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Sacco Sez: The Broncos have found a quarterback at the Senior Bowl before

For Denver Broncos fans, this week was all about the Senior Bowl.

With great respect for the Pro Bowl, the minds of Broncos coaches, administrators and fans are all focused on the college talent, which was coached in part by the Denver staff in Mobile, Alabama.

Head Coach Vance Joseph pointed out in his first Mobile press conference that it is a lot harder to make mistakes in drafting when you spend a week with the top prospects.

And we all know a top player personnel goal for the Broncos is improvement at the quarterback position, whether through player development, free agency, a trade or the draft.

The Broncos-coached North team had two of the top college prospects on its roster: Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield from the University of Oklahoma and Josh Allen from the University of Wyoming. 

But this would not be the first time the Broncos selected a Senior Bowl quarterback in the draft. Denver once drafted a quarterback who had been chosen the Senior Bowl MVP.

The year was 1976, and the quarterback was San Diego State's Craig Penrose, who had finished his college career with the Aztecs after starting at Colorado for his first two years.

He set all kinds of records at San Diego State, where one of his teammates was safety John Fox, who would later serve as the Broncos' head coach.

I had the chance to catch up this week with "Penny," as he was known to Fox and his future Broncos teammates.

"In my era of time, the Senior Bowl was the biggest audition possible for college players," Penrose said over the phone. "I had played in the Blue-Grey [Football Classic] and Shrine Games, which both were wonderful, but the Senior Bowl practices all week seemed like a rehearsal for all the NFL teams, all the time."

He said the serious tone of the game was several notches above the others. 

"We had two a day practices in full pads, and every drill was packed with NFL scouts," he said. "As a player, you knew this was serious stuff. There was no 'going through the motions' that week. Our team was coached by the New England Patriots staff, which meant that Red Miller was the offensive line coach and offensive coordinator."

Anyone who knew Red, the future Broncos Ring of Fame coach, knew he was always all business.

"The offense we ran that week turned out to be the same one I would run for three years with the Broncos in just a couple of years," Penrose said. "People are always forming opinions, and the longer you are in the league the more you cross paths, and during that week I never would have dreamed that I would be in the Super Bowl with Red and the Broncos just two years later."

Former Broncos head coach John Ralston drafted Penrose in the fourth round of that year's draft, and Ralston's personnel instincts were right on. However, he and the Broncos parted ways after the 1976 season and Miller came to the Mile High City as the head coach in 1977.  

"The Senior Bowl was by far the most unique of the three all-star games, the most businesslike in every way. We had a nice team with good receivers and an excellent line," Penrose said. "A quarterback can get into a rhythm, like we all saw Nick Foles do [in the NFC Championship] for Philadelphia, and that happened to me in the game."

"It was one of those days, I dropped some balls into tight spots and hit some guys downfield, and they all did a great job running with the ball."

He sure did.

Trailing 28-21 in the third quarter, Penrose threw three touchdowns in that period, and the North led by a 42-28 margin going into the fourth. They would hang on for the win.

The North team won 42-35, and Penrose engineered a record-setting offensive performance as his team recorded 596 total yards and 427 passing yards. The team also completed 70 percent of its passes. All three were Senior Bowl records at the time.

"You never consciously think anything about setting records or being the MVP, you just play and hopefully get into a good rhythm," he said. "In those days the Senior Bowl MVP got a car, and I was fortunate enough to get a Dodge Charger."

Penrose got to choose the color, and he fittingly chose gold.

"It was also the only bowl game in which the players got paid, as we were all finishing our college careers in that game," Penrose said. "I think the winners got something like $2,500 per player, so that was great as well!"   

Penrose has nothing but the best of memories from that week.

"Your perspective of what has great meaning gets better as the years go by," he said. "It was an intense and rewarding week, a wonderful stepping stone for me to the Broncos and the NFL, and an absolutely priceless highlight of my career."

The achievements didn't end there for Penrose. He was drafted and played four years with the Broncos, mostly as the backup to Ring of Famer Craig Morton. Most importantly, he added a Super Bowl ring with the Broncos in 1977 to his gold Dodge Charger.

He had a key role off the bench to secure a Denver win at Cincinnati in that first Super Bowl season, engineering an 11-play drive for the clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Bengals. That win helped Denver move closer to home-field advantage for that inaugural Super Bowl run.

Perhaps Mayfield or Allen will eventually play a part in another Super Bowl run. Regardless, the Senior Bowl remains a big deal for quarterbacks looking to take control of their futures. In the 40-plus years since Craig "Penny" Penrose won MVP honors, not all that much has changed.

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