August 5, 2010

1967: Broncos Stun Lions in First Preseason Game Between AFL-NFL Teams

The merger between the NFL and AFL that was agreed to in 1966 was implemented in phases. In the first, following the ’66 season, a game was played between the champions of the two leagues (now known as Super Bowl I). For 1967, there was a common draft of college talent between the two leagues, and while they would still play separate schedules until 1970, interleague preseason games could be scheduled. While at one level the contests were mere exhibition games that counted for nothing in the standings, to the participants they meant a great deal. In particular, the AFL players were determined to prove their mettle against the clubs from the older NFL.

Such was the case as the AFL’s Denver Broncos hosted the NFL’s Detroit Lions at University of Denver Stadium on August 5, 1967. The Broncos, a club that had never produced a record above .500 in any season and had gone 4-10 in ’66, hardly seemed likely to fare well against any NFL team. Under new Head Coach Lou Saban, who had led Buffalo to back-to-back championships in 1964 and ’65 before coaching for a year at the University of Maryland, the team was in the process of being revamped. Gone were key veterans that Saban deemed unfit for taking part in a rebuilding effort like split end Lionel Taylor, safety Goose Gonsoulin, and guard Jerry Sturm. Most notable among the newcomers was the rookie first draft choice out of Syracuse, halfback Floyd Little. Denver had lost its first preseason game, against the second-year Miami Dolphins by a score of 19-2.

The Lions also had a new head coach in Joe Schmidt, at age 35 only two years removed from his Hall of Famer career as a linebacker. Detroit had gone 4-9-1 in 1966 and was also in transition. Defense had long been the team’s strong suit, and they still had a strong veteran core of defensive tackles Roger Brown and Alex Karras, linebackers Mike Lucci and Wayne Walker, and safety Dick LeBeau. Veteran QB Milt Plum was recovered after missing half of the season due to injury and was being challenged by Karl Sweetan, who had performed creditably as a rookie in his absence. The top three picks in the draft had added HB Mel Farr from UCLA, CB Lem Barney of Jackson State, and Tennessee LB Paul Naumoff.

There were 21,288 fans in attendance for the Saturday evening contest. Neither team was able to mount much offense in the first half. Playing inspired football, the Broncos defense kept the Lions offense out of the end zone; the closest Detroit penetrated was to the Denver 36 yard line. Safety Lonnie Wright made two big plays, intercepting a Sweetan pass at his own 20 and then batting down a long Detroit pass in the end zone to stop another drive.

Following a 56-yard pass play from QB Scotty Glacken to flanker Al Denson, Errol Mann kicked a 35-yard field goal that staked the Broncos to a 3-0 lead (while Mann failed to make it to the regular season with Denver, ironically, he eventually ended up kicking for the Lions for 7 ½ years).

The key play of the game occurred on a 4th and 11 situation at the Detroit 44 in the third quarter. Denver punter Bob Scarpitto (pictured at top) ran instead of kicking and picked up 28 yards and a first down at the Lions 16 yard line. Six plays later, FB Cookie Gilchrist bulled into the end zone from a yard out and the Broncos led by 10-0.

Detroit finally scored in the fourth quarter as Plum threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to WR Bill Malinchak. That was it for the Lions, and Mann’s second field goal of the game from 32 yards out capped the scoring at 13-7 in favor of Denver.

On the bus after the game, Roger Brown of the Lions moaned “The Denver Broncos…it didn’t happen!” But Coach Schmidt summed up by saying, “I want to pay tribute to the Denver team. And, if the other AFL teams show as much desire, there will be many other surprises in the preseason inter-league competition.”

While the Broncos went on to defeat the Vikings, 14-9, and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs thrashed the Chicago Bears by an astounding score of 66-24, the NFL teams won the remaining contests and had an overall record of 13-3 in the 1967 interleague preseason games.

For all of the excitement and heightened expectations, the Broncos still ended up at the bottom of the AFL’s Western Division with a 3-11 record. Detroit finished the ’67 regular season with a 5-7-2 tally that ranked third in the Central Division of the NFL’s Western Conference.