A Fistful of Bowlen: 27 years of cool

I'm going to be honest with you.

I haven't a clue who the Broncos are going to draft right now.

I don't know Tim Tebow's 40-yard dash time.  I'm sketchy on how many times Taylor Mays is going to bench press 225 pounds.  And Mike Iupati's biceps?  I'm guessing they are pretty large.

But a draft expert I am not.  Coincidentally, the real draft experts like Mel Kiper, Jr. aren't either, so I guess I'm in decent company.  At least I saved on the hair spray.

So if you wanna get mocked, I apologize in advance.

I am simply here to provide a mid-week respite from your hurricane of draft coverage.  This week I'd like to celebrate one of the greatest (if not the greatest) owners in sports--Patrick Dennis Bowlen.  This March will mark Bowlen's 27th season as owner. As I've said on numerous occasions, this cat has a penchant for three things in life: winning, fur coats, and winning.   Luckily, numbers one and three never go out of style.

So if you're feeling fashion forward, follow me after the jump and we'll give Bowlen our own Mile High Salute with the Top 5 greatest plays of the Bowlen era--with a twist.  We're looking at these plays through the lens of points value.  

The Bowlen Era - The Short Version

Casting aside for a moment the mediocrity of the last several seasons, let me tell you everything you need to know about the Denver Broncos under Pat Bowlen:

  • 5 AFC Championships
  • 2 Super Bowls
  • Best Home Winning Percentage in the NFL

If not for a Steve Sewell fumble in 1991, a Mark Brunell mind freak in 1996, and a missed pick-6 interception from Champ Bailey in 2005, Bowlen might have 3 more Super Bowls to add to his collection.  In a league defined by winning, Bowlen has no equal.  That's why a few seasons of .500 football can look like Armageddon to some Broncos fans.  It just doesn't happen under Bowlen's watch.  And it's why you're not likely to see the Broncos continue the trend.  Orange is too bright a color to hide for long. 

The Top 5 

Picking the Top 5 plays in the Bowlen era was almost impossible.  There are simply too many of them.  So I decided to make it just a little easier on myself.  I decided to look at the plays from an expected points analysis.  I think you'll find this analysis both interesting and not just your standard water-cooler stuff.  

# 5 - Dennis Smith's Blocked Field Goal - November 17th, 1985, San Diego Chargers

I hate Al Davis with every fiber of my being.  Dan Fouts isn't far behind.  And not because he's a dink-and-dunk announcer--the exact opposite of when he played.  I hate Fouts because he was a great quarterback.  That's why this particular play was amusing.

In Week 11 of the 1985 season, the Chargers and the Broncos played a hard fought game that went to overtime.  The score heading into the extra session was 24-24.  The Chargers won the coin toss, and as one might expect, drove right down the field for the winning field goal.  They lined up at the Denver 23-yard line for a 40-yard field goal.  Dennis Smith, the original Steve Atwater, blocked the kick. However, the Broncos had mistakenly called a timeout before the snap, so the Chargers received another shot at the field goal.  

How often are two field-goal attempts blocked in a row?  Who knows, but I can tell you it's extremely rare.  And it's rarer still to have a a field-goal attempt blocked by the same player two plays in a row.  But that's exactly what Dennis Smith did. 

The 2nd block was even juicier because another Broncos Hall of Famer (and original Champ Bailey), Louis Wright, scooped up the ball and took it all the way back for a touchdown.  The Broncos won 30-24.  

The value of this play was 9.3 points because we would take the expected points that the Chargers lost and add them to the points the Broncos scored.  Here is the breakdown:

Chargers Expected Points Value - 4th and 4 @ Denver's 23-yard line: 2.309 points

Denver's Touchdown (end of game): 7 points

Total Expected Points Value: 9.309 points

Normally we would subtract the expected points of the next Chargers drive from Denver's touchdown, but since the touchdown ended the game, here we would not.  What we end up with, then, is one of the few 9-point swings in Denver Broncos history.

Did I mention that Dennis Smith and Louis Wright deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?  

# 4 -  Rod Smith's 1st NFL Catch - September 17, 1995, Washington Redskins

When Mike Shanahan cut Anthony Miller in 1996, he told everyone that Rod Smith would make them forget all about the flamboyant and former San Diego Charger.   I would classify this as a bit of an understatement.  

It was a tough choice between this play and Smith's 80-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XXXIII.  Ultimately, I chose this play because it was slightly more dramatic than the commercial-filled Super Bowl.  And it represented the beginning of Smith's storied career.

This play doesn't require much of a setup.  Just picture John Elway with a 4th-and-10 at the Washington 43-yard line. 6 seconds to go.  Last play of the game.   Elway throws a deep-left sideline pass.  Smith plucks the ball out of the air over HOFer Darrell Green.  Touchdown.  Here's the expected points breakdown of this play:

Denver's Expected Points Value - 4th and 10 @ Washington's 43-yard line: .517 points

Denver's Touchdown (end of game): 7 points

Total Expected Points Value: 6.483 points

The value of this play isn't particularly sexy, but you can't get through any self-respecting list without mentioning the hardest-working wide receiver in the history of the Denver Broncos.

Did I mention Rod Smith should be in the Hall of Fame?

# 3 - John Elway's 4th-Down Pass to Vance Johnson during "The Drive II" - January 4th, 1992, Houston Oilers

While The Drive gets a lot more attention, The Drive II, and this play in particular, were simply amazing.   In a 1991 Divisional Playoff game and facing a 4th-and-10 at his own 35-yard line with only 59 seconds remaining, Elway was flushed from the pocket, scrambled to buy time, drew the defenders up to him, and with the flick of his wrist got the ball to Vance Johnson along the left sideline for a 44-yard gain.   This was quintessential Elway, and if you've seen the replay over the years, you probably still lose your breath for a few seconds.  The expected-points value breakdown of the play is as follows:

Denver's Expected Points Value - 4th and 10 @ Denver's 35-yard line: -.556 points

Denver's Expected Points Value - 1st and 10@ Houston's 21-yard line: 4.268 points

Total Expected Points Value: 4.824 points

Here Elway was facing a negative expected-points value, and in one larger-than-life play, turned it into almost 5 expected points.  Of course the Broncos went on to score from here, but this play (and let's not forget Gary Kubiak's hold) was the most critical of the drive.

Did I mention John Elway should be in the...oh, well they got one right at least.

# 2 - Elway to Mark Jackson during "The Drive" - January 11th, 1987, Cleveland Browns

Any card-carrying Bronco fan knows this drive by heart.  The particular play I'm mentioning is the 3rd-and-18 at the Cleveland 48-yard line with 1:47 remaining in the game.  Elway threw a 20-yard laser to Mark Jackson to give the Broncos a 1st down at the Cleveland 28-yard line.  The rest, as they say, is NFL history.  

The expected-points value of this play is as follows:

Denver's Expected Points Value - 3rd and 18@ Cleveland's 48-yard line: .593 points

Denver's Expected Points Value - 1st and 10@ Cleveland's 28-yard line: 3.611 points

Total Expected Points Value: 3.018 points

Again we see the magic of Elway at work.  His ability to convert on 3rd and 4th down created a lot of expected points value because of the context of the drive.  In this case, the play was worth about 3 points.    

# 1 - Champ Bailey's 100-yard Interception Return of Tom Brady - January 14th, 2006, New England Patriots

Surprised to see this at the top of the list?  You won't be after I show you just how much this play was worth.  I'm convinced that this single play is quite possibly the most valuable play (from an expected points standpoint) in the history of the Denver Broncos.  

Before I break down the value, let's recall the play quickly.  This was a Divisional Playoff game and the Patriots were driving for the go-ahead score in the last minute of the 3rd quarter.  The Broncos stood tough near the goal line, and the Patriots faced a 3rd-and-goal from Denver's 5-yard line.  Before the play, Bailey and Darrent Williams decided to switch places as another way to confuse Brady.  When Nick Ferguson blitzed, Brady was forced to make a quick decision, and Bailey stepped in front of the pass, intercepted it, and headed down the sideline for the score.  But Patriots TE Benjamin Watson had other ideas.  Watson hustled back on the play and leveled a gassed Bailey at the Patriots 1-yard line.  Mike Anderson scored on the next play.  

Bailey would later say of the play:

''I was on the ground because I was gassed. I couldn't even get up and walk. I was just happy to get the pick. When you can get a pick in the red zone that's quite a turnaround. They could have got 3 or 7 and we turned around and got 7."

I'm not sure if Champ Bailey is a stats guy, but he was almost right about the value of this critical play.  Here is the breakdown:

Patriots's Expected Points Value - 3rd and 5 @ Denver's 5-yard line: 4.825 points

Denver's Expected Points Value - 1st and Goal @ Patriot's 1-yard line: 6.296 points

Total Expected Points Value: 11.121 points

Bailey's instincts in this case created an 11-point swing because we take away the Patriots' expected points and add them to Denver's.   The only way that the play could have been more valuable would have been if the Patriots would have been at the Denver 1-yard line when the play started and, instead of getting caught by Watson, Bailey would have scored the touchdown (like last year's James Harrison interception of Kurt Warner to end the 2nd quarter of the Super Bowl).  Nevertheless, 11 points is a huge swing and I can't recall a similar play in the entire history of the Denver Broncos that matches its value. So it had to come in at #1.

Did I mention that Champ Bailey will go to the Hall of Fame?

Giving It Up for Bowlen

There are two kinds of teams in the NFL.  Those with loaded guns and those who dig.  Actually, there is a third, those that dig and then shoot themselves.  But we'll discuss the Raiders another time. 

Pat Bowlen is the reason the Broncos are always fully loaded.  The results and the plays above speak for themselves.

Pat Bowlen, congrats on 27 years and making this franchise the best in the NFL.

Originally posted at MHR

I’m glad we had this talk.  Now, vaya con Dios, Brah.

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