Is there more anticipation for this year’s Broncos camp than ever before?
At DenverFan.com, we’re counting the days until the regular-season opener. But the truth is, one could count the days to training camp and build equal anticipation.
It’s been a decade since Broncos Country experienced anything quite like this. In two weeks, Russell Wilson and Co. will stride onto the practice fields at UCHealth Training Center. An adoring crowd along the west hillside of the facility will greet them.
It will look, feel — and sound — different than recent camps. There will be tangible hope in a way not felt since 2016, when Denver and the Broncos still basked in the glory of Super Bowl 50 — and fans honestly believed Paxton Lynch would be the next great Denver quarterback. (It didn’t take long for those dreams to die, but six years ago this summer, they very much existed.) There will be music, a welcome change from the stale, quiet atmosphere of training camps under previous head coach Vic Fangio.
But is this the most anticipated training camp in Broncos history?
Eh … not quite.
After the Broncos’ longest stretch of losing seasons in a half-century, it might feel that way. But that’s only a feeling.
This is a big moment, no doubt. It bursts with anticipation. And it ranks among the top five. But it’s not Number 1.
1. 1983: Elway Watch
All you need to write is “John Elway,” and any lifelong Broncos fan above the age of 46 probably has a memory of his first training camp — which was the second of 21 consecutive camps at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
Cameras chronicled each move. Newspapers disseminated Elway’s days down to the most minute detail, including what he ate at the chow hall. Reporters arrived from points near and far. And even though the American football boom was still years from hitting the United Kingdom, a crew from the UK’s Channel Four hit Greeley, documenting how Elway ate chicken-noodle soup, steak, salad and onion rings with ketchup for lunch one day.
In some ways, the hyper-scrutiny of Elway’s work was a precursor to the all-encompassing, breathless camp coverage that is commonplace today.
The QB Scorecards of the 2016, 2017 and 2021 Broncos camp competitions can trace their existence back to the analysis of every Elway throw within an inch of its life.
But for Broncos fans in 1983, none of that was on the brain. It was simply about their team having the most celebrated quarterback prospect in decades — perhaps ever, to that point.
Denver had been used to quarterback instability before Elway’s arrival. Even Craig Morton — the best passer in team history to that point — spent most of his six seasons in Denver fighting off challenges from Norris Weese, Craig Penrose, Matt Robinson and finally, Steve DeBerg. It wouldn’t take long before no such doubt existed with Elway.
2. 2012: Peyton Manning arrives
This was the 10th training camp at the team’s Dove Valley complex — and by far the one that had the facility bursting at its seams. There was no huge hillside then; only berms shaded by evergreens that bathed two sides of the west field in shade. Fans squeezed into every nook and cranny among the pines.
The Broncos' highest annual average Dove Valley camp attendance was 2,872 in 2012. This year's average through five practices is 4,134.
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) August 4, 2015
Manning immediately took notice of the throng.
“I don’t think we’d ever have to incorporate fake crowd noise if we wanted to simulate playing on the road,” he said after his first training-camp practice as a Bronco. “It was a great crowd; they were enthusiastic.”
That enthusiasm never faded over the following four seasons, but in the summer of 2012, Denver and Manning were a fresh, new pair. It proved to be symbiotic. Recovered from his injuries, Manning found a second career peak in Denver. Broncos fans provided ample support — well, at least until a few booed the team off the field with a halftime lead over Jacksonville in 2013.
But in 2012, it was all happiness. It was another summer of love in Broncos Country.
3. 2022: Russ and the return of hope
If you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a chance. That’s the way of the NFL.
It’s not news, of course. To a degree, it has always been like this. When you look back at the 1970s, even those defensive-oriented world champions had Hall-of-Fame-bound quarterbacks, from Johnny Unitas of the 1970 Colts through Dallas’ Roger Staubach, Miami’s Bob Griese, Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw and Ken Stabler of the Oakland Raiders. Even six of the Super Bowl losers that decade had QBs whose busts sit in Canton.
But we’re just two decades removed from a three-year stretch in which the winning Super Bowl quarterbacks were Baltimore’s Trent Dilfer and Tampa Bay’s Brad Johnson. And teams that made it to the final game around the turn of the century — but lost — featured less-heralded passers such as Chris Chandler, Rich Gannon and Jake Delhomme, and a pretty-good-but-not-HoF-bound Steve McNair. You needed a quarterback playing well — but you didn’t need a Canton-worthy QB.
Now, having one of “those guys” is generally the ticket for perennial contention. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a great season — see the 49ers’ NFC title with Jimmy Garoppplo — but the year-in, year-out winners have someone destined to join the game’s immortals. The Los Angeles Rams didn’t break through until they replaced Jared Goff with Matthew Stafford.
And in the AFC West, being a quarterback backwater meant a likely last-place finish. Fangio delivered a spot-on assessment about what separated the Broncos from their AFC West rivals one day before the team fired him:
Vic Fangio’s answer to my question about what separates the other teams in the AFC West from the Broncos.
He opened by saying, “Those other three teams have top-shelf quarterbacks, which is obvious to everybody."pic.twitter.com/MXPq2Mknfo
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) January 9, 2022
Had Denver found itself running it back with Drew Lock or trading for Baker Mayfield, there would have been the usual pronouncements of potential. But after the last six seasons, only the most optimistic of souls would have truly believed them.
But with a nine-time Pro Bowler like Wilson in the fold, you don’t have to be naive. His resume speaks for itself.
Denver’s hope now isn’t based on “maybe” — it’s built on a 10-year bedrock of success despite situations that weren’t the most QB-friendly. The Broncos might not go all the way this year, but they ought to be in the mix for a while.
“The Franchise” arrives
In their first seven years of existence, the Denver Broncos failed to sign a first-round pick. Now, their selections included some massive names — none bigger than Dick Butkus. But those early Broncos didn’t have the budget of many of their American Football League rivals. So, while teams like the Houston Oilers and New York Jets could make audacious contract offers to Billy Cannon and Joe Namath, respectively, the Broncos were left with table scraps by comparison. Their record reflected that.
The AFL-NFL merger changed that. The bidding war between the leagues for college prospects ended. 1967 marked the first “common draft,” and effectively began the modern draft era. Denver drafted the former Syracuse star, and he became the first top pick to sign a deal with the club.
Little later said he didn’t know where Denver was when the Broncos drafted him. He quickly learned — and loved it. The fans returned that affection — and then some. He became the most beloved pre-Elway Bronco, to the point where fans carried him off the Mile High Stadium field after his final home game on a frigid December 1975 afternoon.
But in that first camp, Little and new head coach Lou Saban brought hope where none had existed. The Broncos held camp at their then-new facility in Adams County, and curious fans stretched for a look at the highest-profile athlete ever to wear a Denver pro uniform to that point.
Further fuel poured onto the fire with a preseason win over the Detroit Lions — the first time an AFL team ever beat an NFL squad. Famously, Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras promised to walk back to Detroit if the Broncos defeated the Lions. It was a promise unkept; Karras took the team charter home after the Broncos handed Detroit a shock 13-7 defeat. But it added another layer to the excitement of the summer.
5. 2010: Tebowmania
Biggest Dove Valley camp attendance ever: 3,103. "Te-bow! Te-bow!" chants rattled through the field even after practice.
— Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) August 1, 2010
Prior to Manning’s arrival, the clamor around Tim Tebow fueled the most well-attended training-camp at Broncos headquarters to that point. You couldn’t spit on the berms at Broncos headquarters without hitting someone in a crisp, new No. 15 Tebow jersey. Fans chanted for him, clamored for him and paid more attention to third-team snaps than at any point in recent memory.
Despite the obvious issues in throwing mechanics, enthusiasm for Tebow from the public never waned. But hopes for the season quickly did. Edge rusher Elvis Dumervil tore his pectoral muscle a week into training camp; he wouldn’t play again until 2011. Without him, the defense collapsed and was the league’s worst.