Let the rest of the country have its glamorous passers and flashy running backs. Let Baltimore have its Bert Jones, Chicago its Walter Payton, Dallas its Roger Staubach and Tony Dorsett, Oakland its Kenny Stabler. In Denver the defense is king, and Lyle Alzado, defensive end, is the man for this season.
Denver fans are connoisseurs of defensive play, mainly because until this season the Broncos had never given them much of an offense to shout about. Now, after 11 wins in their first 12 games, including last Sunday's 24-14 triumph over Houston, the Broncos can't keep their fans quiet. That victory, coupled with Oakland's 20-14 loss to Los Angeles, clinched the AFC West championship for the Broncos, who had never won a title of any kind in their 18-year history, and also assured them of the home-field advantage when they appear in the playoffs for the first time ever on the day before Christmas.
The reason for Denver's sudden success is its defense—the Orange Crush, as it styles itself—a unit that features a 3-4 alignment and is the best in the NFL against the run, yielding a measly 112.9 yards per game.
Alzado is the irresistible and irrepressible force who works at the right end of the Broncos' three-man line, the player whose mere presence forces opponents to run their plays in the other direction—either at Nose Tackle Rubin Carter or Left End Barney Chavous, both of whom are also enjoying their best seasons. Alzado is a 6'3", 250-pound black-bearded package of menacing energy and speed who drives himself so hard that his coaches say their problem is to keep him on, not ahead of, schedule.
"Lyle is overcritical of himself," says Defensive Line Coach Stan Jones. "He thinks he should have three or four sacks and 10 unassisted tackles every game, or he's had a bad day. He is outstanding against the run, and we have convinced him that sacks are second in importance to that." Maybe they have—and then again, maybe they haven't. Although the Broncos' 3-4 is designed for the linebackers, not the linemen, to get to the quarterback, Alzado has had five sacks and 71 unassisted tackles in 12 games.
Denver's success this season may well win for Alzado the All-Pro recognition that has always escaped him in the past. "I'm not going to tell you I don't think about being All-Pro," says Alzado, "but I don't care as much as I used to. The power of the press lies in New York and L.A., and everyone in between dies. I'm tired of year after year watching people being passed over."
During a game Alzado emits waves of energy that radiate clear into the stands. On the field he never stops running. He pursues the quarterback relentlessly, brushing away offensive tackles as if they were big, annoying bugs. Off the field he stalks the sideline—talking, remonstrating, gesticulating, rarely pausing to join his teammates on the bench. He pats heads with his huge bandaged forearms and roars with laughter when things are going well. When they are not, there is no one in the stadium who looks more anguished.
And Denver loves it. A young fan once wrote, "Dear Lyle, you are the meanest defensive end I have ever seen. The way you rip apart all those quarterbacks is terrific. I sure am glad you play for the Broncos. I remember when you played the Redskins in the preseason, you killed their dumb halfbacks...."
Alzado is by far the best known, most easily recognized Bronco in town. A couple of years ago when some Denver junior high schoolers were asked which of the Broncos they would most like to meet, 12 of them voted for star Running Back Floyd Little, 700 voted for Alzado.
Alzado is the Frank Gifford of the Rockies. He is everywhere—in the papers ("Come meet Lyle Alzado at Andre's Flower Shops"); on television ("Burt Chevrolet, they've been your friend for a long"—Alzado pauses, and points skyward—"long time"); on the radio ("This is Lyle Alzado for the Sawmill Restaurant. The Sawmill serves beef, fish, fowl and spirits.... For reservations call 755-4979. And ask about the Bronco Brunch Bus").