When the choice of a description is between mastermind and genius, Joe Collier is in good company. His Orange Crush defense of the Denver Broncos once ruled the National Football League. With Collier as the team’s defensive coordinator, the Orange Crush defense was a major factor in Denver’s first trip to the Super Bowl after the 1977 season.
The names of the players who Collier manipulated in his defensive schemes are synonymous with many of the high points of Bronco history. Few Bronco fans anywhere have forgotten the linebacker crew of Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Bob Swenson, and Joe Rizzo. But those names were only part of the unit. Right behind the linebackers were Billy Thompson, Louis Wright, Steve Foley, and Bernard Jackson. Who could forget the line in front of the linebackers of Rubin Carter, Barney Chavous, and Lyle Alzado?
Coach Red Miller took the Broncos to their first Super Bowl, but he knew one of the big reasons they got there: Miller called Collier a defensive mastermind. Others thought he was a genius. “I don’t think anyone thought of me as a genius until we got all those good players,” Collier said. “There must have been a correlation.”
Retired and safe from opposing team’s scouting reports, Collier looks back at the glory years of the Broncos from his home in Littleton. “The style of our defense was built for linebackers,” Collier said. “But I always felt a great sense of security every morning when I could put Louis Wright’s name down first and Billy Thompson’s name down second on my lineup card for the upcoming game. We’d tell Louie to take care of the other team’s best receiver and the rest of us would just play defense.”
Thompson remembers a team with great chemistry, “I think we were the most prepared team I’ve ever been around. Joe was just very meticulous with everything. He taught me the game. The Orange Crush was a name we enjoyed. It was a signature time in Bronco history because we moved from being a team that wasn’t respectable to a team that had a chance to win.”
In 1977, when the Orange Crush was at its peak, the Broncos allowed an average of 10.6 points a game during the 14-game regular season. The Orange Crush defense became a trademark of the Broncos around the nation. “It helps to have a catchy name and Orange Crush was a catchy name,” Collier said. “It was just one of those times in coaching where everything clicked. We had players who had stayed together for such a long time. A big part of defense is keeping a group together long enough to learn a system.”
Collier coached 20 seasons with the Broncos, assisting head coaches Lou Saban, Jerry Smith, John Ralston, Miller, and Dan Reeves. “It was wild that year,” Collier said of the 1977 run to the Super Bowl. “I’ll never forget the way the fans reacted. That was the highlight for me here in Denver.”
Collier’s time with the Broncos ended on an unhappy note after the 1988 season when Reeves decided to change his coaching staff. “I felt bad about it,” Collier said, “It didn’t bother me as much as some others because I was thinking about retiring anyway.”
Collier returned to coaching in 1991 and 1992 with the New England Patriots, but retired for good. “I think I’ve seen enough off-tackle plays to last me a lifetime,” Collier said. “I do grandpa stuff now and I watch some football.” He watches a lot of Miami Dolphins games because his son, Joel, is an assistant coach there.
Variety is what the 3-4 can give you. You can play the 3-4 without having superstars, so to speak, in the defense.