DENVER — Bill Romanowski went to say goodbye to his former defensive coordinator.
Romanowski and most of the Denver defensive players from those back-to-back, 1997-98 Super Bowl teams knew Greg Robinson was battling a form of Alzheimer’s. Robinson died at 70 years old, his family announced Wednesday. Robinson was battling through his final months when he got a visitor at his Santa Barbara, Calif.-area home.
"I went to see him. Said my goodbye," Romanowski said in a phone interview with 9NEWS. "What I did, I brought my first defensive playbook that he gave me. And I pulled it out and what I did over and over again was I would make defensive calls. I would talk about the guys on defense. (Steve) Atwater, (Ray) Crockett, Chicken (Tyrone Braxton). Allen Aldridge, Glenn Cadrez, Alfred Williams, Neil Smith, Keith Traylor. On and on. I had an hour with him."
Brace yourself. What Romanowski shared next was both poignant yet wonderfully moving.
"I would even bring myself up," Romanowski said. "Remember Romo, Greg? And he’d say, 'Oh man, was he intense.'"
"I remember bringing Chicken up. 'Oh man was he funny.' It was a wonderful visit. I was so glad that I was able to say goodbye to him and thank him for being such a great coach of mine. I just have nothing but wonderful memories of Greg Robinson."
Robinson was the unappreciated defensive coordinator of the Broncos’ back-to-back Super Bowl championship team in 1997-98. Offense was the hallmark of those teams led by "Mastermind" head coach and play caller Mike Shanahan, quarterback John Elway, running back Terrell Davis and tight end Shannon Sharpe.
"Definitely unappreciated, but you talk to Mike Shanahan and he knew how vital great defensive play was for those Super Bowl teams," Romanowski said. "And how good we were in the playoffs."
The Broncos ranked No. 1 in scoring in 1997 and No. 2 in 1998. But the defense had its rock stars, too, and was really good, ranking No. 6 in points allowed in 1997 and No. 8 in scoring defense in 1998.
"We had a lot of talent and we had a lot of fun out there, too," said Steve Atwater, a Hall of Fame safety on those Super Bowl teams. "He had this thing called "The Beaver." Whenever somebody came up with a turnover, that Beaver would come flying from the sidelines out of nowhere. It would get us so hyped. Yeah, a stuffed Beaver. We’d be looking forward to, "The Beaver."
It’s been a difficult end of one year and start of another for the Broncos. In the past four weeks they have lost former star receiver Demaryius Thomas, Ring of Fame head coach Dan Reeves, former kick returner turned distinguished civic leader Odell Barry and now Robinson.
"Another tough one," Atwater said.
What type of defensive coordinator was Robinson?
"He was aggressive," Romanowski said. "Hey, Greg, when in doubt, blitz."
There was one game, though, when Robinson mixed it up. It happened against quarterback Kordell "Slash" Stewart, running back Jerome "Bus" Bettis and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1997 AFC Championship Game.
"They had beaten us earlier in the year and they had the run game down pat," Atwater said. "And so we had a game plan where we were going to show blitz almost every time and hoping and praying that (Stewart) would check out of the run. Fortunately, a lot of times he checked out of the run and went to the pass and that’s what we wanted them to do. Because if they were going to run, we had some weaknesses (laughing). But I don’t know they knew about that.
"So that was an amazing game plan. That was so fun. We were all worried: If they’re running, they can get us. But that was a great game plan by Greg."
Romanowski verified Atwater’s account.
"Absolutely. There was a point in that game where I was slapping my helmet at (Stewart), it was for that reason," Romanowski said. "Another thing, when we would play the Raiders. Rich Gannon. We would have literally nine guys on the line of scrimmage. Those kind of looks – they do that stuff now in the NFL but we’re talking about the late-90s. Rich Gannon would get up to the line of scrimmage and you could see it in his eyes, "Ah. I have no idea what to do here."
Legacies of people carry on after they pass away. There was one thing Robinson would say that Atwater finds himself repeating to this day.
"My son was going through some health issues about a year and a half ago, and now with all this COVID stuff, I was thinking about what Greg would always say on the sidelines: "Keep hangin’! Keep hangin’!" Atwater said. "I just said that today when I was over at the (Broncos’) facility. ‘Keep hangin’! Keep hangin’! Keep hangin’!"
Said Romanowski: "Greg was very passionate about football, very passionate about his family, and very passionate about his players. All of us loved him, loved playing for him and we’d run through a brick wall for him."
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