September 22, 2012

1974: Steelers and Broncos Play to Tie in First NFL Regular Season Overtime Game

Among several significant rules changes in effect for the 1974 NFL season was the introduction of overtime for regular season games that were tied after the regulation four quarters. However, unlike the postseason, where overtime was already in use and had yielded some memorable results, the overtime for the regular season contests would be limited. If the score was still even after one extra 15-minute period it would end as a tie.

Overtime wasn’t necessary for any of the opening week games in ’74, but on September 22 the new rule came into effect for the first time in a contest at Denver between the Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Broncos, coached by John Ralston, were coming off the franchise’s first winning record (7-5-2) in ’73 but had lost their Week 1 contest to the Rams. 35-year-old QB Charley Johnson made the passing game formidable and eighth-year RB Floyd Little was still effective. It was hoped that the first draft choice from 1973, RB Otis Armstrong, would contribute more in his second year, while third-year TE Riley Odoms had already emerged as a key factor in the offense. The defense included rising stars in DE Lyle Alzado, DT Barney Chavous, and SS Bill Thompson.

Pittsburgh, in Head Coach Chuck Noll’s sixth season, was a tough defensive team with an offense still struggling to excel. A surprise coming into the ’74 season was the replacement of 1970’s overall first draft pick, Terry Bradshaw, at quarterback by Joe Gilliam (pictured above), a strong-armed African-American at a time when black signal callers were a rarity. The Steelers had made it to the playoffs the previous two years and were looking to move up. They had won their opening game against the Colts by a 30-0 score.

The fans at Mile High Stadium witnessed an exciting first quarter. There were 37 plays from scrimmage in all with the Broncos maintaining possession for most of the period. It started off when Denver’s Jim Turner squibbed the opening kickoff, which WR Jerry Simmons recovered for the Broncos. After driving to the Pittsburgh 39, Denver was forced to punt, but Billy Van Heusen pinned the Steelers down at their one yard line. The Steelers went three-and-out and punted in turn, giving the Broncos excellent field position.

On Denver’s first play following the punt, Charley Johnson fired a pass to Otis Armstrong for a 45-yard touchdown. The Steelers came right back, however. On the fourth play of their next series, Gilliam threw a screen pass to RB Steve Davis that, using downfield blocking effectively, was turned into a 61-yard TD. Roy Gerela’s extra point made it 7-7 at five minutes into the opening period.

Armstrong returned the ensuing kickoff 33 yards to the Denver 42. A second down pass to Floyd Little gained 18 yards and shortly thereafter Johnson, just getting his pass away over the hands of a Pittsburgh linebacker, hit WR Haven Moses at the four yard line. Two plays later, Moses finished off the drive with a touchdown reception in the corner of the end zone and the Broncos retook the lead.

On Pittsburgh’s next play from scrimmage, Gilliam threw to WR Frank Lewis who fumbled when hit hard by CB Calvin Jones. LB Mike Simone recovered for the Broncos and ran to the Denver one, where he was brought down by OT Jon Kolb. Rookie FB Jon Keyworth powered in for another Denver TD. While there were still five minutes left in the period, the first quarter scoring was over and the Broncos held a 21-7 lead.

In the second quarter, the Steelers put together an 87-yard drive that culminated in Gilliam scoring on a quarterback sneak. That was it for the first half scoring as Denver went into halftime leading by 21-14. Pittsburgh had the edge in total offense at the half (193 to 165) but suffered from dropped passes and a total of eight penalties that cost 66 yards.

Early in the third quarter, the Steelers tied the game following a third-down interception of a Johnson pass. Johnson suffered a severe shoulder sprain on the play, forcing him out of the game, and backup Steve Ramsey went the rest of the way. On the ensuing series, FB Franco Harris made a big catch for Pittsburgh at the Denver 13 and Davis finished the drive with a one-yard run followed by the tying extra point.

Another good Van Heusen punt forced the Steelers to start their next possession at their 9, and after getting out to the 38, Davis fumbled after catching a screen pass and Lyle Alzado recovered for Denver. Two plays later, Armstrong made an outstanding 32-yard run up the middle to the Pittsburgh three. Ramsey threw to Riley Odoms for a touchdown to put the Broncos back in front.

Gilliam hit on passes of 38 yards to WR John Stallworth, nine yards to TE Randy Grossman, and 10 yards to Lewis as the Steelers drove to another score. Davis ran for a one-yard touchdown and Gerela’s extra point made it 28-28.

Ramsey gave up an interception to LB Marv Kellum that gave the Steelers the ball at the Denver 16. Pittsburgh took the lead shortly thereafter when RB John “Frenchy” Fuqua scored from a yard out to make it 35-28.

It looked like big trouble for the Broncos when Ramsey turned the ball over again, this time on a fumble at his own 32 that Pittsburgh DE L.C. Greenwood recovered. However, after completing four passes, including a 17-yarder to Grossman to advance the ball to the Denver 14, Gilliam was sacked on a play that also drew a holding penalty and a pass intended for Stallworth bounced off the receiver’s hands as he was hit and was picked off by LB Tom Jackson at the 11, who proceeded to make a big return to the 50.

Armstrong caught a pass to get to the Pittsburgh 38, ran for 15 yards, and then caught another pass for a 15-yard touchdown. The extra point tied the game at 35-35.

With the score tied in the fourth quarter, the Steelers made it to midfield but were stymied by the Denver defense. However, on their next possession inside the last minute of regulation Gilliam passed the Steelers from the Denver 42 to the eight yard line. With five seconds left on the clock, Roy Gerela attempted a 25-yard field goal to win, but Barney Chavous and Bill Thompson broke through the line to block the kick and send the contest into overtime.

In the overtime period, the Steelers again drove to midfield but a sack by Tom Jackson moved them back and a third-and-22 pass was intercepted by DB John Rowser at the 35. Thanks to outstanding running by Armstrong, the Broncos drove into field goal range, but Jim Turner’s 40-yard attempt was wide to the right.

The Steelers had one last shot, getting the ball back at their own 16 yard line with 50 seconds remaining in the extra period. Coach Noll proved unwilling to take any chances, however, as Pittsburgh passed once and ran two running plays to exhaust the remaining time. The three-hour and 49-minute contest concluded as a 35-35 draw.

“I don’t think either team deserved to lose and neither team did,” summed up Denver’s Coach Ralston.

The teams combined for 160 plays that yielded 816 yards, with Pittsburgh accumulating the most (484 to 332) and also leading in first downs (33 to 20). The Steelers also turned the ball over four times, to three suffered by Denver, and penalties continued to be a problem as they committed 12 at a cost of 91 yards to 7 flags thrown on the Broncos for 61 yards. The Steelers converted 7 of 18 third downs, however, while Denver was only successful on one of 11.

Joe Gilliam provided plenty of excitement with his deep drops and rifled passes, going to the air 50 times and completing 31 for 348 yards with a touchdown and two intercepted. Franco Harris rushed for 70 yards on 20 carries and also led the club in pass receiving with 9 catches for 84 yards. Likewise, Steve Davis was at his best as a receiver out of the backfield – while he ran for two short TDs, he gained just 16 yards on 6 attempts but had 5 pass receptions for 58 yards and another score.

Otis Armstrong (pictured below) was the biggest star on offense for the Broncos as he rushed for 131 yards on 19 carries and caught 5 passes for 86 more yards plus two TDs. Charley Johnson completed 6 of 15 passes for 129 yards with two touchdowns and one interception before having to leave and Steve Ramsey added 6 completions in 12 attempts for 62 yards, also with two touchdowns and an interception. Haven Moses gained 61 yards and scored a TD on his three pass receptions.

The Steelers lost to Oakland the following week but then won five straight on their way to a 10-3-1 record that topped the AFC Central. They advanced to the Super Bowl where they attained the first NFL Championship in franchise history. Denver ended up second in the AFC West at 7-6-1.

Despite the impressive early showing, Joe Gilliam didn’t last as the starting quarterback for the Steelers – he was backing up Terry Bradshaw by the end of the season. He completed 45.3 percent of his 212 passes for 1274 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions.

Otis Armstrong had an outstanding year for the Broncos, leading the NFL in rushing with 1407 yards on 263 carries (5.3 avg.). He scored 9 TDs and also 38 passes for 405 more yards and three additional touchdowns. His 1812 yards from scrimmage also led the league.

There was just one other regular season overtime game in 1974, which was settled in overtime. It would be 1976 before another game ended in a tie in the NFL.