Three former Broncos — one player and two coaches — are closer to football greatness in Canton, Ohio.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced on Thursday that Randy Gradishar, Mike Shanahan and Dan Reeves are among the 54 semifinalists for the Class of 2023's Seniors and Coach/Contributor categories.
Gradishar, the heart of the fabled "Orange Crush" defense that led Denver to its first Super Bowl appearance, has been a finalist for the Hall of Fame on three previous occasions, the most recent of which was as a finalist for the Hall's 2020 Centennial Slate.
A seven-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro, Gradishar was one of the finest inside linebackers of his era and earned Defensive Player of the Year honors from the Associated Press in 1978.
In the era of football when running the ball was of the utmost importance, Gradishar was a tackling machine, at his best finding the ballcarrier in the trenches, especially in short yardage.
"Every year that he played, he led our team in tackles," former defensive coordinator Joe Collier said in 2020. "He was good. He was very good. He was a linchpin of our 3-4 defense. …
"The fact that we were so good on short-yardage and goal-line defense was Randy. Randy was probably the best short-yardage, goal-line type of middle linebacker in the history of the NFL, really."
Shanahan and Reeves, meanwhile, are the franchise's winningest head coaches (146 and 117 overall wins, respectively), and led the Broncos to five combined Super Bowl appearances.
From 1995 through 2008, Shanahan led the Broncos to an unmatched run of success, winning 61.6 percent of Denver's regular-season and postseason games, including back-to-back titles in Super Bowls XXXII and XXXIII.
"Before Mike got there, we hoped to win," Shannon Sharpe said in a 2020 Ring of Fame special for Shanahan. "If we did this right or did that right, maybe if the other team had an off day, we could win. With Mike, we were expected to win. We expected to play well, and it was very disappointing when we did not win."
Shanahan's remarkable impact also can be seen in how offense is played even today. The West Coast style he implemented with a zone-blocking scheme was incredibly successful in Denver with Hall of Famers like John Elway and Terrell Davis, and it has since flourished and spread throughout the league to coaches like the Rams' Sean McVay.
"B]eing able to marry the run and pass game, trying to be able to create conflict for the defense, so much of the foundation of what our offense has been and the success we've had here is a reflection of what I've learned from him, what I've learned from Kyle [Shanahan] and working under Coach Shanahan was such a blessing,” [McVay said in 2020. I take so much of that with me, and I think it's been instrumental in a lot of the success that we've had here."
Reeves, who brought Shanahan into the NFL as an assistant coach, also had an indelible impact on the Broncos and the league as a whole.
Hired in 1981, Reeves proceeded to push the Broncos to new heights in his 12-season tenure. Under Reeves' leadership, Denver won 60 percent of its regular-season games and went on to make the playoffs seven times. In the postseason, Reeves then led the Broncos to three AFC Championships.
And even outside of his time in Denver, Reeves' career was marked by success. He made nine total Super Bowls, winning one as a player and one as an assistant coach for Dallas. After his time as the Broncos' head coach, he was selected as the AP's NFL Coach of the Year in 1993 and 1998.
"With Dan, you knew you were going to be in every game," Elway said in a statement issued in January after Reeves’ passing at the age of 77. "You always had a chance with him on your sideline. As the head coach, Dan was tough but fair. I respected him for that. We may not have always seen eye to eye, but the bottom line is we won a lot of games together. Looking back, what I appreciate about Dan is how he gradually brought me along to help me reach my potential.
"When you look at all Dan did in this league with all the success, all the Super Bowls and all the wins, I don't think there is any question he belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What he's been able to do — taking two different teams to four Super Bowls and going to nine Super Bowls overall — is incredible. That speaks for just how far-reaching his impact was throughout this league not only as a coach but also what he did as a player."
The next step for Gradishar, Shanahan and Reeves will come on July 27, when the Hall of Fame will announce which 12 seniors and 12 coaches/contributors are selected as finalists by those respective committees.
After that point, the Seniors Committee will pick three former players from the finalists group on Aug. 16 for "final consideration" for the Class of 2023, as the Hall of Fame wrote in its announcement. The Coach/Contributor Committee will then pick one coach or contributor on Aug. 23 for final consideration, as well.