by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

There was a time in TGS existence when the two laughingstock franchises in pro football were the Pittsburgh Steelers and Denver Broncos. The Steelers never even made the postseason until 1972, and we all know what happened thereafter. Denver, being one of the original eight AFL franchises, didn't start until much later than the Steelers, but the Broncos never did better than a 7-7 mark in 1962 during the ten-season run of the league. Denver never even finished with a winning record until John Ralston's second Bronco edition in 1973. And the playoffs would have to wait for 1977, when Denver rode its famed "Orange Crush" defense under first-year HC Red Miller into the Broncos' first-ever Super Bowl, which it would lose to Dallas.

We did some calculating the other day and figured out that since 1973, those same Steelers and Broncos have had the fewest number of losing seasons of any NFL franchises. They have also participated in a combined sixteen Super Bowls since the 1974 season, and won nine of them. Fans of the Browns or Lions or Jaguars or Titans should thus take heart...Pittsburgh and Denver were once in their same seemingly hopeless situations.

There is no reason for us to bring up the Steelers this week other than the fact they make a nice bookend with Denver for the theme of our review of Super Bowl 50, which the underdog Broncos won on Sunday by a 24-10 count over Carolina. And, as a point of reference for what in retrospect has been a rather remarkable four decades-plus run in Denver, when the Broncos have rarely been out of contention, and only a handful of times would finish with a sub-.500, losing record.

While the national media have mostly fawned over the Steelers, the Patriots, and Packers, and continue to make a fuss over the Cowboys, Denver has experienced as much or more sustained success than any of them. The Broncos finally began to win in the mid '70s under the ownership of brothers Gerald and Allan Phipps, who had helped save the franchise for Denver in the mid '60s. Industrialist Edgar Kaiser would buy the team in 1981, and three years later would sell to Pat Bowlen, a Canadian-based lawyer and real estate developer. And then the Broncos would begin a quick ascent and mostly stay at a high altitude for the next three decades...and are still flying high.

The Bowlen era has seen Denver reach the Super Bowl a staggering seven times in 31 years, the most in the NFL over that period of time. The Super Bowl wins are now at three after the Sunday success over the Panthers. Sure, Bowlen had John Elway at QB for most of the first half of his ownership tenure, but many forget that Elway, the ultimate one-man football show, never got his Stanford to a bowl game in his college career. While Bowlen the owner inherited a top-tier coach in Dan Reeves and a young Elway, and team qualified for the playoffs as a wildcard in 1983, the Broncos were no powerhouse, but they quickly ascended to the next tier in Bowlen's first ownership year of 1984. No expense was spared by Bowlen for his team, which would become a desired destination for players around the league. Denver's operation was first-class and then some from the day Bowlen took ownership.

Bowlen did not seek the limelight, as would some other owners, like Dallas' Jerry Jones, but the Denver owner would eventually become one of the league's most influential voices. A confidante was former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who valued Bowlen's judgement and economic sense. Bowlen might have been the NFL's forward-most thinker involving league economics and especially its television contracts, and whose ideas and strategies would effectively net the league billions of dollars.

The Bowlen story, however, has become very bittersweet, especially in the wake of the Broncos' latest Super Bowl win. After a diagnosis of Alzheimer's, Bowlen would step down from day-to-day operations of the football club he loved in 2014. The keys to the franchise were handed to team prexy Joe Ellis and especially to Elway, effectively the supremo and in charge of all football-related decisions from his executive vice president of football operations title.

It was Elway, with Bowlen's blessing, who brought Peyton Manning to Denver in 2012. And it was also Elway's call to part ways with HC John Fox after last year's playoff exit vs. the Colts, hiring old chum Gary Kubiak as the replacement. Make no mistake, Fox's departure was forced, as Elway, though fond of his first head-coaching hire, also came to the conclusion that Denver was probably not going to win a Super Bowl under Fox after three straight disturbing flame-outs in the playoffs (one of those at Super Bowl XLVIII vs. the Seahawks). The back-to-the-future theme in Denver would also include defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, once a Denver d.c. and its HC in 1993-94 among Phillips' many numerous NFL stops, hired by Kubiak after serving as his d.c. in Houston and spending the 2014 season out of football.

The framework of the modern Broncos, however, has been the work of Bowlen. And even though he is no longer actively involved and his condition reportedly deteriorates, he remains central to the Denver theme. Especially to Elway, whose stricken owner had once delivered a stirring "This one's for John!" quote to honor then-QB Elway at the conclusion of Denver's initial Super Bowl win (a 31-24 success in XXXII vs. Green Bay), one that still resonated in Bronco Nation.

So, no surprise, then, that Elway would return the favor to his owner when accepting the Lombardi Trophy after the win over the Panthers. "This one's for...Pat!," shouted Elway, trophy in hand, from the podium. We're not sure Bowlen, in his current state, was able to comprehend. But Bronco Nation sure could.

Indeed, Pat, this one was for you.


Unless you were a diehard Denver fan, however, Super Bowl 50 was a bit of a disappointment. That's mostly because we saw very little of the swashbuckling Carolina offense that led the NFL in scoring at 31 ppg, or the same Cam Newton named league MVP the night before the game. And while the Panther defense played well enough to win, it did not make for especially entertaining viewing.

Most of Denver's games this season were played in the same, grinding fashion as the Super Bowl. Carolina's weren't. So, as the Broncos were able to weather the Panthers' notorious early KO attempts, and establish the game at their own pace, Denver, thanks to its defense, was effectively in control of the game almost from the outset, save for a brief few moments when the Panthers appeared as if they were ready to assert themselves. Those moments, however, were fleeting.

The game turned into the sort of trench fight in which the Broncos, winners of 11 games by seven points or fewer, were built to flourish, and one in which Carolina was not quite as familiar.

Though Denver's offense gained only 194 yards, it did help set the tone of the game on the very first possession, when Manning led the team smartly downfield for an early field goal by Brandon McManus and a 3-0 lead. And when the Panthers would go three-and-out on their first possession, the pattern of the game had essentially been set. Flashy Newton stats or not, Denver's defense was going to be in control of the proceedings.

We won't review every detail of the game, but will point out what we believe were a couple of key moments other than the ongoing pressure the Broncos applied to Newton, who never looked comfortable all afternoon, and did not react well to a rare beating absorbed. On Carolina's second possession, WR Jerricho Cotchery was ruled to have not maintained control on what would have been a 25-yard completion that would have pushed the Panthers out to near their 40 yard-line. The play required replay review, and while close, was not overturned, resulting in another errant "TV review" by the CBS telecast ex-referee, Mike Carey, whose percentage correct was not much better this season than Fox counterpart Mike Pereira. Two plays later, Newton was stripped of the ball on a sack by the omnipresent Bronco LB Von Miller, with Denver's Malik Jackson enveloping the bouncing ball in the end zone for a TD and a 10-0 lead.

After scoring their lone TD to cut the lead to 10-7, the Panthers would fail to move on their possessions for the remainder of the first half, relinquishing a chance to maintain momentum. The Super Bowl-record 61-yard punt return by Denver's Jordan Norwood in the 2nd Q preceded the second McManus field goal and allowed Denver to regain control just when it seemed it could relinquish as much, as the 13-7 lead endured until halftime.

In the third quarter, down 16-7 but having driven to the Denver 28, Newton missed over the middle on a pass to Ted Ginn Jr. and was intercepted by the Broncos' Chris Harris, who himself would subsequently fumble. Fortunately for Denver, LB Danny Trevathan was alert enough to fall on the ball at the Bronco 7. In retrospect, Trevathan's hustle play rates alongside Miller's sacks among the most-important plays of the game. The Panthers would thus waste their two biggest (and only big) plays of the day, a 45-yard Newton-to-Ginn, Jr. pass on the initial drive of the second half that would end in PK Graham Gano's 44-yard field goal bouncing off the upright, and a 42-yard rainbow pass from Newton-to-Corey Brown that preceded the Harris interception.

Of course, the dagger blow was also administered by the Bronco defense when Newton was again separated from the ball deep in his own territory with just over 4 minutes to play and Carolina still down only 16-10. In business at the Panther four, Denver would score four plays later when C.J. Anderson would fight his way across the goal line. Manning's last pass of the day, and perhaps his career, won't even exist as part of his passing stats, but they were worth a score on a final two-point conversion pass to Bennie Fowler to put the lead at 24-10 and out of the Panthers' reach with 3:08 to play.

In the end, the Broncos defensive effort was reminiscent of some of the best we recall in Super Bowl annals, ranking alongside the "Super Bowl Shuffle" Bears of 1985 and the 2000 Ravens in their romps. It was certainly not a good late afternoon/evening for offense; collectively, quarterbacks Manning and Newton combined to complete only 31 of 64 passes, were sacked 12 times and picked off twice. The Broncos, who hit Tom Brady 20 times in the AFC championship game, the most of any quarterback this season, unnerved Newton, who was pressured a career-high 19 times. And while he saved a handful of sacks with his feet and upper-body strength, he was battered mercilessly. Carolina, which lived by the turnover all season en route to a staggering +28 margin, lost the TO battle 4-2, with two giveaways in Denver territory and the two aforementioned Newton sack fumbles deep in Panther territory. Carolina PK Gano would miss a 44-yard FG; Denver would get the aforementioned Super Bowl-record 61-yard punt return from Norwood, and McManus would make all three of his field-goal tries, giving Denver the key edge on special teams. Along with aforementioned defensive tenacity, Denver could withstand a couple of mistakes of its own (turnovers while in Carolina territory) to survive.

So, where do we rate Super Bowl 50 in our much-discussed TGS Super Bowl Rankings? Because there was some drama deep into the 4th Q, and the game was fairly taut, we have given it a better ranking than a game with so little offense would usually deserve, though also acknowledging the stellar effort by the Broncos defense was something very special.

32-XIX, San Francisco 38 - Miami 16 (at Palo Alto)...Unless you were a 49er fan, this one was a disappointment, as it failed to live up to its much-hyped "shootout" billing. The San Francisco defense, however, made sure there was no drama by muffling Dan Marino and his record-setting Dolphin offense, while Joe Montana & Co. toyed with an overmatched Miami stop unit.

31-XII, Dallas 27 - Denver 10 (at New Orleans)...What shaped up as an intriguing matchup failed to materialize as expected, as Denver self-destructed with 6 turnovers, with QB Craig Morton banished to the bench in the 3rd Q. Although the Broncos rallied briefly behind backup QB Norris Weese and hinted at a possible grandstand finish for a time in the second half, the Cowboys' arsenal of weapons was too much, with a couple of spectacular TDs (Butch Johnson's acrobatic 45-yard TD catch from Staubach, which might have been overturned had replay been in effect, and an option pass from RB Robert Newhouse to WR Golden Richards) sealing the outcome in the 2nd half.

30-50, Denver 24 - Carolina 10 (Santa Clara)...No offensive showcase, but the Broncos would ride their defense in a performance reminiscent of the 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens to shut down Cam Newton and the NFL's top-scoring team. Denver did not need to do much on offense thanks to a "D" that forced four turnovers and would score the game's first TD when game MVP Von Miller, a constant thorn in Newton's side, stripped the Panther QB on a sack and Bronco Malik Jackson would recover in the end zone. The game would stay taut until deep in the 4th Q until Newton, sacked 7 times, would again be separated from the ball deep in his own territory, with Denver DB T.J. Ward's recovery preceding RB C.J. Anderson's game-clinching TD.

29-VII, Miami 14 - Washington 7 (at Los Angeles)...Added significance because it was the final installment of the Dolphins' perfect 17-0 season. But the game was mostly a bore after the Dolphins took control in the 1st half, with the "No-Name" defense throttling the Skins for most of the day. Became mildly interesting late in the 4th Q after Garo Yepremian's infamous flubbed FG and Mike Bass' subsequent TD return, but that was about the only drama of the afternoon.

28-XL, Pittsburgh 21 - Seattle 10 (at Detroit)...Although there was considerable drama for a time well into the 4th quarter, XL was a bit of a disappointment and hardly a shining hour for the referees, whose series of extremely questionable calls (ironically almost all favoring the Steelers) at crucial moments of the game distorted the proceedings. Pittsburgh did capitalize when presented with opportunities, however, and used big scoring plays by Willie Parker & Hines Ward to shift the momentum in the second half.

The 30th spot seemed about right to us, right in the middle of some other unremarkable but somewhat compelling past Super Bowls.

In Las Vegas and elsewhere in Nevada, it can be assumed that the sports books did very well, as will usually be the case when an underdog team wins. Though there was some buy-back on Denver after the price briefly reached Carolina -6, the vast majority of sports book tickets were wagered on the Panthers. The prop bets, as usual, were likely a profit center for the books.

Everything else about Super Bowl 50, off of the field, was, according to most, among the best "Supes" in recent years. We were up for a couple of days prior to the game to sample some of the festivities, which were almost all held in San Francisco, 40 or so miles north from Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara. The NFL Experience, an effective NFL theme park that resurrects every year in the Super Bowl host city, drew big crowds at the downtown Moscone Center, while most of the TV networks broadcast from the nearby "NFL City" venue. San Francisco came alive over the two weeks and proved an excellent host venue, with the aforementioned fan festivals extended over two weekends. The weather, which can often be fickle in the Bay Area during early February, cooperated nicely.

While the game was not a classic, some insiders believe the total package might act as something of a high-water mark for Super Bowls in the immediate future. The ticket market remained mostly insatiable, and there were several things working in the favor of Super Bowl 50, not to mention a very appealing matchup featuring Newton and Manning. Forbes Magazine believed "a perfect storm of factors," including that game's location in stock-option land, plus the involvement of many local high-tech firms as sponsors, contributing to the boon.

But there's more reason to believe "50" could be a near-term apex. Television trendlines are beginning to head in the wrong direction, with a glut of content in all areas (entertainment, sports, news, weather, Kardashians) that make profit goals harder to reach. Sponsors are also finding it harder to get their money's worth as more customers are able to avoid commercials through various streaming or time-shifting devices. The NFL product is still appointment TV at its best, but the cable industry is undergoing change, especially with its bundling policies. The traditional TV landscape has begun a period of decline.

And, as far as the Super Bowl goes, it moves away from the riches of the Bay Area next year to Houston, where the oil economy is sagging, and then to Minneapolis, where the weather could diminish the non-ticketed, just-for-fun sorts who flocked to the football festivals in San Francisco the past week. So if the Super Bowl ticket prices on the secondary market sag a bit in the next couple of years, we'll know why.

Finally, the CBS telecast was solid if not spectacular. No matter his status, Jim Nantz is not among the top play-by-play announcers in the business, though he has improved his delivery and cadence over the years. The aforementioned and often inaccurate ex-referee in the booth, Mike Carey, was not consulted after missing on his prediction of the outcome of the Cotchery catch review. Some new gimmicks, like the Eye-Vision, might help to revolutionize the review process. We skipped much of the pre-game and halftime entertainment, but like everyone else had to sit through the annual crush of special commercials.

Only a handful seemed to hit the spot. Doritos ads, which have been crowd-sourced for Super Bowls for years, featured a couple of winners, with a soon-to-be-father eating the chips while his wife being given an ultrasound, and a collection of dogs trying to sneak into a supermarket. We admit partiality to the animal-featured commercials, and the pack of dachsunds, dressed as hot dogs, charging toward Heinz ketchup and mustard squeeze bottles, was another memorable one for us. Ditto for T-Mobile, which took advantage of Steve Harvey's new-found fame from the Miss Universe fiasco to be cleverly woven into one of its 30-second spots. The NFL's "Super Bowl babies" spots had been previously released but hit the mark, and Buick had a clever one with Odell Beckham, Jr. and a woman catching a bridal bouquet O-Beck, Jr. fashion.

Thus ends the 2015 football season, which spilled later into February than ever before. Our next scheduled look at the NFL will be our annual draft previews in mid-April in the final two issues of TGS Hoops. Over our next two issues we will be providing our annual NBA mid-season reviews with the All-Star break next weekend.

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