The Dan Reeves All-Stars

The Dan Reeves All-Stars
The Dan Reeves All-Stars
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

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.


QB: John Elway, 1987 Broncos
RB: Jamal Anderson, 1998 Falcons
FB: Bob Christian, 1998 Falcons
WR: Steve Watson, 1981 Broncos
WR: Terance Mathis, 1998 Falcons
TE: Shannon Sharpe, 1991 Broncos

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.


LT: Jumbo Elliott, 1993 Giants
LG: Keith Bishop, 1987 Broncos
C: Bart Oates, 1993 Giants
RG: Gene Williams, 1998 Falcons
RT: Ken Lanier, 1988 Broncos

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.


CB: Louis Wright, 1984 Broncos
CB: Mark Collins, 1993 Giants
FS: Steve Atwater, 1991 Broncos
SS: Dennis Smith, 1989 Broncos

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.


K: Rich Karlis, 1983 Broncos
P: Chris Mohr, 2002 Falcons
RET: Vance Johnson, 1985 Broncos

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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:


48 comments, Last at 04 Aug 2012, 11:21am

1 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

I hate the terminology "skill players." It implies that the other players are not "skilled," or that their "skills" are devalued compared to those of backs and ends. Does anyone really think that, e.g. Steve Watson and Bob Christian are more "skillful" athletes than Randy Gradishar or Jumbo Elliott?

Yes, I know that this usage is common and ingrained, but football terminology changes all the time. A "blitz" used to be a "red dog;" cornerbacks and safeties used to be "defensive halfbacks;" you were "inside the opponents' twenty yard line," not "in the red zone." You can probably think of a dozen more examples.

And this isn't personal with me...I was not a lineman, I was a scrawny kid who ran cross-country!

2 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

We put "skill players" in quotes for a reason. If you have a better, generally recognized collective name for the non-offensive line offensive players, I'd love to use that instead, but I don't know of any such term.

5 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Yes, thank you for pointing out the quotation marks, which had slipped by me and which do indicate your awareness of the point of my complaint. Why not just 'backs and ends'? Same number of syllables, clear, non-pejorative.

13 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

You're right, Independent George, (and thank you for at least taking it seriously enough to remember.) This is a particular crochet of mine, and I can get a little tiresome bringing it up frequently. Nevertheless, I think that the Football Outsiders community, more intelligent and thoughtful than any other NFL discussion forum of which I'm aware, would be one place where this change could take place.

Football is jargon-heavy, and terminology that seems to place one in the cognoscenti is beloved by football analysts--Look at how quickly Mike, Sam, and Will became standard terminology, for instance. 'Skill players' and 'skill positions' have been around for some time, and I keep hoping that it's time for them to fade away (or burn out, since that's better.)

6 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

The only thing that, by definition separates them from the OL is that they are eligible to have the ball (unless it's fumbled, etc.). But something like "Eligible Ball Players" sounds rather clumsy.

48 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Ball handlers works. Also fits football temrnjnolgoy better than skill psootiij players. Ball handlers, tight ends, wide receivers, penetration, holes, gaps, illegal touchinf

9 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Every once and a while I hear Reeves do a radio broadcast; old coaches tend to be so much better at informimg fans as to what is going on, compared to retired players, that it gets frustrating to hear the Aikmans, Simms, and others in the broadcast booth. Then again, Gruden can be pretty bad, so perhaps it is a matter of t.v. producers, compared to the radio guys, ruining things. Then again, again, I really think the coaches do much better work than the players on radio, too. In any case, Reeves is really great on radio; that laconic drawl is never yapping just for the hell of it.

Regarding his players, I'd forgotten that Gary Zimmerman didn't get to Denver until Reeves was gone.

11 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

I think you are right. Madden, for all the jokes he was the butt of, was really insightful at times about strategy and line play. Billick is one of my favorite commentators on right now. Even Jim Mora the younger was acceptable in his one year at FOX.

I think most ex-coaches would rather get into the studio shows which are probably less work, time, travel (I'm guessing since they are generally quite older than ex-players, they care more about these issues - just a guess) like Mooch, Parcells, Ditka, but coaches are generally good on TV as commentators.

Does anyone remember when Walsh was on TV, I believe for NBC for a few years. Was he any good? It was before my time.

On the other side, I do remember Joe Gibbs being awful with Theismann during their one-off performance for the Jets-Bengals Wild Card game back in 2009. It was just a single game, so maybe with more work he could have gotten better.

12 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

I'd love to see Billick promoted to the top slot, but a guy who consistently ridicules confirmation bias will never achieve that sort of prominence, since pursuing confirmation bias is t.v. producer 101.

Sadly, I'm ancient enough to remember when Hank Stram had the Monday night radio gig. He was the best analyst I've ever heard; you could tell he had spent hours watching film, because right after the play by play guy called out the formation, Stram would often tell listeners what play was coming, and he was right about 90% of the time. He also had a great feel for matchups, and thus picked upsets with really terrific accuracy as well.

14 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

I am still stunned that Billick has never gotten another coaching gig. Maybe at this point he isn't really trying anymore since he's nearing 60, but to me, he's still a guy with a lifetime winning percentage above .500, and a Super Bowl winning coach. Sure, he rode the cottails of an incredible defense to that title, and he failed to produce a great offense in Baltimore, but to me lesser coaches (Jim Mora the younger, Dennis Erickson, Romeo Crennel Eric Mangini, Mooch) have gotten another job. Same with Fassel, but Billick has an even stronger resume.

16 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

I think part of it is just bad luck; qb selection has a huge random element to it (sure, sure, Belichik just knew a Hall of Famer would last until the 6th round), and a defensive oriented head coach who whiffs on two or three qb picks consecutively gets a pass, but a guy who comes from the offensive side who does that is looked upon as being a deficient talent evaluator and/or teacher. I won't offer an opinion on Billick as evaluator, because unless you are in the meetings with staff, scouts, and GM, you don't know what dynamic produced a pick, signing, or trade. I will say this about Billick as an offensive coach of qbs; he was tremendous in Minnesota, getting great production from veterans at the end of their careers, and new guys on the way up. It seems to me that he did an excellent job of managing personalities in Baltimore, which is a huge part of the job.

I also think that he was pretty adamant about his salary demands after he was fired by Baltimore. He made pretty good money in coaching, likely invested wisely, knew the work load, and was only willing to go back to it if the price was right. Having a nice portfolio, while getting paid network 2nd team money, and some extra simolions by the NFL Network, ain't exactly a hard life.

17 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

I definitely think he is living a fine life right now, but from interviews I've heard him give, he still seems like he wants back in at some point.

The person that I most think of from what you described there is Bill Cowher, who I think unless he gets something golden, won't go back to coaching again.

33 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Oh. Football fans often times perceive contradiction where none exists. Belichik is a great coach who got extremely lucky in drafting a Hall of Fame qb at the 199 spot.

34 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Come on, Will, you should know better! There is no gray area! All coaches are either geniuses or idiots - all the time! All quarterbacks are either clutch gods or chokers - all the time!

35 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

This comment makes me wonder how history will judge Mike McCarthy, who was lucky enough to have a HOF-caliber QB drafted 3 years before his HOF QB at that time retired. Luckier than Belichick or not?

39 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

About as lucky as Seifert (who I think was a great, underrated and unfairly punished coach), who inherited one of the Greatest QBs of all time, and then when he got old traded him because he happened to have another HOF QB on the bench who his predecessor also picked.

I think Seifert and McCarthy were/are great coaches, but they have definitely been lucky in going to situations with great QB talent already on the roster. McCarthy, though, has definitely played a role in teh development of Aaron Rodgers, though.

41 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Probably, but I doubt that happens. Pretty rare for good coaches to go out THAT bad. Maybe if he leaves and the Packers are in pretty bad shape (say consecutive 5 win seasons). His career is probably tied to Rodgers though.

42 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Oh, I totally doubt that happens, too - I only brought it up because I don't see any other way for a coach as successful as Seifert/McCarthy to ding their rep so badly.

(Also, having your career tied to Rodgers is probably the best set-up a guy could have...)

15 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

That's kind of interesting, because I've heard Reeves do radio broadcasts twice (out of the five or six times I've ever listened to a football game in my life) and found him absolutely unbearable. I kind of wonder if it was just because I knew it was Dan Reeves, and I grew up hating him.

My grandfather always said that the only thing Dan Reeves hated more than an incomplete pass was a completed one.

10 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

For those of us who started watching football in 2000, this list makes me feel like a young grass hopper when it comes to football lineage.

38 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Well for starters Don has 3 HoF QBs to choose from, and the least dominant one of them won him his SB rings. I wouldn't want to have to try to justify Unitas over Marino or Marino over Unitas.

31 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

No, with playoff games included the number gets higher - I think something like 415. Really, though, I'm pretty much persuaded by Jason Lisk's case (see FOA2012 and elsewhere) that the issue's more high-carry games than high-carry seasons - it's just that the two tend to correlate quite well.

32 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Check out Jamie Morris -- the proud owner of the most rushing attempts in a game since the merger. He managed to combine a 45 rush game (a loss, no less) in a 126-carry season in which he was primarily a kick returner.

The next season he also had a 38-carry game (88 yards!) in a 124-carry season.

20 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Uh, so the 1999 Rams with Gonzo and Carmichael will be able to score points against them? What a terrible defense this must be...

27 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Now that was a quick turn-around on a suggestion. Ha.


36 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

OK, call me uninformed, but I have to ask: Did Elway's DYAR and DVOA improve after Shanahan took over from Reeves?

37 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Shanahan did not take over from Reeves. Shanahan took over from Wade Phillips, who coached the team in 1993 and 1994 after Reeves was fired.

And Elway's numbers, traditional and advanced, greatly improved as soon as Reeves was gone. In 1993, he led the league in DYAR and put up an ANY/A+ of 117, which was to that point second only to his MVP 1987 season in his career. He had a down (essentially league average by both ANY/A+ and DVOA) year in '94, then went back to top-10 numbers '95-'98.

44 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

The funny thing is that Shannahan's Broncos were also a predominately run-oriented team; Elway never had a problem handing it off when the situation was warranted. He just hated being forced to convert 3rd-and-8 all the time because they kept running straight into a brick wall on 1st and 2nd down, and thought the running game would improve if they chucked it downfield on occasion so that the defense couldn't cheat.

I like Dan Reeves, and think he did a lot of things right, but his conservative approach never sat right with me even with the Giants (which on paper seemed better suited to it than Denver).

45 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

The '96-'98 Broncos were only run-oriented once they got a lead. They threw early in games plenty.

The Elway-Reeves feud was as much a power struggle as anything else. Reeves thought he should basically be running the organization while Pat Bowlen was in love with Elway. Bowlen essentially gave in to Reeves for a few years, allowing Reeves to fire Joe Collier, who had been the team's defensive coordinator for 17 years, after the 1988 season and allowing him to draft Tommy Maddox 25th overall in the 1992 draft.

He then fired Reeves and brought in one of Elway's coaches from Stanford, Jim Fassel, to run the offense, effectively handing the team over from Reeves to Elway. Hiring Elway's friend Mike Shanahan completed the turnover a couple of years later.

46 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

Herm Edwards is one of "the NFL's most experienced coaches"?????

Can't wait for the Wade Phillips, Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt All-Stars.

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs

47 Re: The Dan Reeves All-Stars

All of them with more total games, more wins and better winning percentage than Herm. And as such, all fitting any definition of experienced that also encompasses Herm Edwards.

- Alvaro

Phil Simms is to analysts what Ryan Leaf is to NFL QBs