DENVER — It was 50 years ago that the Denver Broncos first transformed from hard-fought loser to perennial winner and fairly regular Super Bowl qualifier.
The turnaround did not begin in 1973 when the Denver Broncos finally finished with their first winning record of 7-5-2 that snapped a 13-season skid of non-winning seasons. It actually turned unsuspectedly in the final two games of the 1972 season.
It was the first full season after Broncos owners the Phipps brothers, Gerald and Allan, gave up on Lou Saban as the team’s head coach and roster architect. A recent two-time AFL champion with the Buffalo Bills when Saban was hired to great fanfare in 1967 to resurrect the moribund Broncos, he left 4 ½ losing seasons later reviled by the fan base and escorted out with the moniker Half-a-Loaf Lou.
John Ralston, coming off back-to-back Rose Bowl wins at Stanford where he helped guide quarterback Jim Plunkett to the 1970 Heisman Trophy, was hired to replace Saban. Ralston’s first season with the Broncos in 1972 was going much like the team’s first 12 seasons. The Broncos were 3-9 with two games remaining in the 14-game season.
Normally, when a team is eliminated from postseason contention and has nothing left but the paychecks to play for, the coaches and players start counting down the days until their trips home to see their loved ones. The Broncos had a history like no other when it came to tanking their final two games. How about this: The Broncos were 0-14 in their final two games of their first seven seasons, and 2-21-1 in the final two games of their first 12 seasons. Ordinarily competitive through the first half of their seasons, the Broncos historically struggled so much with depth, injuries increasingly depleted their roster over the final weeks.
To Ralston’s credit, he kept his players engaged. The Broncos from nowhere not only won their final two games, they romped past their final two opponents, whipping the San Diego Chargers, 38-13 and New England Patriots, 45-21 to finish 5-9. Granted, those final opponents were pitiful, also; the Chargers finished behind the Broncos in the AFC West with a 4-9-1 record and the Patriots wound up 3-11. And both games were played at Mile High Stadium before announced sellout crowds of 51,000-plus.
Still, the lopsided wins served as a harbinger of winning days ahead. Haven Moses, acquired at midseason from Buffalo for Dwight Harrison in an exchange of malcontent, former first-round receivers, caught two touchdown passes from Charley Johnson in each of the final two games.
“I had just arrived from Buffalo via trade and was still pretty much in a fog,’’ Moses said this week to 9NEWS. “I guess I wanted to make a good impression with my new team and fans and yes, good things did begin to happen for the team, especially our defense, the Orange Crush.”
Indeed, the seeds of the famed Orange Crush defense may have been planted in those final two games of 1972 as the Joe Collier-led Denver D combined for 11 sacks against quarterbacks John Hadl of the Chargers and the Patriots’ Plunkett. Defensive tackle Paul Smith, a seven-season starter until he moved into a reserve role for the famed 1977 Denver D, had two sacks in each game – “Tackled Passer” is how the sack category was described in the game’s stat books. Lyle Alzado had a sack against both Hadl and Plunkett and cornerback Billy Thompson, who would move to strong safety the next year, had an interception against each quarterback.
But it was Johnson and Moses who had transcended finishes. Johnson was 33 when he was acquired prior to the season from Houston ostensibly to serve as backup and mentor to 24-year-old Steve Ramsey, who was getting his first chance as a full-time starter. But Johnson took over as the starter for a Week 6 upset of the hated Raiders and he remained the Broncos’ starting quarterback over the next three years -- through game 6 of the 1975 season when injuries caused him to finish off the last of his 15 seasons as a backup.
But against the Chargers in 1972, Johnson was an efficient 6 of 10 for 85 yards with the two touchdown passes to Moses on a 9-degree afternoon. With the temperature up nearly 40 degrees the next week for the season finale, Johnson was 13 of 17 for 218 yards with three touchdowns in a rout of the Patriots. Again Moses caught two of them.
Moses and Harrison were both first-round draft picks – Moses with the Bills in 1969 and Harrison with the Broncos in 1971. But Moses clashed with Lou Saban – who was hired back by Buffalo prior to the 1972 season – while Harrison was dealt reportedly following a fight with Alzado.
The following year, the Broncos finally posted their first winning record of 7-5-2 thanks in no small part to Johnson, who started all 14 games and threw for 20 touchdowns, and Moses, who only had 28 catches, but 8 went for touchdowns.
Johnson and Moses wound up in the Broncos’ Ring of Fame. That 1973 team started a remarkable run in which the Broncos had just 7 losing records in a 34-season span while going to 8 Super Bowls in that period. But that string of success really began with the final two games of 1972.
Similarly, while the Broncos enter this season in a slump of five consecutive losing seasons, their downfall really began at the end of their 9-7 season in 2016. The line of demarcation occurred in the final 2 minutes of game 11 against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Broncos, who had won the previous five AFC West titles, and Chiefs each entered the game with 7-3 records. The Broncos were leading the Chiefs, 24-16 but K.C. quarterback Alex Smith threw a touchdown pass to Tyreek Hill with 12 seconds remaining in regulation and Smith caught the 2-point conversion off a trick play to send the game into overtime. The Chiefs prevailed in overtime and have gone on to win the last six AFC West titles.
The Broncos spiraled into a four-loss-in-five-game stretch before winning a meaningless finale. Head coach Gary Kubiak resigned amid health problems following the season, first-round quarterback Paxton Lynch was cut after just two seasons and the Broncos have been skidding ever since.
Once again, the Broncos are counting on a 33-year-old newcomer quarterback to turn them around. Russell Wilson will turn 34 on November 29. Fifty years ago, Charley Johnson was 33 and turned 34 on November 22 in his first season with the Broncos. Johnson helped end the Broncos’ first long-losing skid. Wilson is being counted on to end the latest.
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