The Dan Reeves All-Stars
by Tom Gower
For the latest installment of our "coaching all-stars" series, which showcases the best player-seasons in the history of some of the NFL's most experienced coaches, we're looking at Dan Reeves.
Dan Reeves got his NFL start as a halfback for Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys. He had two moderately productive seasons, with around 175 carries and 40 catches in 1966 and 1967, but wrecked his knee four games into the 1968 season. He played for four more seasons after that, but never had more than 59 carries in a season again and spent time as a player-coach. He retired following the 1972 season and become a full-time assistant coach.
After eight years coaching under Landry, the final four as offensive coordinator, the Broncos hired 37-year-old Reeves to replace the fired Red Miller after the latter's 8-8 season in 1980. Reeves would coach in the NFL for the next 23 seasons, the first dozen with the Broncos, before moving on to the Giants for four seasons to replace the unlamented Ray Handley and later leading the Falcons from 1997-2003 as they moved on from run-and-shoot guru June Jones.
Reeves finished with a career mark of 190-165-2. He is fifth all-time in games coached, eighth in wins, and lost more games than any other head coach in NFL history. He managed a winning record in the postseason, 11-9, and his teams made the Super Bowl four times, but he retired without having won a ring as a head coach. His impressive longevity gives us an interesting mix of players to choose from.
At least to my memory, Reeves is defined as much as anything else by his relationship with John Elway, who chafed against Reeves' preferred run-oriented style and schemed with offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan against his head coach. Elway's greatness is not present in the only two years under Reeves for which we have DVOA available. Elway made the Pro Bowl in 1991, but he ranked only 22nd in DYAR and 26th in DVOA. Shown more favor by our metrics are Phil Simms' 1993 season (seventh in DYAR, 12th in DVOA) and especially Chris Chandler's 1998 season (sixth in DYAR, fifth in DVOA). It wouldn't seem quite right not to pair Reeves with Elway, though, so I went with his 1987 season. In the dozen games he started during that strike-shortened season, he had the second-best Y/A of his career, ahead of only 1998, and threw for more yards per game than he did any other season in his career.
At running back, Anderson is a fairly easy choice. While his 1998 season led to him becoming one of the star examples of the Curse of 370, he was efficient that year, finishing second in the league with 307 DYAR and eighth in DVOA. Rodney Hampton had a surprisingly productive season in 1995 with 265 DYAR, finishing second in the league, and was more productive than he was in his 1993 Pro Bowl season (89 DYAR). Bob Christian made Dr. Z's All-Pro team in 1998, so he gets to replicate his role blocking for Anderson.
The receivers are harder to determine. Steve Watson is the only one to make the Pro Bowl and finished third in the position in Dr. Z's rankings that year. The only other receiver to draw leaguewide acclaim was Rick Upchurch in 1982 for his return work. As a sign of how the league has changed, when Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson, and Ricky Nattiel were acclaimed as Elway's "Three Amigos" in 1987, they had 99 catches combined. Terance Mathis had an excellent season for the Falcons in 1998, finishing sixth in DYAR and scoring 11 touchdowns while averaging almost 18 yards per catch. Reeves' two Pro Bowl tight ends, Sharpe in 1992 and Alge Crumpler in 2003, both made it on high-volume seasons with only moderate efficiency, a year after they had highly-efficient seasons with lower volume. I went with Sharpe’s high-efficiency, low-volume season, but any of the four would be a defensible choice.
Reeves may have been a devotee of the running game, but that does not mean his offensive linemen were ever highly-acclaimed. His only Pro Bowlers were Oates, Elliott, Bishop (also in 1986), and Bob Whitfield of the 1998 Falcons. Bishop was the only one ever named to Dr. Z’s All-Pro team. We have Adjusted Line Yards dating back to 1996, and the only season a Reeves team ranked in the top 14 was 1998. The Falcons were good running to the right that year, and Dr. Z said nice things about Williams' play. Good enough for me. Right tackle has no good candidate, so I will give the Broncos another representative in Ken Lanier, who started ten seasons for Reeves in Denver and made the second team on the Broncos' 50th Anniversary squad.
DE: Rulon Jones, 1986 Broncos
NT: Greg Kragen, 1991 Broncos
DE: Chuck Smith, 1998 Falcons
OLB: Bob Swenson, 1980 Broncos
ILB: Karl Mecklenburg, 1985 Broncos
ILB: Randy Gradishar, 1981 Broncos
OLB: Simon Fletcher, 1992 Broncos
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Reeves' teams played both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses in his career, but he spent most of the time playing a 3-4 and had more standout linebackers than defensive linemen, so that is what this team will play.
Like his offensive lineman, his defensive linemen hardly ever drew much acclaim. Nose tackle Greg Kragen made the Pro Bowl in 1989, and defensive end Rulon Jones made the All-Pro team in 1986 thanks to 13.5 sacks and also made a trip to Hawaii in 1985. In 23 seasons of coaching, that's the entirety of the honors Reeves' defensive linemen picked up. Reeves' most acclaimed defenses by DVOA came in 1991 and 1998. Kragen made Dr. Z's All-Pro team in 1991, so I will go with that season for him. Jones was a Dr. Z selection in both 1985 and 1986. Chuck Smith represents the 1998 Falcons defense, which finished fifth in the league in DVOA and second in run defense DVOA.
In contrast to the defensive line, inside linebacker has a number of stars to choose from. The one lock is Karl Mecklenburg, who made the All-Pro team four times, including when he had 13.0 sacks in 1985 despite starting just nine games. Reeves' other Pro Bowlers at middle or inside linebacker include Randy Gradishar (three times), Michael Brooks, Jessie Tuggle (twice), and Keith Brooking (three times). At outside linebacker, Bob Swenson made the All-Pro team in 1981 and also finished third at the position in Dr. Z's rankings. With not much competition, he is a lock. The other outside backer was harder, but I went with Simon Fletcher’s 16.0-sack season in 1992, which was a Broncos team record until Elvis Dumervil broke it.
It may seem surprising not to see Reeves' Giants teams represented here, but they never finished better than 10th in defensive DVOA and never in the top ten in run defense DVOA.
Louis Wright was an excellent cover corner for the late 70's and early 80's Broncos, but which season was his best for Reeves is not clear. His 1983 and 1985 Pro Bowl berths appear interception-driven, while Dr. Z preferred his 1984 campaign. For the other corner, I went with Mark Collins, another Dr. Z choice, over Phillippi Sparks' 1995 season (Dr. Z All-Pro) or Ray Buchanan in 1998 (Pro Bowl).
Teammates Smith and Atwater were Reeves' two most acclaimed defensive backs. Atwater made the All-Pro team in 1991 and 1992, and the Broncos had DVOA's fourth-rated pass defense in 1991. Smith made it to the Pro Bowl in 1985, 1986, 1989, and 1991.
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If inside linebacker is not the deepest position on the roster, then punter is. In the DVOA era, the 1996 Giants (Mike Horan) and the 1998 (Dan Stryzinski), 1999 (Stryzinski), 2000 (Stryzinski), and 2002 (Mohr) Falcons all ranked near the top of the league by our ratings, with 2002 coming out best. In the pre-DVOA era, Luke Pestridge (1982 Broncos) and Horan (1988 Broncos) were named to the All-Pro team. Without the ability to put Pestridge and Horan's 1988 season in context, I am uncomfortable putting them in because of the altitude effects created by playing in Denver. Kicker was more complicated, as Reeves frequently did not have a very good one by our metrics. Karlis in 1983 hit 7-of-8 from 40 yards and beyond, though, in addition to 14-of-17 inside 40.
Like kicker, there was no obvious choice as a return man. Rarely did the same player hold both the kick and punt return jobs under Reeves, and even less often was that player good at both. Take, for instance, the 2003 season when Allen Rossum was the primary punt and kick returner. Punt returns yielded 14.6 points of value, while on kickoff returns he produced -14.6 points, for a net of 0. Johnson seems to be the best of the unimpressive lot. I was tempted to just go with Rick Upchurch, who led the league in yards per punt return for the 1982 Broncos but did not return kicks.
On the whole, this team is much less impressive than I expected it to be. Elway and Sharpe are the only Hall of Famers, and Sharpe did not enter his prime until after Reeves left the Broncos. The secondary is pretty good, or at least better than it was for Tom Coughlin. A team like the Dick Vermeil All-Stars would still be able to score points on them, though.
Previous coaching all-star teams: