There are a lot of pieces of the Denver puzzle that haven't settled firmly into place. Reeves, who spent 15 years in the Dallas organization, four of them as offensive coordinator, says, "I don't know how good we really are. Maybe some people didn't take us seriously at first. I know we have a defense that can keep us in any game."
The offense was Reeves's baby with the Cowboys, and it was no secret what he was going to do in Denver. Call it Dallas Northwest. Multiple formations and sets, motion all over the place, misdirection—"Some people call it trickery," Reeves says—and, finally, when all the movable parts have reached their destinations and the ball is snapped, a reliance on the running game to control the ball.
The world was waiting to see what Dallas Northwest would look like first time out. It didn't look like much. The Jets blew it away 33-7 in the Broncos' opening exhibition game. Denver didn't complete a pass in the first half and balanced it off with a running attack that went nowhere.
"A total coaching failure," Reeves says. "As long as I've been coaching, I've never prepared an offense that poorly. The players had no chance."
Dallas Northwest scored only eight touchdowns in four exhibition games. The Broncos beat Oakland 9-7 in their regular-season opener on a gift touchdown pass; on that play Wide Receiver Rick Upchurch stepped out of bounds while running his pattern, but the ref didn't notice it. After the loss to Seattle, the Broncos had scored 19 points in two games, and analysts were pointing out that, despite all the fancy window dressing, the Broncos were lining up with the same people who had manned the NFL's fourth worst attack in 1980.
The offense had been a sore point in the Miller era. In his first year, the Super Bowl year, it was a holding operation. Hold the score down until the defense could get on the field, that wild and flamboyant defense that scored touchdowns and forced turnovers. In 1980 the Broncos' yardage sank from 12th in the league to 25th. The defense wore out, finally. It cracked.
"We were banged up and we were weary," Inside Linebacker Randy Gradishar says. "Every game it seemed like we were going to be on the field for 75 to 80 plays."
So along came Reeves with a whole playbook full of ideas, but the same people to run them. The quarterback, Craig Morton, was 38 years old, the oldest player in the NFL, one year older than the coach, less than a year younger than the owner.
After the loss to Dallas in the '78 Super Bowl, when the Denver offense turned the ball over eight times, Bronco officials rubbed their hands and said, "Well, the first thing we have to do is replace Morton."
Oh, the Broncos worked at it. They tried trades and drafts and free agents. But like an old and weather-worn sea wall, Morton beat off wave after wave of challengers—Norris Weese, Craig Penrose, Matt Robinson and, this year, Jeff Knapple and Mark Herrmann. And when Denver lined up for the first snap of the 1981 season, there Morton was behind the center again. He has got a pair of knees that practically face each other. When he drops back to pass, you hear chains clanking. But Reeves knew this about Morton: "Give him time and he'll throw the eyes out of the bail. His arm's as good as it ever was."