As American football uniform redesigns go, the Denver Broncos’ 1997 makeover is certainly up there in terms of revolution.
Having had mustard and brown uniforms with striped stockings in its first two years, the team had favoured orange with royal blue and white trim since 1962, so the switch to navy was seismic.
This was before league-wide manufacturer agreements, so the Broncos’ new look was seen as Nike flexing their design muscles – prior to that, sleeve and shoulder stripes tended to be as bold as anybody went. There were even those of a cynical bent who reckoned that the panelling on the jerseys and pants was intended to represent the Nike swoosh.
There was also a new logo, which featured on the helmet, and Broncos president Pat Bowlen had a very positive reaction:
We are very excited to lead the charge into a new century with an exciting new uniform that combines traditional Bronco features with a great new design. The logo symbolizes the spirit, strength and passion that are at the core of this franchise.
Our intent was to produce a uniform and logo that embody a strong, sleek look, a clear identification and an aggressive attitude.
Unsaid in the press release, however, was the fact that the Broncos had lost four Super Bowls, three of those wearing orange jerseys – something which must surely have been a factor in the decision. When the Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII in January 1998, the sense of destiny being at play was only increased. They would retain the title the following year, wearing white as they beat the Atlanta Falcons.
At the launch in February 1997, the home and away jerseys featured above were on display, each paired with a different style of white pants – though if the white jersey had had orange flashes, the need for two types of pants would have been negated.
Also featured that day was an all-navy look – nowadays it’s quite common for teams to wear pants that match dark jerseys, but back then it was exceedingly rare.
The Broncos played in this look in two games in the 1997 preseason, but the navy pants were soon jettisoned and wouldn’t be seen again until 2003. Shannon Sharpe, a Broncos player in 2003 who had also been there in 1997, revealed that quarterback John Elway had a lot of influence in this call.
I love them. If we were 54 [players], John was 55 all by himself. He vetoed a lot of times when we wanted to wear the blue pants.
By the time the all-navy reappeared, the Broncos had another jersey in the wardrobe, with an orange alternate having first been worn in 2002. This was paired with the white away pants (Reebok had become the uniform producer for all 32 teams by this stage).
A large number of Broncos fans had remained fond of orange and, with this jersey’s usage increasing, the calls for a permanent return grew louder, the switch eventually becoming official at the beginning of 2012 as the navy jersey became the third choice.
Within two years, the Broncos were back in the Super Bowl and opted to wear orange against the Seattle Seahawks but lost 43-8. Two years on from that, in their next appearance in the decider, they chose the white uniforms as they beat the Carolina Panthers 24-10.
After 23 years, the 1997 design remains, with the only changes coming as Nike – having taken over from Reebok – have altered the neck style. Orange looks set to remain as the primary colour for the foreseeable future and, in lieu of any major changes, one potential development is to wear orange pants with navy panelling, something which would look better on the away uniform than the home.
However, as the Broncos have only worn orange pants in five seasons (1969, 1970, 1971, 1978 and 1979), this would seem unlikely.