The Denver Broncos had just scored, and with a little more than 10 minutes to go they sat on top of the Dallas Cowboys 29-7, in what eventually would be a 29-14 victory. When Dallas took over on its own 21, waves of sound rolled through Denver's Mile High Stadium.
"Dee-fense," the insatiable fans yelled. "Dee-fense."
Up in the press box the Cowboys' president and general manager, Tex Schramm, slumped in his seat and muttered, "What the hell do they need defense for?"
Enough already. Enough of those orange-shirted monsters who kept pouring through, sending the young Cowboy quarterback Steve Pelluer—who was subbing for the injured Danny White—scrambling for survival and nailing Herschel Walker before he could get his 224 pounds in motion. Enough defense. Stop the fight. Get us back on our bus so we can regroup.
"Dee-fense!" yelled the crowd. And why not? It has been a way of life in Denver for nearly 10 years. It's what got the Broncos into their only Super Bowl in January 1978. Five Broncos made the Pro Bowl that year, all of them on defense. Four of them made it last season, and not an offensive player among them. Quick now, who's the last Bronco quarterback to be selected for the Pro Bowl? The answer is nobody. Denver quarterbacks have been the guys to hold 'em until the defense can get back on the field and force a turnover.
And out of this lopsided setup a tradition was built. Bronco defense. The Orange Crush. The crowd got into it. The town was flooded with waves of orange. Red Miller, the coach of the '77-78 Super Bowl team, was even sent an orange toilet seat. Veteran players remember the orange car that used to cruise the practice field, the orange truck that picked up the garbage, the cement truck with the orange mixer. Defensive teams stir the emotions. The spectacular offensive shows are pretty to watch, but there's something elemental about the struggle to stop the other guys, about great defensive players flying around the field like maniacs while your offense is running a carefully controlled, we-won't-screw-it-up-fellows operation.
"Our offense in the Super Bowl year," says free safety Steve Foley, one of the four current Denver defensive players who started on that '77-78 team, "was first down, run; second down, run; third down, play-action pass—the waiting game. Wait for us to get 'em good field position on a turnover and then go for the quick strike. And that's the way we went to the Super Bowl."
"Craig Morton would take a sack, but he wouldn't throw an interception," says Joe Collier, who has coached the Denver defense for 18 seasons. "There were very few games that we were in bad field position."
Well, things have changed. The difference is John Elway, a quarterback more in the mold of Terry Bradshaw than of Morton. Nobody, repeat nobody, in the NFL has a stronger arm than Elway, and he has got the nimble legs to go with it. Morton was sunk in concrete. Elway will scramble sideline to sideline and then let one fly 50 yards downfield. He'll sprint one way and then throw a pass to the other side that will either bring the fans right out of their seats, screaming, or have them shielding their eyes and groaning, "Oh, no."
He has blown hot and cold for the last two games, but here's the thing about this Bronco team, and probably the main reason it's 5-0, the only unbeaten club in the AFC: When Elway runs into a bad streak, as he did very noticeably against the New England Patriots the week before the Dallas game, the defense will take over. It's as if the players are saying, O.K., kid, get yourself together, we'll take over for a while.