On August 16, 1972 the Denver Broncos obtained QB Charley Johnson from the Houston Oilers for an undisclosed 1973 draft choice (it turned out to be a third-round selection that was sent on to the Colts and used to take RB Bill Olds from Nebraska). The 33-year-old Johnson, who was reported to be completely recovered from an off-season knee operation, had been expected to start for the Oilers in a preseason game against the Packers but was dealt instead. The Broncos made room on the roster by cutting veteran backup QB John Stofa.
“We are delighted to have Charley in a Broncos uniform,” said Denver’s first-year Head Coach John Ralston. “His experience will be invaluable to our team.”
Johnson certainly brought significant experience to his new club. He was a tenth-round future draft choice of the St. Louis Cardinals out of New Mexico State in 1960 (he still had a year of college eligibility and joined the team the following year). A college walk-on (he had received a basketball scholarship), Johnson guided New Mexico State to back-to-back victories in the Sun Bowl, garnering game MVP honors both times. In St. Louis, he moved into the starting lineup ahead of sore-armed veteran Sam Etcheverry in ’62 and set then-franchise records with 308 pass attempts, 150 completions, and 2440 yards. He did far better in 1963, completing 222 of a league-leading 423 passes for 3280 yards and 28 touchdowns, giving up 21 interceptions, and was named to the Pro Bowl. The Cards contended in 1964 and Johnson had another big year, leading the NFL in pass attempts (420), completions (223), and yards (3045), although also in interceptions (24).
A classic drop-back passer, the 6’0”, 190-pound Johnson threw wobbly but accurate passes with a quick release and had the advantage of excellent receivers in split end Sonny Randle, flanker Bobby Joe Conrad, and TE Jackie Smith. He was also highly intelligent, earning a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Washington University in St. Louis. However, injuries hindered his progress in 1965 and ’66. Johnson missed a total of eight games over the two seasons, including the last five of ’66 due to a knee injury suffered when the team was 6-1-1 (the Cards lost four of their last five contests without Johnson behind center). Then in 1967 and ’68, the Army reserve officer was called up to active duty and inexperienced QB Jim Hart took over the starting job. When Johnson’s military commitment was completed, he found himself in competition with Hart in 1969 and the result was that afterward he was traded to Houston in a deal that brought QB Pete Beathard and CB Miller Farr to St. Louis.
Johnson took over as starting quarterback of the Oilers but struggled with injuries over the course of his two years with the club. In 1970 he had to wear a special harness due to a broken left collar bone and he started just four games in ’71. Meanwhile, rookies Dan Pastorini and Lynn Dickey were chosen in the first and third rounds, respectively, in the 1971 draft as the team looked to the future.
The Broncos had long been seeking a quality starting quarterback, and many aspirants had lined up behind center in the Mile High City since the departure of Frank Tripucka in 1963. The results had been disappointing for the franchise that had not yet put together a winning season since joining the AFL as a charter club in 1960. The starters in ’71 were Don Horn, who had failed to produce in Green Bay as the designated heir to Bart Starr, and Steve Ramsey, who had started out in 1970 with New Orleans. The Broncos finished at 4-9-1.
Coach Ralston went with Ramsey to begin the 1972 season, but after getting off to a 1-4 start, Johnson took over in the sixth week. The result was a stunning upset of the formidable Oakland Raiders in which Johnson passed for 361 yards and, while it didn’t signal an immediate turnaround, the Broncos won three of their last six contests and finished at 5-9. Johnson completed 55.5 percent of his passes for 1783 yards and 14 touchdowns, giving up 14 interceptions. He also was sacked only 12 times, as compared to Ramsey being dumped 26 times in far fewer appearances.
Denver had long been dependent on the ground-gaining of HB Floyd Little, but with Johnson behind center and good receivers in WR Haven Moses and TE Riley Odoms, the team became more productive on offense. Following a slow 1-3 start in 1973, the Broncos went 5-0-2 on the way to a 7-5-2 tally, the first winning record in club history. They contended in the AFC West until finally falling short in the season finale against the Raiders, a game in which Johnson, who remained remarkably healthy, was knocked out of. As it was, Denver led the AFC in passing yards (2519) and ranked third in overall yards per game with 319.5. Johnson threw for 2465 yards and a conference-leading 20 TDs and was a first-team All-AFC selection of UPI and Pro Football Weekly.
The Broncos went 7-6-1 in ’74. Little was lost to an Achilles injury but second-year HB Otis Armstrong stepped in impressively. However, Johnson slipped some and passed for just 1969 yards and 13 touchdowns while being sacked 36 times. The slippage was greater in 1975 as the team dropped to 6-8 and Ramsey saw more action than Johnson. It proved to be the end of the line for the 37-year-old veteran.
Johnson did well overall in four seasons with Denver. He passed for 7238 yards and 52 touchdowns, and the team was 20-18-3 in his starts. Moreover, he provided solid veteran guidance and helped the team to its first two winning seasons. For that, he was ultimately named to the franchise’s Ring of Fame. Johnson returned to New Mexico State where he became a professor of Chemical Engineering for many years.