EDITOR'S NOTE: The following was the cover story in the Gameday program from Sept. 29, when the Broncos defeated the Eagles 52-20.
Stroll down the road of orange-and-blue autumns past and take a single, mental snapshot of anything involving a Denver Broncos offense between 1994 and 2007.
What comes to mind?
Is it John Elway humming one of his patented spirals through an impossibly tight window and sticking the ball directly in his receiver’s breadbasket?
Perhaps it’s the iconic image of Terrell Davis making a decisive cut and exploding upfield.
Do you think of Rod Smith, Shannon Sharpe and Ed McCaffrey reaching skyward for a pass and contorting themselves to make a jaw-dropping catch?
Or would you pick Clinton Portis slashing and sprinting his way through a defense? Jake Plummer scrambling out of the grasp of an oncoming pass rusher and whipping the ball for a first down?
Somewhere – engulfed in the bustling of bodies and popping of pads – Tom Nalen was smack in the middle of all of it, commanding the offensive line at center and helping make all the aforementioned Broncos lore possible.
A Cornerstone at Center
For 14 seasons, Nalen toiled in the trenches – using technique and tenacity in exerting his will on opposing defenders who often outweighed him by heaps – and anchored Broncos offensive lines that blocked for 11 single-season 1,000 yard rushers during the course of his career.
And as Nalen now enters the Broncos’ Ring of Fame as a two-time Super Bowl champion, five-time Pro Bowl selection and many-time benefactor of key blocks that spurred game-changing plays, there are several different ways to reflect on his career.
You can examine it through the words of his former teammates – or the ones that Nalen used so sparingly during his playing career, evading the media spotlight and letting his blocking speak for itself.
“I remember watching some film on Tom Nalen, because I’m always looking at the running backs when I’m watching film,” Davis recalled. “But I happened to look up and I see Tom Nalen coming downfield, about 15-to-20 yards downfield. He would block guys that far downfield. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
“Tommy was a great player,” Sharpe added. “He was a great technician. He worked hard on his craft. He was the guy who made all of the calls for the offensive line to make sure John (Elway) and Jake (Plummer) and Brian Griese, all those guys, were going to be protected to the utmost.”
If the visual is more your style, take your pick – there’s a whole stockpile of images to choose from.
For example, there’s Nalen muscling the Jets’ 310-pound defensive tackle Jason Ferguson roughly six yards off the ball in opening a lane for Davis to run through on his pivotal 31-yard touchdown scamper in the second half of the Broncos’ 23-10 triumph in the 1998 AFC Championship Game.
Or there’s the 286-pound Nalen lining up across from mountainous defensive tackles like Gilbert Brown and Ted Washington – who, at their playing weight, may have been nearly 100 pounds heavier than Nalen – and conquering the size disparity with exemplary blocking mechanics.
“They seemed to get by with their girth and their size throughout their career, so technique-wise, they were exposed to little things like allowing me to get my hands inside on them,” Nalen recalled on blocking larger opponents. “I just tried to use what my assets were and find their deficiencies, like we all did, and try to expose it.”
And if you’re more into quantifiable means of representation, the statistics go on and on.
Nalen blocked for six different 1,000-yard rushers – Davis (who rushed for 2,008 yards in 1998), Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis, Reuben Droughns and Tatum Bell – and helped the Broncos crack the 2,000-yard rushing mark as a team in nine different seasons during his career, peaking at 2,629 yards in 2003.
Four of those rushers – Davis, Gary, Anderson and Portis – topped the 1,000-yard mark as rookies.
Nalen’s 188 career starts are second only to Elway in Broncos history.
“I think you need to be able to adapt to things, to situations. With me being undersized, I kind of adapted to that role and found other things that I was good at,” Nalen said. “I was good with my hands, I tried to outthink the guy across the line of scrimmage from me. I think that – if you want to stay around the league that long – you kind of have to adapt to things.”
Nalen adapted to the circumstances from the onset of his career, when he was selected by the Broncos in the seventh round of the 1994 NFL Draft – with 217 other players picked ahead of him.
“I still kind of have a chip on my shoulder about the draft,” Nalen said. “I just think that the draft itself can create a good motivational tool if you’re not drafted where you feel like you should be drafted.”
Nalen was released by the Broncos after his first training camp, before the team resigned him as a developmental prospect. By 1995, he was the team’s starting center, and the outpouring of thousand-yard rushers ensured – something Nalen credited in part to the zone-blocking scheme of then-Offensive Line Coach Alex Gibbs.
“I think Alex was an outside-the-box thinker,” Nalen said of the current offensive consultant for the club. “I think a lot of the offensive line coaches at the time knew football but knew it as the familiar whereas Alex would think outside the box. And we had the personnel to do what he wanted to do.”
In the 1997 season, Nalen jelled with Gary Zimmerman, Mark Schlereth, Brian Habib and Tony Jones as the lightest offensive line in the NFL – and the group played an integral role in the Broncos’ first Super Bowl win.
The offensive line’s dominance was never more evident than in the postseason, when the team rushed for 1,297 yards in seven playoff games during the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl championship seasons, including 310 yards in a 42-17 win against the Jaguars in the 1997 AFC Wild Card Round.
“I think that was probably the height of our blocking,” Nalen recalled. “It was nice because it was the team that knocked us out the year before. We really put it on them."
Their performance in Super Bowl XXXII, subduing a heavily-favored – and heavily-shaped – Packers defensive line in the Broncos’ 31-24 triumph, is also enduring.
“Green Bay was just tired at the end of the game,” Nalen remembered. “It’s an amazing feeling when you get guys on the ropes and can really put them away.”
And while his playing days are now behind him, football still occupies Nalen – he co-hosts a Denver sports-talk radio show – and he remains physically active, although he’s since traded punishing pass rushers for punishing the pavement on two wheels.
“I ride my bike and try to not get passed on trails,” he laughed. “That’s good enough for me now.”
“It was a lot of fun. I lucked out health-wise, for the most part, and had very good coaches,” he said. “It was a very consistent path.”
Consistent – perhaps the quintessential word that captures Nalen’s career, from the seventh-round to the Ring of Fame.
“It’s a huge honor to say, hey, I played with some very good guys and this is the main reason we were able to win Super Bowls, because of guys like Tom Nalen,” Sharpe said.
“I don’t know if he’ll be a Hall of Famer or what, but he is definitely going to go down as one of the best centers in the history in the game,” Davis added. “I’m happy for him. I think it’s well-deserved that he’s going into the Ring of Fame.”