Welcome to PredominantlyOrange’s new series, “Remembering the Broncos”. In this series, we’ll go back in time and spotlight former players in Denver Broncos history who may not have been Hall of Famers but who were perhaps underrated and more than left their mark in the Bronco canon.
Al “Smoke Dog” Wilson. Oh, how I loved Al Wilson. We all did. He was the heart and soul of our defense for 8 years.
Wilson was drafted by the Denver Broncos with the 31st pick in the 1st round of the 1999 NFL Draft. He was the team’s first draft choice, following the 1998 Super Bowl-winning season that ended with John Elway hanging up his cleats.
Wilson came to the Broncos by way of the Tennessee Volunteers. As a collegiate player, he had a very prolific career. In 1998, he won a National Championship and served as a team captain. This all served as excellent experience and made him very attractive to NFL teams. At the time, I remember thinking that there was no way he’d still be on the board by pick 31. Fortunately, he was.
He came to a Broncos team that was trying to pick up the pieces and form an identity without their Hall of Fame QB. It was a kind of post-Super Bowl hangover. And it showed on the field.
In Wilson’s rookie year with the Broncos, the team went 6-10 and missed the playoffs. He notched 71 combined tackles, including 56 solo. His rookie season served as an excellent primer for what would become a remarkable career.
In 2000, the Broncos turned the ship around under the Pro Bowl-caliber QB play of Brian Griese and the fiery leadership of Wilson and earned a Wildcard berth. Unfortunately, they faced the vaunted Baltimore Ravens, who would go on to win the Super Bowl. They lost 21-3.
Over the next two seasons, the Broncos, as a team, didn’t do very well. They missed the playoffs in 2001 and 2002, but Al Wilson continued to shine. Over that span, he notched 216 total tackles and earned a Pro Bowl nod in each season.
The Broncos’ fortunes began to change when the team decided to let Griese walk and they signed free agent QB, Jake Plummer. The team would go on to make it to the playoffs in 2003 and 2004 as a Wildcard team, but Wilson and the defense were torched, both years, by Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
“We got embarrassed.” -Al Wilson.
Those two consecutive Wildcard beatdowns affected Wilson in a big way. When the Broncos stepped onto the field in 2005, the defense had transformed into a fast, hard-hitting, stingy unit. If anyone remembers, they were known, for a short time, as the “bend but don’t break” defense, under Larry Coyer.
However, Wilson and the Broncos orchestrated a phenomenal 2005 season that culminated in a Divisional Round victory vs the defending Super Bowl Champion, New England Patriots and an opportunity to advance to the Super Bowl. They would host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The Broncos lost 34-17, primarily due to Jake Plummer throwing 4 INTs and putting the Broncos’ defense in a lot of tough situations.
2005 didn’t end the way that Al Wilson had hoped, but he did earn his first All-Pro honor. He managed to get named to the All-Pro team the next season too.
Wilson’s Broncos career came to a terrifying end on December 3, 2006, when he injured his neck on a fake field goal attempt vs the Seattle Seahawks.
Although he was supposedly cleared by doctors, Smoke Dog never was able to return to the field. In April of 2007, the Broncos released him.
In his 8 seasons with the Denver Broncos, Al Wilson earned 5 Pro Bowl nods and 2 All-Pro selections. He is, in my humble opinion, the best pure middle linebacker this team has ever had. It saddened me to no end when he was released.
To this day, the Broncos have been unable to effectively replace Wilson at Mike. From Nate Webster to Joe Mays, the team has churned through prospective Mikes like crazy. All to no avail. Currently, the team hopes that the player who now wears Wilson’s #56 jersey, Nate Irving, is ready to turn the corner and take on the mantle of the Mike of the future. Only time will tell if he can do it. If not, the Broncos will continue to look for Wilson’s long-term replacement, almost 8 years after he was released.
What is your favorite Al Wilson memory, Broncos Country? Tell us in the comments!