October 16, 2010

1977: Broncos Intercept Stabler 7 Times and End Raiders Winning Streak

In the seven seasons following the merger of the NFL and AFL in 1970, the Oakland Raiders had pretty much dominated the AFC West. Under Head Coach John Madden, they won the division title in six of those seven years through 1976, and finished a strong second in 1971. Most recently, in ’76, they had gone 13-1 on the way to winning the Super Bowl for the first time. Four weeks into the 1977 season, the Raiders were 4-0 and in the midst of a 17-game winning streak, counting the postseason.

The club they faced on October 16, 1977 at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum was the Denver Broncos, also off to a 4-0 start. As successful as the Raiders had been for over a decade (going back to the late-60s American Football League), the Broncos were a team new to being a contender. After never posting a winning record in any AFL season, Denver finally went over .500 in 1973 and ’74 under Head Coach John Ralston, and was a franchise-best 9-5 in 1976.

Ralston, who had relinquished the post of general manager, was forced to resign as head coach by his successor, Fred Gehrke. It was a controversial move, following the improvement in record, but Ralston had bred a great deal of dissension among the players along the way. Hired to replace him was Red Miller, most recently the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Ralston had also taken criticism for running an uninspiring offense). The other major offseason move occurred when mediocre QB Steve Ramsey was dealt to the New York Giants for 34-year-old QB Craig Morton (pictured above). Morton, who had lost out in the competition for the starting job with Roger Staubach in Dallas at the beginning of the decade, had been a disappointment with the Giants but was nevertheless a big improvement over Ramsey.

The game against Oakland was a major test for the rising Broncos, and one they had been anticipating since long before the season began. However, the Raiders started off with a 70-yard scoring drive that culminated in a nine-yard touchdown pass from QB Ken Stabler to TE Dave Casper.

But on the second Oakland possession, a Stabler pass intended for WR Cliff Branch was tipped by the receiver to LB Joe Rizzo for an interception. From the Raiders’ 29 yard line, the Broncos drove to the tying score on a 10-yard touchdown pass from Morton to TE Riley Odoms.

Midway through the second quarter, Denver punter Bucky Dilts pinned the Raiders down with a kick to the one yard line. Oakland couldn’t advance and had to punt, giving the Broncos good field position at the Raiders’ 42. Seven plays later, HB Lonnie Perrin ran for a 16-yard touchdown to put the Broncos ahead, 14-7. Along the way, Morton connected with Odoms for a 14-yard gain on a third-and-nine play to keep the drive going.

Rizzo intercepted two more of Stabler’s passes and LB Randy Gradishar one. Following the Gradishar pickoff, and with about a minute to go in the half, the Broncos had the ball at the Oakland 32. Unable to gain ground, they lined up for a 42-yard field goal attempt, but faked the kick. Backup QB Norris Weese, the holder, first looked for Odoms but then fired to wide-open PK Jim Turner at the 16 who lumbered the rest of the way for a 25-yard touchdown. It was the only touchdown ever scored by the 36-year-old placekicker, in the 14th of an eventual 16 seasons with the Jets and Broncos (Turner pictured kicking at left). Denver took a 21-7 lead into halftime.

The Raiders put together a good drive in the third quarter, but on third-and-one at the Denver 45 LB Tom Jackson stuffed FB Mark van Eeghen for no gain and Oakland punted. On the next Oakland series, Stabler hit Branch for a 44-yard gain, but on the following play at the Denver 20, RB Pete Banaszak fumbled and Denver DE Lyle Alzado recovered to end the threat.

Again a Dilts punt pinned the Raiders deep in their own territory, at the four yard line, and CB Louis Wright intercepted a Stabler pass shortly thereafter and returned it for an 18-yard touchdown. Turner missed the extra point, but the Denver lead was now an insurmountable 27-7.

One last time the Raiders drove into Denver territory, but Banaszak was stopped decisively for no gain on a fourth-and-one play by Jackson and safety Bill Thompson.

Before it was over, Stabler threw his seventh interception of the game, to DE Paul Smith. The Broncos had the ball at the Oakland 16 but settled for a 32-yard field goal by Turner with just over seven minutes left to play. That provided the stunning final score of 30-7.

The Raiders outgained the Broncos, 326 yards to 200, and accumulated 21 first downs to Denver’s eight. However, Oakland also turned the ball over eight times, to none by the Broncos.

Craig Morton completed just 7 of 16 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown, with none intercepted; Norris Weese, of course, added the 25-yard TD pass on the fake field goal attempt. Only two Denver receivers caught as many as two passes, with the star tight end Riley Odoms (pictured below) gaining 24 yards with a TD on his pair (RB Rob Lytle caught two passes for 18 yards; WR Jack Dolbin had one 34-yard reception and was the leader in receiving yardage for the club). Staying conservative offensively, the Broncos ran 37 times for 102 yards and Lonnie Perrin was the leading rusher with 37 yards on 10 attempts, including a TD.

Ken Stabler was forced to go to the air often and completed 20 of 40 passes for 274 yards with one touchdown and the seven interceptions. Ten of Stabler’s passes hit receivers in the hands and bounced away, accounting for three of the pickoffs. The lefthander had thrown just five interceptions in all of the preceding games.

Dave Casper caught six passes for 58 yards and the lone TD, while Cliff Branch gained 92 yards on his four receptions. Mark van Eeghen was the leading rusher with 61 yards on 20 carries.

Denver’s “Orange Crush” defense had largely controlled the game (as would be the case throughout most of the season). Joe Rizzo accounted for three of the interceptions of Stabler. They also sacked Stabler four times (Morton was sacked five times).

Said Denver’s Randy Gradishar afterward “We’ve been playing together a long time now and we’re getting good coverage and good pressure. Stabler’s not used to getting pressure. Sometimes he’ll just throw the ball out there and hope somebody comes up with it. Today wasn’t his day.”

“There’ll be another day,” said Oakland’s All-Pro guard Gene Upshaw after the game, “and we don’t have to wait a month. It’s just in two weeks.”

Oakland did indeed beat the Broncos in Denver two weeks later, but the Broncos didn’t lose again until the season finale. They finished atop the AFC West with a 12-2 record while the Raiders came in second at 11-3 and qualified for a wild card spot. The teams met one more time, in the AFC Championship game, and Denver won at home, 20-17. However, the Broncos’ dream season turned into a nightmare in the Super Bowl loss to Dallas.

As the game against the Broncos exemplified, Ken Stabler had a down season (by his previous standards), but was still among the league leaders in touchdown passes (20 – matching his interception total), completion percentage (57.5), and percentage of TD passes (6.8) and was selected for the Pro Bowl for the fourth (and last) time. Craig Morton, operating in a conservative offense, didn’t have overwhelming numbers but provided steady leadership, minimized mistakes (his 3.1 interception percentage was second lowest in the conference), and came away with an AFC title.