When the Denver Broncos secured the services of safeties Justin Simmons and Kareem Jackson earlier this month, it put me in the mind frame of thinking about one of the superior traditions in team history.
Denver has a tradition of great play at the safety position, often by both safeties at the same time, and this has frequently resulted in winning seasons, playoff seasons and championships.
From General Manager George Paton to Head Coach Vic Fangio, to every fan in Broncos Country, there is a feeling that all the right moves are being made, and we know the team is not yet finished.
Jackson is a 12th-year defensive back who has been a solid player throughout his career and was outstanding in his games played with the Broncos the past two seasons. Regarding Simmons, there is not much to add to the fact that he is regarded by everyone in the game as one of the best young safeties, a Pro Bowl player whose future is likely better than his excellent past.
But what Broncos Country expects from this twosome is nothing new, but actually more of the same, regarding what Denver fans have watched in the past.
The Broncos have five safeties in the team’s Ring of Fame, and two of those are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not in the Ring of Fame, but in the Hall of Fame, is fellow safety Brian Dawkins.
It all started back in 1960, before the team had even played a game.
The first trade in Broncos history was of two draftees. Denver sent fullback Jack Spikes (a pretty good player in his own right) to the Dallas Texans for Austin “Goose” Gonsoulin.
Goose played here from 1960-66 and was Denver’s first great safety with 43 career interceptions for the franchise, and he was one of the four original Ring of Fame inductees in 1984.
Of course, it has been well documented that the Broncos were not a good team in those days, but before that initial decade was over Denver had drafted Billy Thompson.
“B.T.” was a 13-year player here and was inducted into the Ring of Fame in 1987 after a magnificent Bronco career at both cornerback and safety, with 61 career takeaways. Thompson played a vital role on the “Orange Crush” defense that led the Broncos to Super Bowl XII.
During the latter stages of his career, he teamed with fellow safety Steve Foley, who is the Broncos’ all-time interception leader with 44, a record that I think will never be broken.
Then came the 1980s, a decade in which the Broncos were largely led by Dennis Smith at safety. And for the last six years of his career, he teamed with Steve Atwater to form arguably the franchise’s best safety duo. Both players are in the Ring of Fame and, of course, Atwater is in the Hall of Fame. Many Bronco observers, myself included, think Smith should be in the Hall as well.
It is possible that no team in history has had a safety tandem that hit as hard, for as many years, as Atwater and Smith.
In the 1980s, Denver was the only AFC team to go to the Super Bowl three times, and Smith was a huge reason why. His hits were full-on collisions, rattling affairs that made one wonder why a player would ever again venture onto his turf. One of the more feared and ferocious hitters in the NFL, Dennis Smith made six Pro Bowls as a Bronco.
That paragraph reads like it was all about Atwater, and that is because the two players were so similar in style. The Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998, and if a separate defensive player were chosen as Most Valuable Player, Atwater likely would have won that honor for Super Bowl XXXII.
He had a brilliant 10-year career with the Broncos that at one point included seven consecutive Pro Bowl selections.
Trying to describe the tandem of Atwater and Smith boggles the mind.
But it did not stop there.
As free agency became a big part of pro football and players moved around more, the Broncos had both John Lynch (Ring of Fame, Hall of Fame) and Brian Dawkins (Hall of Fame), though in separate stints.
Each was a notable player for the Broncos, and while we did not win a world championship in their eras, it was not because they were lacking in any way. Dawkins made the Pro Bowl twice with Denver, and Lynch is one of just three players in Denver history to make the Pro Bowl in each of his first four years with the team.
Of course, who can forget the “No-Fly Zone” that was a cornerstone of one of the great defenses in NFL history.
Safeties T.J. Ward and Darian Stewart were the safeties on that defense, one of the league’s best ever. Both Ward and Stewart earned Pro Bowl honors during their time in Denver.
This is such an illustrious list, but I do not want to omit the “other” safety who started next to Atwater in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.
That would be Tyrone Braxton. All he ever did was win.
Braxton not only won back-to-back Super Bowls as a Bronco, but he won three national championships in college at North Dakota State. He is on the Broncos Top 100 All-Time team.
I share the excitement that fans feel regarding our signings for 2021. It looks like something very positive is brewing here.
And if our outstanding safeties make big contributions to Denver’s success, as is expected, it will not be the first time Broncos Country has seen that.
No matter how many different times and ways it occurs, success never gets old.