Tom Nalen is without a doubt one of the most important players in the history of the Denver Broncos. His Ring of Fame honor is definitely deserved.
Tom Nalen defines an era for the Denver Broncos.
An era when yards were earned through hard fighting on the ground, down in the trenches and between the tackles.
Nalen, a three year starter at Boston College, was drafted by Denver in 1995 and a year later, Mike Shanahan took over as head coach.
Nalen was considered an undersized offensive linemen even in the 90s, at 6’3” and 286 pounds, which actually benefited him in the Mile High City.
See, Shanahan employed Alex Gibbs as his offensive line coach, a role Gibbs would prosper in for eight years. Gibbs is famed for popularizing the zone-blocking scheme, the same one nearly every single NFL team has tried since ’95, the same one that made Denver the most-feared rushing attack in all of football.
Gibbs’ zone-blocking relied on “smaller,” quicker linemen to hit the opponent in their zone and then move onto the next levels, picking up other key blocks down field that would spring a back for big gains. There was also a need for cut-blocking – lots and lots of cut-blocking – and the Broncos were labeled as a dirty team due to it during that era.
What else would you expect when one team produces 1,000-yard running backs annually like it’s easy? Denver completely dominated the line of scrimmage and every other team’s defensive line for years; Nalen was the leader up front.
Nalen – with his long, shaggy hair wisping out of his helmet and wide, crazed eyes popping out of his skull – was there for all of the Broncos’ most successful seasons running. He was an intimidating force, a hulking badass biker-looking dude that brought the nasty.
Through 13 seasons with Denver, the lifelong Bronco helped backs go over 1,000 yards rushing 11 total times.
What a phenomenal feat.
We all know about Terrell Davis’ remarkable running, but don’t forget about Clinton Portis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell and even Reuben Droughns. Without Nalen’s leadership on the o-line, most of them wouldn’t have sniffed the milestone, let alone earn the accolades and money they did.
In a way, this was a perfect storm of personnel. You had Shanahan – who loved to run the rock and control the clock – Gibbs’ zone-blocking scheme and Nalen as one of the greatest run-blocking centers in the history of the game. Still, all the coaching in the world can’t make a play happen; it was Nalen down in the trenches, playing his guts out and leading the Broncos to victories and rushing titles.
He started 188 total games – including every one during the team’s back-to-back Super Bowl runs – which is second to only one man, John Elway. His quick bonding with the old gun-slinger was essential, especially with Elway’s knack for yelling out the hardest of hard counts, getting opposing defenders to jump offsides for free plays. Elway’s cadence was crazy-good, Nalen always knew the count.
He’s one of the most important players in the storied history of the Broncos’ franchise.
What “Nasty” Nalen is best remembered for, though, is his leadership. He truly took over Denver’s o-line during their most dominant time, and he put out a “gag order” on his teammates. When Nalen was in charge, no one from his unit was allowed to speak to the media. That included future Hall of Famers – and much older players – Gary Zimmerman and Mark “Stink” Schlereth.
Zimmerman became the first offensive lineman to make the Ring of Fame, while Schlereth was a complete character all his own. Stink is in the media now, with ESPN, displaying his ability to talk ad nauseum about football. He was one of the weirdest player personalities, too, earning the nickname “stink” by going to the bathroom on himself during games. These were men Nalen controlled with leadership and smarts.
Perhaps Nalen didn’t want to be asked about the cut-blocking Denver constantly utilized during that era, but whatever the reason, his o-lines will always be remembered for not talking to the media.
Now, Nalen is on ESPN radio in the Mile High, talking mostly about the current Broncos, while proving he loves to gab, too.
And while he’s enjoying success after football, he’ll be forever be known for his brilliant blocking on the gridiron, becoming the 24th member of the Ring of Fame, Wednesday.
Nalen ended his 13-year career a five-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro and two time Super Bowl champion, adding Ring of Famer recently and possibly Hall of Famer to his resume soon.
He defines that era as a tough, team-oriented leader; Denver diehards were lucky to see Tom Nalen in action.