In some ways, John Lynch was to the Denver Broncos’ defense what Peyton Manning was to their offense.
In some ways? Make that in many ways.
Like Manning, Lynch was a perennial Pro Bowler who played more than a decade with the team that drafted him -- Manning with the Indianapolis Colts for 13 seasons; Lynch with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 11.
Like Manning, Lynch was let go by his original team essentially because of fears caused by a serious neck injury that required surgery.
Like Manning, Lynch chose the Broncos for the second chapter in his career. Like Manning, Lynch proved his original team wrong by having a highly successful four-year run with the Broncos.
In fact, in one way, Lynch did a little better than Manning. Manning went to three Pro Bowls in his four years with the Broncos. Lynch went four for four.
“John Lynch was fearsome,’’ said Champ Bailey, the former star cornerback whose 10 years in Denver included Lynch’s term from 2004-07 in the Broncos’ secondary. “You come across that middle, he would lay you out back in the day when you were allowed to. That’s scary in itself.
“Then he was a leader. He prepared well. Being in the meeting rooms with him and how much he loved the games. How do I put this? John Lynch off the field, nice, good guy, family man. On the field? A nightmare. Totally different person. The only guy I saw who came close to being that way was Brian Dawkins. Because of the way they were on and off the field.’’
Lynch was officially inducted into the Broncos’ Ring of Fame on Sunday evening in a ceremony at Sports Authority Field at Mile High, joining kicker Jason Elam and pass-rushing outside linebacker Simon Fletcher in the class of 2016. The ceremony was chosen for the Broncos’ Monday night game against Houston in no small part because Lynch’s day job as a Fox NFL analyst took him to Kansas City for the Chiefs’ 27-21 win against New Orleans on Sunday afternoon.
Lynch took the short flight after that game from Kansas City to Denver to attend the pillar unveiling at the Ring of Fame ceremony Sunday night.
“I sure appreciate them working with my schedule,'' Lynch said at the ceremony. "This is just the first step. Unveiling this, it’s pretty special and to see Simon and Jason along with me makes it even better.”
After 11 seasons and five Pro Bowl appearances with the Bucs signed with the Broncos as a free agent in 2004.
“When he came here he had the ability to be one of the guys,’’ said former Bronco quarterback Jake Plummer. “Be a superstar but also be one of the guys. Not just the guys that matter but everyone on our team how much he cared about us. He was another teammate that cared. A hard hitter. Golly, a guy who just laid the wood. Not fast. Didn’t have a crazy skill set. But just a student of the game.
“Guys like him made it tough in practice. They knew our stuff in and out and then to get stuff over on them in practice you had to be right on. The ball had to be accurate, on time, no delineation on that. He made me a better player.’’
The rules were different then as hard-hitting safeties like Lynch could blast away at receivers who dared – at least once, but never twice – to run routes across the middle. Actually, Lynch was fined a robust $75,000 for his famous hit on Indianapolis Colts tight end Dallas Clark, who was left concussed but without a catch on a pass thrown by Manning’s backup quarterback Jim Sorgi in the 2004 regular-season finale.
The hit on Clark may have been the one Bronco fans most remember about Lynch but it wasn’t the most significant. Go back and YouTube his blast of Kansas City receiver Dante Hall late in the first half of the 2004 season opener, Lynch’s first game with the Broncos.
“I thought that was important for me for a couple of reasons,’’ Lynch said. “No. 1 after that hit, people forget I came off of neck surgery that offseason. You can have a doctor tell you you’re going to be all right. You can have trainers say you’re going to be all right. Until you actually do it you don’t know you’re going to be all right. For me that was the moment where I said, ‘You’re fine. You’re as good as I’ve ever been.’
“And No. 2 that kind of set the tone for what I wanted to bring to the Broncos. Physical play and to let people know that if you were going to beat the Broncos you were going to have to earn it. I think that play kind of symbolized … And when I came off the field Mike said right then, That’s why we brought you here.’’
It was the next year that head coach Mike Shanahan, Lynch and the Broncos enjoyed one of their finest seasons. Not a Super Bowl appearance, but the closest thing to it. For the first time in seven years – the first time in the post-John Elway-era -- the Broncos won their AFC West Division with a 13-3 record. Lynch posted career-bests with four sacks and four forced fumbles, plus had two interceptions and one more pick against New England’s Tom Brady in that memorable second-round playoff game the Broncos won 27-13.
That set the stage for hosting the AFC Championship Game against Pittsburgh at then-Invesco Field at Mile High. For whatever reason, the Broncos came out flat that game and lost. The Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XL.
Asked to name his most vivid memory of his time with the Broncos, Lynch didn’t hesitate.
“I would think first and foremost the night we hosted New England and beat them in the Division (playoff) game,’’ he said. “I had a pick at the end of the game to kind of finish it. But that game was why I went to Denver. I remember how raucous the old Mile High Stadium would get. To be honest – and it happens with all the new stadiums it was kind of a letdown when I got there because it wasn’t like the old one where the stadium shook.
“And that night we kind of recreated it. We gave Brady his first loss. He had never lost in the playoffs. I thought we were winning the Super Bowl, too, once we won that game that night. The environment. I’ll never forget Champ’s play in that game. One of the greatest plays I’ve ever seen.’’
Bailey had a pick in the end zone and 100-yard return that was essentially a 14-point swing play that was the difference in the Broncos’ 14-point victory.
The Broncos got off to a fast start in 2006, too, going 7-2 and then leading 24-7 in the second half against San Diego in game 10, before the season unraveled. Lynch played hurt in his final season of 2007 but still made his ninth Pro Bowl. Only Ken Houston made more Pro Bowls among safeties with 10.
Houston was inducted into the Pro Bowl Football Hall of Fame 30 years ago. Lynch has been close to following him through Canton’s doors the previous three years when he was a top 15 modern-era finalist. Lynch got inside the top 10 in the Hall voting last year so there is hope he will be among the five modern-era players elected on Feb. 4, the eve of Super Bowl 51, in Houston.
But first, he will be inducted tonight into the Broncos’ Ring of Fame (with a follow-up ceremony at halftime of the Broncos-Houston game on Monday night) and the Tampa Bay Bucs’ Ring of Honor on Nov. 3. Some may view Lynch more as a Buc than a Bronco, but he kept Denver as a his home long after he retired until recently moving back to his hometown of San Diego.
“A lot of people always ask me that, ‘If down the line some good things were going to happen, which one would you go in as?’'' Lynch said. "First of all, I don’t think you have to make that decision in football, you just go in. I’m happy for that because I really feel like I’m both. I really do. I invested myself and my family into the two organizations I played with. When I was with New England for two and a half weeks, I did there as well. I really feel like I was part of two great organizations. Although my time far outweighed in Tampa than it did here in Denver, this organization is very part of my NFL career. I think it speaks volumes of this organization that it had that big of an impression on me in my short time here.”
By the way, when Manning is eligible for the Broncos' Ring of Fame in 2021? He'll become the second, four-year Bronco in the new millennium to get elected.