Thursday, January 30, 2014

How Long It's Been: The Denver Broncos Reached a Super Bowl (Or the Atlanta Falcons, For That Matter)


I'll be doing this for their opponents, too -- not just the Seahawks, who are going into the game having never won a title, but for the entire city of Seattle.

It took the Denver Broncos 5 tries to win their first Super Bowl. It took them only 1 more to win their second. Back-to-back Super Bowls didn't erase the memory of their 4 losses, but it did mark them as one of 17 teams to win back-to-back NFL Championships... 13 separate teams to have done it... 12 current teams... and 7 teams in the Super Bowl era. (The 1997-98 Denver Broncos prevented the Green Bay Packers from doing it for a 4th time, a 2nd time in the Super Bowl era; only the 2003-04 New England Patriots have done it since.)

But then John Elway retired, and the Broncos hadn't been back since.

Until, upon Elway's recommendation, they signed Peyton Manning, who had been cut by the team for whom he had been the greatest player ever (since their move away from Johnny Unitas' Baltimore, anyway), the Indianapolis Colts, who had seen him miss an entire season with a neck injury and, panicking because of that injury and his age, took Andrew Luck with the first pick in the next year's NFL Draft.

It was a good result for the Colts, and Luck has done just fine in his first 2 seasons, and has made the Colts relevant again. A title could well be in his future.

It was an even better result for the Broncos, as, this coming Sunday, they will play in the Super Bowl for the first time since...

January 31, 1999, Super Bowl XXXIII (33), at the Miami Dolphins' stadium, whatever it was called that year. (I think that stadium has now had more names than the Dolphins have had trips to the Super Bowl, not counting years when they've hosted it.)

The defending champion Broncos, who went 14-2 in the regular season and came from behind at halftime to beat Bill Parcells' New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game, came in as 7 1/2-point favorites over the Atlanta Falcons, who had never reached a Super Bowl before -- and, like the Broncos until now, haven't since. No, not even with Michael Vick as their quarterback. (If you believe in karma, it's not that, unless we can prove he was already involved with dogfighting.)

Ironically, the Falcons' coach was Georgia native Dan Reeves, who had previously coached the Broncos to 3 of their Super Bowl defeats. In fact, as a player with the Dallas Cowboys, as an assistant coach with the Cowboys, and as a head coach, Reeves was involved with 11 NFL Championship Games or Super Bowls, from the 1966 to the 1998 season. That's a record, unless you count 1943 when George Halas, owner, head coach, and former player of the Chicago Bears, was away in the Navy during World War II, then it's 11 for him between 1932 and 1963. (He also played on the Bears when they won the 1921 title, before there were championship games.)

The Eugene Robinson prostitution scandal was a bit of a distraction for the Falcons, and Elway's pass to Rod Smith, which Robinson was unable to stop, was a big reason why the Broncos won, 34-19, making Elway the rare player, in any sport, who won a World Championship in his last game. But the Broncos would have won anyway.

That's 15 years ago, effective tomorrow. How long has it been?

*

Needless to say, neither team has any players left from their 1998-99 season. Elway and Shannon Sharpe have been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and cases can also be made for the elections of Terrell Davis, Mark Schlereth and Steve Atwater. (One could also be made for that of Bill Romanowski, but do you really want to see him enshrined?) None of the Falcons has yet made it, although it's possible a Hall of Fame career for Jamal Anderson was short-circuited by injury, as has thus far been the case for Davis. The Falcons' Cornelius Bennett (a member of the Buffalo Bills' 4 straight Super Bowl teams) and Jessie Tuggle should also be considered.

At the time, the Patriots, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New Orleans Saints, the Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans franchise, the Rams since they moved to St. Louis (though they had won a title in Los Angeles in 1951), the Baltimore Ravens since they moved from Cleveland, and he Colts since they moved to Indianapolis, had never won a Super Bowl. The Bucs, the Saints, the Ravens, the Oilers/Titans, the Colts since they moved to Indianapolis, the Carolina Panthers, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Cardinals since they moved to Arizona (though they had won titles in Chicago in 1925 and 1947) had never even been in one. In each of those cases, that is no longer true.

The Cleveland Browns were still on hiatus, between Art Modell moving them to Baltimore and the arrival of their expansion team. Houston was also on hiatus, between Bud Adams moving the Oilers to Tennessee and the expansion Texans arriving.

Half of the NFL's teams, 16 out of 32 (if you count the San Francisco 49ers, whose Levi's Stadium will open this coming fall), have since replaced the stadiums in which they played the 1998-99 season.

NFL trailblazers Sammy Baugh, Marion Motley and Johnny Unitas were still alive. Don Hutson, Sid Luckman and Doak Walker had died within the past 2 years.

Peyton Manning had just finished his rookie season with the Colts. Tom Brady was a backup quarterback at the University of Michigan, Drew Brees the starter at Purdue University, Ben Roethlisberger at Miami University of Ohio, and Michael Vick had just led Virginia Tech into the National Championship game, losing to Florida State. Troy Polamalu was a freshman at the University of Southern California. Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Larry Fitzgerald were in high school. Mark Sanchez and Adrian Peterson were in junior high school. Russell Wilson, Richard Sherman, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck were in elementary school. Johnny Manziel had just turned 7; Jameis Winston, 5. 

In addition to the Broncos, defending World Champions were the New York Yankees (coming off their 125-50 season), the Chicago Bulls (who haven't won one since), and the Detroit Red Wings. The Heavyweight Championship of the World was divided between Evander Holyfield (WBA & IBF) and Lennox Lewis (WBC).

Since the Broncos and Falcons last appeared in a Super Bowl, the Olympic Games have been held in Australia, America, Greece, Italy, China, Canada and Great Britain, and are about to be held in Russia.


The President of the United States was Bill Clinton, and he was in the middle of his impeachment trial in the Senate. He would be acquitted by majority vote on both counts, as there was no admissible evidence that he had committed any crimes.

The Governor of New York was George Pataki, of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman. Newly sworn in as Governors of the States involved were Bill Owens of Colorado and Nathan Deal of Georgia. Rudy Giuliani was Mayor of New York, Wellington Webb of Denver, and Bill Campbell of Atlanta.

The Prime Minister of Canada was Jean Chretien. The monarch of Great Britain was Queen Elizabeth II, that hasn't changed, but the Prime Minister was Tony Blair. London club Arsenal were the holders of the Premier League title and the FA Cup (a.k.a. they had "done The Double"), but Manchester United were on their way to winning both and the European Champions League (the only time an English club has done the "European Treble"), coming from behind in stoppage time to beat German giants Bayern Munich, a highly symbolic victory considering the 1958 Munich Air Disaster that killed 8 Man United players and injured 2 others so badly that they never played again. The current holders of the Champions League's trophy, the European Cup, were Spain's Real Madrid, having beaten Italy's Juventus. France, led by Zinedine Zidane and also featuring a young Thierry Henry, had recently won the World Cup, defeating Brazil on home soil in the Final.

The films The Thin Red Line and She's All That premiered in January 1999, while the Mel Gibson film Payback premiered the week after that Super Bowl. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was on its way.

Major TV shows that debuted in the 1998-99 season included Sports Night, Will & Grace, The King of Queens, Felicity, Becker, MTV's Total Request Live, and some shows that weren't set in New York City, like The Sopranos (okay, it was in North Jersey, and some of it happened in New York), Farscape (which didn't even take place on this planet), V.I.P. (which frequently seemed like it was on another planet), The Hughleys, Charmed, the disastrous The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer, and cartoons like Batman Beyond, The Powerpuff Girls, Jay Jay the Jet Plane, The Wild Thornberrys, Rolie Polie Olie, Ed, Edd n Eddy, Family Guy, Futurama, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the U.S. premiere of Pokémon.

In music in January 1999, Britney Spears released her debut album, while Eminem's would follow the next month. Rod Stewart and Rachel Hunter split up. A&M Records and the German industrial band KMFDM disbanded. (Sadly, their initials did not stand for "Kill Mother-Fucking Depeche Mode. It stood for "Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid," German for "No pity for the majority.")

At that point, we did have the Internet, but not yet Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. A movie released the next year, Frequency, had a storyline where a 1999 New York police detective found his father's old ham radio set (sort of like the Internet for the middle of the 20th Century), and, through a sci-fi phenomenon, is able to talk to his father, a New York fireman in 1969, and warn him of his impending death in a fire. Remembering his best friend complaining about not buying stock in Yahoo! when it was cheap, he uses the ham set to tell the 7-year-old version of that best friend to remember the word "Yahoo!" When (spoiler alert) the movie's happy ending happens, the cop is shown hitting a baseball that breaks the headlight of the best friend's car -- a Mercedes with a New York license plate reading YAHOO1. (The Mets' '69 World Series win becomes a major plot point in the film.)

Mobile phones were now quite common, but they were still the flip-open kind, bringing to mind the communicators on the original Star Trek series -- except that show took place 300 years in the future, and the new "mobiles" were smaller. This was around the time that cellular phones began to be called "cell phones" more often, and were already becoming, in some cases, so annoying that New York Daily News writer Pete Hamill described them in his column as "yell phones."

In early 1999, in addition to President Clinton's enemies embarrassing themselves more than him with the impeachment process, America's economy was booming like never before -- and, sadly, like never since. The single European currency went into effect. An earthquake killed over 1,000 people in the South American nation of Colombia. Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black immigrant in The Bronx, was shot at 41 times, hit 19 times, by 4 New York cops. All of whom were acquitted in a criminal trial. They should have all gone to prison, at the very least for criminally negligent homicide. None of them so much as lost their jobs for being lousy marksmen -- after all, they didn't just hit him 19 times, they missed him 23 times. 

In early 1999, King Hussein of Jordan, and Iris Murdoch, and Star Trek doctor DeForest Kelley died. There are not, as yet, very many famous people who were born in 1999, who would be turning 15 this year. Among them are Cameron Boyce and Karan Brar of the Disney Channel series Jessie, and singer Madison Beer. Modern Family actors Ariel Winter, Nolan Gould and Rico Rodriguez were born the year before, as were Elle Fanning (Dakota's sister) and Steve Irwin's daughter Bindi. Justin Bieber was about to turn 5, while Miley Cyrus had just turned 7.

January 31, 1999. The Denver Broncos beat the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl. Neither has been back to the game since.

Now, the Broncos are back. The Falcons? Well, they were a dismal 4-12 this season, but the season before, they got all the way to the NFC Championship Game. So, who knows?