Going from just a nice story in 1995 to winning Super Bowl MVP and bringing home the Denver Broncos’ first Super Bowl championship, Terrell Davis in 1996 and ’97 became a bona fide NFL superstar.
Denver, fresh off an 8-8 season in ’95, had some positives build on in the second year under head coach Mike Shannanan. With the unflappable John Elway at quarterback, Pro Bowl tight end Shannon Sharpe and a 1,000-yard rusher in Davis, the Broncos had the look and feel of a team that was starting to hit its stride.
Little did anyone know, Davis would take off and become the best backs in franchise history and in the NFL in general.
For the season, Davis improved on his rookie season by running for 1,538 and 13 touchdowns. Davis came out of the gate strong, rushing for at least 100 yards in four out of the first five games of the season as Denver staked itself to a 4-1 start. In 16 starts, Davis had seven games with at least 100 yards rushing – highlighted by a 194 yard, two-touchdown day in a win versus the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8.
Over the course of that season, Denver emerged as the likely candidate to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, with Davis as the fulcrum of an offensive attack.
Denver finished 13-3, at one point going on a seven-game winning streak, and finished as the AFC’s number one overall seed to secure a home date with the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Divisional round. On a day that will always linger on the minds of Broncos Country, Davis rushed for 91 yards and a touchdown in a losing effort as Mark Brunell and company would end the Broncos’ season abruptly when the Jags stole a 30-27 win.
Although the season ended before anybody would have liked, Davis walked away that year as the AFC Offensive Player of the Year, earned his first trip to Pro Bowl and became an All-Pro. Davis supplied the complementary running game an aging Elway desperately needed after many seasons shouldering the offensive load on his own. With the loss to Jacksonville proving a difficult taste to get out of their mouths, Davis and the rest of his Denver teammates were eager to get revenge during the 1997 season.
There was something different to the Denver Broncos as they entered the ’97 season. That Denver team would go down as one for the ages with Hall of Famers in Elway, Sharpe, Gary Zimmerman and Davis on the offensive side of the ball and Pro Bowlers on defense in Steve Atwater, John Mobley and recently-signed, Neil Smith, from rival Kansas City. There was no resting on the laurels from 1996.
Davis got off to another hot start, this time rushing for at least 100 yards in Denver’s first four games of the year and five out of their first six. On a tear for most of the season, Davis rushed for 1,750 yards and 15 touchdowns, with season-high 207 of those coming in a win against Buffalo. A late-season slide cost Denver the AFC West that year, forcing the team to play in the first weekend of the playoffs against a familiar opponent in Jacksonville.
By fate or by circumstance, Denver exorcised their playoff demons and pulled away late to defeat the Jags, 42-17. Davis did his part, tearing up the Jacksonville defense to the tune of 184 yards and two touchdowns. The Broncos would lean heavily on Davis for their next two games on the road, with wins against the Chiefs in the Divisional round and in the AFC Championship game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. Davis had at least 100 yards in each of those contests despite playing with a painful rib-injury that forced the running back to play with a flak jacket that postseason. Davis was the main offensive catalyst through the playoff run as the team prepared to take on the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.
Going down in Broncos lore, Davis feasted against the supposedly bigger, and more physical Packers. Gaining 157 yards in just three quarters of work, with a migraine headache costing him all of the second quarter, Davis scored three touchdowns that day, including the go-ahead score late in the fourth quarter to seal the game. For his efforts, Davis earned himself the Super Bowl MVP in his hometown of San Diego.
In reaching the pinnacle of the sport, Davis had achieved far more than what anyone could have possibly imagined when he first stepped on to the field as a rookie in a exhibition game in Japan. As of the premier players in the game, Davis satiated the starving appetites of the Denver faithful who had waited 37 years for a championship.