October 22, 2010

1972: Johnson & Little Lead Broncos to First Win Over Raiders in 10 Years

The Denver Broncos had posted losing records since the early days as an original American Football League franchise in 1960. Lou Saban, who led Buffalo to back-to-back AFL titles in 1964 and ’65, had been the latest coaching casualty after he arrived amid high hopes in 1967 - he left Denver with a 20-42-3 overall record and failed to make it through the ’71 season.

John Ralston, who had led Stanford to back-to-back Rose Bowl wins, took over the head coaching duties in 1972. While he had an outstanding running back on hand in Floyd Little, the NFL’s leading rusher in ’71, the situation at quarterback was far less settled. Holdover Steve Ramsey started the first five games, and the Broncos were 1-4.

For the Week 6 contest on October 22 against the Raiders at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, Ralston decided to start Charley Johnson at quarterback. The 33-year-old Johnson (pictured above), in his 12th season out of New Mexico State, had once been a highly regarded signal caller. A smart (he had a doctorate in chemical engineering) and accurate passer, he had been considered a rising star with the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-60s. But injuries and then a military commitment put him in competition with the younger Jim Hart, and Johnson was dealt to the Houston Oilers following the ’69 season.

Johnson spent two injury-plagued years in Houston before being dealt to the quarterback-desperate Broncos on the eve of the 1972 season. After some appearances in relief of Ramsey, he was getting a chance – and he made the most of it.

Oakland, under Head Coach John Madden, was as strong over the past few years as the Broncos had been weak, and entered the game with a 3-1-1 record. Moreover, the Raiders had not lost to the Broncos since 1962 – a string of 18 straight games (there was one tie, back in 1964).

Denver scored on its first possession as Johnson tossed a 21-yard touchdown pass to TE Billy Masters, who beat star safety George Atkinson. The play was set up by a 40-yard completion to Little out of the backfield.

Early in the second quarter, George Blanda got the Raiders on the board with a 32-yard field goal. Denver’s lead was now cut to 7-3, but Johnson again passed effectively to widen the margin. Following completions of 21 and 8 yards to WR Jerry Simmons, Johnson threw to Little, who had lined up in the slot and beat Oakland LB Phil Villapiano to score a 37-yard TD.

On the next Denver possession, the Broncos surprised the Raiders as Little took a handoff from Johnson and fired a pass to Simmons that resulted in a 35-yard TD. It was the first pass completion of Little’s pro career, in his sixth season.

As had been the case in most of Oakland’s games thus far, they had gotten off to a slow start. The situation appeared grave when QB Daryle Lamonica was forced to leave the game in the second quarter due to back spasms. Lamonica had just thrown a pass intended for rookie WR Cliff Branch that was broken up by CB Randy Montgomery when, on the next play, he was hit in the back by DE Lyle Alzado’s helmet. Backup George Blanda came in initially and delivered a first down, but then fumbled at the Denver 28 when hit by DT Paul Smith. Alzado recovered for Denver (Alzado pictured at left; he would go on to play for the Raiders ten years later).

Johnson completed three passes, including a 22-yard completion to ex-Raiders WR Rod Sherman, to set up a 44-yard field goal by Jim Turner on the last play of the half. The Broncos held a 24-3 lead at the intermission.

On the first play of the second half, Denver FB Bobby Anderson fumbled and LB Dan Conners recovered for Oakland at the Denver 20, setting up a 35-yard field goal by Blanda. The Raiders’ inexperienced third quarterback, Ken Stabler, had come into the game for Lamonica and showed over-anxiousness as he misfired on three passes.

However, Stabler began to find the range on his passes as the game progressed, although an apparent scoring pass to WR Fred Biletnikoff was nullified by a clipping call on Branch. But HB Charlie Smith ran 20 yards on a sweep to the Denver two and he scored three plays later to narrow the Broncos’ lead to 24-13.

Denver responded with a drive highlighted by Johnson connecting with Simmons for 28 yards on a third-and-15 play that culminated in an eight-yard Turner field goal early in the fourth quarter.

On Oakland’s next series, Stabler was sacked twice and the Raiders were penalized for holding twice as the young quarterback completed 8 of 10 passes and Oakland drove 67 yards. WR Mike Siani scored on a four-yard pass play in which he pulled the ball away from Montgomery in the left corner of the end zone.

However, Montgomery responded with an 88-yard kickoff return to the Oakland 15 yard line before being caught by Atkinson. Turner kicked a 27-yard field goal to extend Denver’s lead to 30-20 with 3:28 left to play.

The Raiders made it into scoring position once more, and Blanda kicked a 40-yard field goal with 1:36 remaining. They got one last chance, but in the final seconds, a pass to TE Raymond Chester on a fly pattern was deflected and he couldn’t pull it in. Denver came away with the 30-23 upset win.

There was a wild celebration in the Denver locker room afterward, in what Little referred to as the franchise’s “greatest victory ever.”

All the more astonishing, the Broncos managed only 13 yards rushing on 24 attempts, for an average of less than a yard per carry. But they made up for it with 396 passing yards as they gained 409 total yards to Oakland’s 316. It was a stunning performance against what was considered to be the best pass defense in the AFC. Charley Johnson completed 20 of 28 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions; Little, of course, added a 35-yard TD completion.

Jerry Simmons led the Denver receivers with 6 catches for 118 yards and a TD. Tight ends Billy Masters (6’5”, 240) and Riley Odoms (6’4”, 230) matched up well size-wise against safety George Atkinson (5’10”, 180) and were effective (Masters caught three passes for 66 yards and a touchdown and the rookie Odoms had two for 46 yards). Floyd Little (pictured at right) had three catches for 92 yards and a touchdown, although he missed the second half due to a foot injury and was held to just 15 yards rushing on nine carries.

Ken Stabler had a notable performance in relief of Daryle Lamonica, completing 13 of 22 passes for 165 yards with a TD and no interceptions and nearly pulling off a major comeback. Fred Biletnikoff and Raymond Chester both caught five passes apiece, with Biletnikoff gaining the most yards (74, to Chester’s 56). RB Marv Hubbard led the Raiders in rushing with 61 yards on 15 carries.

Coach Ralston said afterward, “Johnson’s accuracy was just incredible. Charley did a magnificent job of putting the ball on the money.”

Said Charley Johnson, “It was just one of those days when the timing between the
passer and the receivers was there.” He added, “I had real good vision - I could see all the coverages. But there are days when you can't see anything.”

The loss to the Broncos was only a speed bump on the way to the AFC West title for Oakland. They recovered to win seven of their remaining eight games to finish at 10-3-1, but lost in the Divisional playoff in stunning fashion to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a result of RB Franco Harris and the “Immaculate Reception”. Denver ended up in third place in the division with yet another losing record, 5-9. But with Johnson at the helm, they would post winning records in each of the following two seasons.

Charley Johnson continued to play well in his comeback year, throwing for 1783 yards with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He ranked third among the AFC’s passers (74.6 rating) as well as in completion percentage (55.5) and second in yards per attempt (7.5) and percentage of TD passes (5.9, tied with Joe Namath of the Jets).

Floyd Little ran for 859 yards on 216 carries (4.0 avg.) and nine touchdowns and caught 28 passes for 367 yards and four more TDs. He also completed another pass.