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Way Back When: Remembering the Broncos' 1989 roster cutdown day


Perhaps the most universally disliked day for coaches and personnel people in the NFL calendar is the annual day of final cutdowns, when the roster of each team is reduced to the mandatory player limit.

This is now tempered just a bit by the fact that many players join the practice squads of all the teams, but it is still very difficult for both player, coach and personnel executive alike when they must call someone in to tell him that he was not good enough to make the final roster — or to be called in to be told that.

I have seen a lot of cutdown days since I first joined the Denver Broncos in 1978, but none stands out as much as that in 1989.

Dan Reeves was Denver's head coach, and the Broncos had made the Super Bowl in both 1986 and 1987, so the franchise was still very talented and looked poised to make another run in 1989.

But on that final cutdown day in 1989, the Broncos performed a major remodel of their roster, and no one on the outside saw it coming.

Four players who had each started for a decade or nearly a decade were released on that day.

Steve Watson had made the team as an undrafted rookie free agent and went on to a Pro Bowl career. He was a key component of the Broncos' 1987 Super Bowl team and is a member of the Top 100 Team, which was announced in 2019. But wide receiver Michael Young had joined the team in the offseason and Reeves had decided to go with Young.

Today, Watson remains one of the most popular players in Broncos history, but on that fateful 1989 day he was let go by the team.

Left tackle Dave Studdard, who had protected future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway and other quarterbacks for a decade since joining the team in 1979, was released. Studdard is a member of the Broncos' Top 100 All-Time Team.

Linebacker Jim Ryan is also a member of the Broncos' Top 100 Team, and he too was released by the Broncos on that fateful day.

But the biggest shocker, which is hard to imagine considering the magnitude of those previously listed, was the release of safety and team captain Mike Harden.

Harden not only was a team captain at the time of his release, and he is also on the Broncos' Top 100 Team, but he had led the Broncos in pass interceptions the previous year with four. Harden went on to play two more years with the Los Angeles Raiders before hanging his cleats up for good.

As stunning as that roster cut seemed, it made way for a future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame to get his immediate start on the field.

The Broncos had drafted Steve Atwater after a career as a three-time All-Southwest Conference selection at the University of Arkansas, where he also earned All-American honors as a junior and senior.

In retrospect, it is no surprise, but Reeves had been so impressed by Atwater throughout training camp and during the team's preseason that he felt Atwater not only had made the team, but needed to start.

It was stunning, but no more so than the composite decision to also release Studdard and Ryan on the same day. The Broncos had also parted ways with the popular kicker Rich Karlis earlier that summer.

Dan Reeves is a very legitimate candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his decision to start Atwater proved to be a great one.

The rookie safety helped lead the Broncos to Super Bowl XXIV in his very first year as a starter, and less than a decade later, he was brilliant in leading the Broncos to their first championship victory in Super Bowl XXXII, following that up with another title the following year.

There is no question in my mind that his performance against the Green Bay Packers in that first Super Bowl was worthy of game MVP honors, but they only give one such award, and of course Terrell Davis most deservedly won it.

The greatness of Steve Atwater as a player and team leader was immediately recognized by Reeves, and he made a very dramatic move in cutting a team captain and very productive player to make room for Atwater as a starter.

The final cuts in 1989 were as remarkable as any in team history, and I remember that general manager John Beake, a true tough guy in NFL annals, came to me and said that I should set up a press conference for the waived players, off property at a hotel, so that they could say their final goodbyes to the press and Bronco fans before moving into civilian life.

Harden and Karlis, the kicker who had been released previously, continued to play for a couple more years, but for Watson, Studdard and Ryan, it marked the end of great careers. Time marches on, and the Broncos again won the AFC Championship and played in the Super Bowl that year.

"That was quite a day," Watson says in remembering the moment. "But, you know," he reflects, "I had a great career with the Broncos. And as I recall, Studdard, Ryan, and Karlis all had signed with the team as free agents. So speaking just for me, it was quite a career."

I still see them at alumni functions, and Ryan is the only one of that group that lives away from Denver, but his son Sam still works for the team today.

While the final cutdown day in 1989 joined them together in a memorable Broncos moment, those guys were a part of many more great memories in Denver Broncos history on the playing field.

Today, of course, there are different players and coaches, and the feelings are similarly raw for players who did not make the initial roster earlier this week. But if there's one similar theme, it's that Broncos Country fervently believes that the process will lead to the same admirable level of success.

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