Jan 12, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Detailed view of a Denver Broncos helmet on the field against the San Diego Chargers during the 2013 AFC divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Remembering the Broncos: Al Wilson


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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  • Nathan Bates

    its too bad we just cant clone him. Wilson was one of the all time great mikes and no just bronco mikes either

    • Chad Jensen

      Especially for his era. I can think of one ILB, or MLB that one could argue was better and that’s Ray Lewis.

      • uh_infinity

        Really? Ray Lewis? You must have watched him at different times than I did. Baltimore’s defense was designed to funnel the running back to him. Kind of easy to make the tackle when everyone else has taken out the offensive line. When Baltimore when to a 4-3 defense, Ray Ray was lost and didn’t register anywhere near the numbers he had in the 3-4. On any given day and twice on Sunday I would take Al Wilson over Ray Ray. You also get the bonus of none of the drama/baggage Ray Ray comes with. I’m just glad he got a clue at the end of is career on how people are supposed to act in society.

        • Chad Jensen

          I prefer Wilson. But one could argue that Lewis was better. That’s all. The triumvirate at linebacker that the Broncos had for a time, Ian Gold, Al Wilson, D.J. Williams, was so sick. Speed was the name of the game. And Smoke Dog didn’t miss tackles.

          • anon76returns

            There was also a period from 2000-2003 that saw Gold, Wilson and Mobley playing LB for the Broncos.

          • Chad Jensen

            Just doing a little research. I forgot that Ian Gold was a 2nd round pick….

  • Donald Johnson

    The Goal Line Hit!!! He Blasted Somebody Trying To Jump Over Top…That And Pick He Had In Coverage Against Marshall Faulk Off Kurt Warner When They Where GREATEST SHOW ON TURF On Monday Night…Wilson Was An Old School Hitter And His Play And Style Is Why I Believe NFL NOT MAKING HELMET HIT FLAGS REPLAY CHALLENGE FLAG WORTHY, IS A MISTAKE…How Many Of Us Have Seen Hard Hits Get A Flag And Refs Not Be Put On The Spot By Replay To Accurately Show A Guy Led With Helmet…A Playoff Game Or Big Game Will Be Decided By A Flag Off Big Hit And IT WONT BE LEADING WITH HELMET…Shoulder Pad Hits Cant Draw Flags NFL!!!

  • Erick Trickel

    When I played LB, Wilson was one of two LBs I tried to model my game around. He is one of my favorite LBs of all time and incredibly underrated not just around the NFL but of the Broncos LBs as well.