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Sacco Sez: How the Broncos' back-to-back Super Bowl champs were built


Now is the time when NFL teams are putting together their rosters for 2020 and beyond, every team seeking the common goal of the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Fans are quite familiar with the great Denver Broncos team constructed by John Elway that went on to win Super Bowl 50, but I thought we might look back to that era in the 1990s when the Broncos' roster combined talent with all other necessary ingredients to eventually win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.

For starters, before head coach Mike Shanahan returned to the Broncos in that capacity, we already had two key ingredients: leadership and drive at the very top.

Our owner was future Hall of Famer Pat Bowlen, whose mantra of "I want us to be number one in everything" was more than just words on paper.

Even though we did not win that elusive title before Mike, the team drafted future Hall of Fame tight end Shannon Sharpe, future Hall of Fame safety Steve Atwater, and of course had in place future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and future Hall of Fame tackle Gary Zimmerman, both from trades.

Players play. Players win. So the roster is everything.

And as President of Football Operations/General Manager John Elway is showing now, you have to have the quarterback, and when you do, you can fill in the other pieces far more rapidly.

When Mike Shanahan arrived in 1995, he already had Elway, and had a previous relationship with him. Right now, Elway has Drew Lock, and to quote our GM, "The sky's the limit for him."

Shanahan came back to the Mile High City with a plan, having just won the Super Bowl with the San Francisco 49ers, and he inherited the aforementioned roster pieces that were so vital. So he could focus on what he did not have, knowing what he had in place.

Shanahan quickly set about gathering players who would join the others in forming the core of a team that would consecutive world titles in 1997 and 1998, making the Broncos one of NFL history's legendary franchises.

Those Super Bowl teams boasted wide receivers Rod Smith (undrafted free agent from Missouri Southern State) and free agent Ed McCaffrey, who had been with Shanahan in San Francisco.

When he named them the starters and cut two former first-round draft choices who had been playing ahead of them, the press asked why.

"Because they practice better every single day," Shanahan said, "and if I had any guts I would have done this a year ago."

Shanahan, of course, had plenty of intestinal fortitude, but self deprecation is often a path taken by great leaders.

Backing them up was wide receiver Willie Green, who joined us on the same day as superb fullback Howard Griffith, both as fee agents, both from Carolina.

When we signed them I called Charlie Dayton, my counterpart with the Panthers, and asked what kind of guys we were getting.

"Jim, you just tore the heart and soul out of our locker room," Charley replied.

We also signed previous Super Bowl champion Mark Schlereth from the Washington Redskins, and of course the kind of leadership he provided has been documents on many occasions.

On the defensive side, we signed free agent defensive end Neil Smith from Kansas City, and I remember him sitting with Pat in his office when the owner said, "Neil, we did not bring you here to win. We brought you here to win it all."

As the defense became stacked with new players, it was loaded with talented character guys, including Keith Traylor (who went on to win the Super Bowl with New England after winning two in Denver), Alfred Williams (who had been part of the University of Colorado national championship team) and undrafted defensive line free agents Maa Tanuvasa and Harald Hasselbach.

Bill Romanowski had come in as a free agent in 1996 as well, and having won back-to-back world championships in San Francisco, "Romo" went on to join the short list of those who have done that twice, with different teams.

One of the final pieces of the puzzle was starting cornerback Darien Gordon, who was with us for just two years — but we won the Super Bowl both years and he was one of the great punt returners in our history as well.

Quarterback Bobby Brister, tight end Dwayne Carswell, running back Derek Loville, also a former 49er ("Being a champion is very difficult," he said. "We just make it look easy.") and 1997 first-round pick Trevor Pryce were among those who had to fight for playing time on that championship roster.

The process of building a roster to win a championship — the whole idea of building a team — not new.

And the Broncos have a guy doing it who has been a part of it as a Hall of Fame quarterback, and who is the only such quarterback in NFL history to then build one himself and win as a general manager as well.

It is hard to win again and again, but that is John Elway's stated goal, and it is not a process that is new to him or Broncos Country.

The process continues and is not new, but this will not be the first time the Broncos have ever done so, nor even the second.

This is about maintaining and adding to the great player acquisitions of the Denver Broncos, which now as always happens with one goal in mind.

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