and the offense just took over."
"They had a lot of our old alumni back for the New England game," Foley says. "Those guys from the Super Bowl team must have been eating their hearts out. Put this offense on that team, and we'd have been another Pittsburgh. We'd have had two or three Super Bowl rings."
The comparisons haven't started in earnest yet, Broncos '86 vs. Super Bowl Broncos. It's too early in the season; there's the fear of jinxing the team. And no one really wants to mess with hallowed memories. The fans were caught up in a frenzy that hasn't been seen in the NFL before or since. They still love their Broncos—the team has 123 consecutive sellouts, and Sunday's crowd of 76,082 set an attendance record for the third time this season—but all the crazy orange stuff hasn't returned. Maybe it never will. Maybe that was a one-shot deal.
In 1977-78, the fans cheered for a defense that had recognizable heroes, practically all of whom stayed on the field and played every down in an era in which the mass situation substitutions of today were unknown. They worked out of a 3-4, the same as now, but the roles were more clearly defined. Barney Chavous, the left end, was the prototype strong-side run-stopper. Rubin Carter was a rock at noseguard; Lyle Alzado, wild and flamboyant at right end, the sacking end, was a little of everything. Their outside linebackers were magnificent—on the strong side Bob Swenson, who could slice through anything and find the ball carrier; on the open side Jackson, the first of the greyhound linebackers. Running plays were funneled to Randy Gradishar in the middle. Billy Thompson ran the secondary from his strong safety spot, and Louie Wright was a brilliant young cornerback. It was a legendary group.
On Super Bowl Sunday they stood on the sidelines and prayed that Dallas would win the toss, so they could go out and play defense. They couldn't wait to get at them. And they certainly had their moments. They had the Cowboys shook up in the early going. There was a fumble...you can close your eyes and see the ball bouncing free on the Dallas one-yard line and the Dallas guy and the Denver guy going for it...and maybe, just maybe, if the Broncos had recovered down there, and punched it in, and forced the Cowboys to play catch-up right away...just maybe....
"It was a defense with heart and with spirit." says Carter, who at 33 is still lining up on the nose, but not as a starter. "That's been the carryover; that's what the veteran players have brought down through the years."
"More talent now, more depth now, more speed," says Wright, who's still at the left corner and who had enough zip left in his 33-year-old legs to intercept two passes against Dallas Sunday ("This is the first time in my NFL career that I got two in one game"). He ran one of them back 56 yards.
The Broncos' defensive scheme during the Super Bowl season seems simplistic by today's standards, and Pelluer would have been very happy to have faced something as old-fashioned as that. Fate, however, had seen fit to award him his first NFL start against one of the league's most complicated—and speediest—modern defenses, an outfit that would use up to 19 different players, lean, slightly undersized types for the most part, but very mobile, and relentless.
Pelluer had become the No. 1 man after the Thursday practice, when Danny White went down in a heap, cutting across the field in a punt-coverage drill, the very last drill of the day. And what, you might ask, is the varsity QB doing running downfield on a punt drill? "It's one of the things the Cowboys have always done," says their pass offense coordinator, Paul Hackett. "At the end of practice, nobody's exempt from special teams."