Welcome to “Remembering the Broncos”. In this series, we’ll go back in time and spotlight former players in Denver Broncos history who may not be Hall of Famers but who were perhaps underrated and more than left their mark in the Bronco canon.
Let me start this one off by saying that there is no reason, NO REASON, that Steve Atwater shouldn’t already be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It sickens me to think that a group of 46 pretentious sports writers over the years have seen fit to keep him on the outside looking in. More on that later.
The Denver Broncos selected the Smiling Assassin in the 1st round of the 1989 NFL Draft out of Arkansas. Atwater, a former high school quarterback, was immediately plugged into the starting lineup next to fellow thumper, Dennis Smith. Together, they became the most feared safety tandem in the NFL.
In 1988, the year before Atwater was drafted, the Broncos’ defense was ranked 2nd-to-last in the NFL. Going into the ’89 draft, the team knew they needed to upgrade their defense, so they targeted an impact defensive player.
As a rookie, the Smiling Assassin made his presence known quickly. The Broncos went on to an 11-5 record, won the AFC West and would go on to face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIV. Unfortunately, the Broncos still had deficiencies on defense, despite Atwater’s presence in the secondary and ended up getting gutted by the ‘9ers 55-10.
Steve Atwater was known as a box safety. As such, he accumulated an inordinate amount of tackles for a safety. He could cover, but it wasn’t his forte. Mainly, he impacted the coverage by making the opposing wide receivers see shadow people. Everyone was worried about getting their block knocked off by the Smiling Assassin.
If you’re old enough to remember September 17th, 1990, when the Broncos hosted the Kansas City Chiefs and the reigning rushing champion, Christian Okoye, then I give you props.
The Chiefs handed the ball off to the Nigerian Nightmare and when the Smiling Assassin met him in the hole, he knocked him flat on his back. Honestly, and Chiefs fans will reluctantly agree, Okoye never was the same after that hit. It stripped his confidence.
Atwater continued to patrol the secondary for the Broncos throughout the ’90s. From 1990 through 1998, he was elected to 8 Pro Bowls and was selected to the All-Pro team 3 times.
Atwater, and the Broncos’ fortunes began to change when Mike Shanahan was hired as head coach in 1995. Shanny’s maiden season as the head coach wasn’t anything to write home about. The Broncos went 8-8.
But in ’96, the Broncos dominated the AFC, going 13-3 and winning the AFC West. This earned them a first round bye.
They would end up playing host to the upstart Jacksonville Jaguars. Nobody, and I mean nobody, could have predicted what happened that day. The Jags knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs and what could have been a 3-peat Super Bowl team, went home empty handed.
But everything came together for Steve Atwater and the Broncos in ’97. The Broncos would go on to defeat the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers and earn the franchise’s first ever World Championship.
The Broncos repeated as Super Bowl Champs in ’98, when they defeated the Atlanta Falcons. As Captain of the defense, Atwater was a major component in the process of winning back-to-back titles. And history should judge him as such.
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In 10 seasons with the Denver Broncos, Atwater notched 1,038 tackles, 5 sacks, and 24 INTs. As a safety, he average more than 100 tackles a season.
Some people wonder if this is the reason that he hasn’t been elected to the Hall of Fame yet. Atwater primarily played free safety, but he wasn’t what one would call a ”traditional” safety.
As mentioned above, his dominant play in the box really set him apart from his peers. But he wasn’t the fastest, or best cover safety in the NFL.
The NFL is a production-based business. Any player who makes it to the Hall of Fame did just that; produce. Whether it’s individual accolades, or team championships, Atwater has done it all. But for whatever reason, and despite the franchise’s success in history, it’s been very hard for Denver Broncos to make it to the HoF.
It’s time for the 46-person Selection Committee to pull their heads out and do what’s right. Enshrine Steve Atwater in the Hall of Fame. He’s already immortal in the hearts of Broncos Country, but nobody deserves a bust in Canton more than the Smiling Assassin.