January 31, 2014 Updated: January 31, 2014 at 8:17 pm
I'm a south Denver boy, raised in an old neighborhood filled with brick homes and Broncos fans. The past was alive there, and my elderly neighbors talked about the days when no tall buildings obstructed the view of the mountains, their mountains.
But those elderly neighbors were not just cursed with nostalgia. They also talked about the long stretch when the Broncos ranked as the worst team in professional football. Remember, the Broncos couldn't even record a winning season from 1960 to 1972.
When picking the ultimate Bronco fan, I always think of my neighbor Mr. S, a gruff yet friendly man who owned a thriving tire business. He bought season tickets in 1960, the year of the Broncos birth, and the players became family to him. Tom Jackson was Tommy, and John Elway was Johnny. I expected him to try something fresh with Lyle Alzado's name, too, but Mr. S never called him Lylely.
In the earliest days of 1978, nobody in Colorado was filled with more joy than Mr. S. His Broncos, losers for so long, were on their way to the Super Bowl. Mr. S. was a serious man, but he walked with a happy hop during those gleeful days. So did Mrs. S. So did everybody.
These are special journeys, these Broncos trips to the Super Bowl. For Broncos fans concentrated in Colorado and scattered across America, these were precious rides.
Rides you never forget.
Even if, in some cases, you want to forget.
Jan. 15, 1978 - New Orleans
Cowboys 27, Broncos 10
Craig Morton finally won a Super Bowl for the Dallas Cowboys.
Too bad he carried the Cowboys to triumph while wearing a Denver Broncos uniform.
When you talk about the worst performances in Super Bowl history, it's a good idea to start with Morton's appalling awful game against the Cowboys.
There's a backstory. Morton arrived in Denver with his body in tatters and embarked on a crusade to redeem his career. If this sounds similar to Peyton Manning's current comeback crusade, that's because the Morton bears a remarkable resemblance to the player currently wearing No. 18 for the Broncos.
Morton, like Manning, had already started a Super Bowl for another team. Morton, like Manning, was considered finished. Manning because of his neck. Morton because of his knees.
Broncos fans should hope Manning's arrives at a happier ending. It can't be much sadder.
Morton started for the Cowboys in Super Bowl V and he was grappling against many of his former teammates while also tangling with arch-nemesis Roger Staubach, the quarterback who chased him out of Texas.
The Broncos relied on their stingy defense, one of the finest of the Super Bowl era, to carry the team to victories. The Orange Crush, led by Tom Jackson, Billy Thompson and Lyle Alzado, held opponents to 14 or fewer points 13 times. The Cowboys' Tom Landry coached Morton in Dallas. He knew about those gimpy knees. He also knew about Morton's fragile psyche. The Cowboys overwhelmed the Broncos offensive line and spent the entire game smacking Morton upside his head.
Morton stumbled to Tim Tebow-like numbers, completing only 4 of 15 passes for 39 yards. He threw as many interceptions as completions.
Still, the Broncos had a chance. Coach Red Miller finally pulled Morton late in the third quarter with the Broncos trailing 20-3 after a touchdown catch by the Cowboys Butch Johnson that was actually a drop. Norris Weese, who died in 1995, led the Broncos to a touchdown, cutting the lead to 10 points and offering faint hope.
The Cowboys soon squashed that hope, bolting to a 27-10 lead and ensuring Morton's eternal place in Super Bowl infamy.
Jan. 25, 1987 - Pasadena, Ca.
Giants 39, Broncos 20
For John Elway, Super Bowl XXI was a homecoming. He had played high school football a few miles away from The Rose Bowl, and he returning to Greater Los Angeles as a conquering hero.
Since departing Granada Hills High School, Elway had been chased by the New York Yankees, who paid him $150,000 for a summer job as a right fielder in their farm system. He defied Colts owner Bob Irsay, using his leverage with the Yankees to force a trade to the Broncos. In essence, Elway was a draft-dodger. He directed his Broncos 98 yards in a last-minute march to the end zone in Cleveland, defying the wild men and women in the Dog Pound while directing the Broncos to their second Super Bowl.
When Elway ran on the field at the Rose Bowl to face the Giants, nothing seemed beyond his reach.
Except, on this day, a Super Bowl victory.
Elway pushed the Broncos to a 10-7 lead and eventually threw for 304 yards. He delivered an admirable performance, especially compared to his next two trips to The Ultimate Game.
Duane Charles "Bill" Parcells fled the Air Force Academy in 1978 after only one season as head coach. The next season, Parcells remained in Colorado Springs, where he worked as a broadcaster for high school football games. He openly wondered if his coaching career had ended.
It had not. When the Giants completed their drubbing of the Broncos, they hoisted their rather large coach on their shoulders. Yes, the Giants carried Parcells off the field. A massive party awaited the coach who failed at Air Force.
Meanwhile, Elway trudged toward the first of the three saddest nights of his sports life.
Feb. 1, 1988 San Diego
Redskins 42, Broncos 10
When searching for the worst 15 minutes in Colorado sports history, the first stop is here. The Broncos surrendered 35 points to the Washington Redskins . in one quarter. These same Redskins had scored more than 35 points only once during the season. And that was during an entire game.
Elway was horrendous, completing only 14 of 39 passes with three interceptions. It might have been the worst game of his career.
Jan. 28, 1990 - New Orleans
49ers 55, Broncos 10
Or maybe this was the worst performance of Elway's career.
In one of the most gruesome beatdowns in NFL history, the Broncos were left in about the same shape as Berlin at the end of World War II.
We're talking about utter ruin.
Broncos coach Dan Reeves is one of the under-loved figures of Colorado sports. He led the Broncos to three Super Bowls. He crafted teams that dominated the AFC.
But he never won a Super Bowl. He never came close. He did manage to severely irritate Elway, but we'll get back to that juicy subject later.
On this day, the Broncos faced the extreme misfortune of battling a 49ers team led on offense by Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and on defense by Ronnie Lott. You could make a strong case all three men were better at their jobs than anyone else who ever stepped on a football field.
The loss badly blurred what had been, really, a remarkable streak. The Broncos traveled to four Super Bowls from 1978 to 1990. A franchise that had never won a playoff game before Christmas Eve 1977 transformed into an AFC power.
And, alas, a national joke.
Jan. 26, 1998 San Diego
Broncos 31, Packers 24
The Packers ranked as 11-point favorites, and in a way this margin made sense. Brett Favre was at his rollicking, wildly entertaining best. Green Bay reigned as world champs.
And the Broncos were, well, the Broncos. The team that always lost Super Bowls by double digits.
In one of the most thrilling football games ever - and the finest Super Bowl of them all - Terrell Davis carried the Broncos to a title. Davis gained 157 yards, scored three touchdowns and would have buried the Packers early if not for a severe first-half migraine.
Favre nearly rescued his team, keeping the drama alive until the final seconds. When linebacker John Mobley swatted a Favre pass to the turf, Elway began to dance on the sideline. It was the dance of a supremely happy man.
The dance of a football natural, as talented as any player of his generation, who finally arrived at his expected destination.
Jan. 31, 1999 Miami
Broncos 34, Falcons 19
The 1998 Falcons, coached by Dan Reeves, are one of the underappreciated teams in recent NFL history. The Falcons finished 14-2 and won nine straight games on their ride to the Super Bowl. This included victory over the 15-1 Minnesota Vikings in the NFC title game.
This is the same Falcons team that trailed the Broncos 31-6 in the Super Bowl.
The Broncos were devastatingly mighty with Elway in dazzling twilight and Davis at the height of his all-too brief prime. The Broncos were so mighty they annihilated a powerful version of the Falcons.
The leadup to this game was all about Elway vs. Reeves. The duo had traveled to three Super Bowls, but this was a testy relationship.
When the game ended, there was no doubt who triumphed in this football battle. Elway walked into the sunset with his second straight title while Reeves limped on surgically repaired knees to a glum locker room. He had lost yet another Super Bowl.