The Denver Broncos, like several franchises, did not have a good start to their franchise. From 1960-1972, they had a losing record every year except in 1962 when they were 7-7. Things began to turn around a little when they hired head coach John Ralston in 1972.
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While Ralston provided the best leadership the team had likely had up to that point, the roster also began to improve. Lyle Alzado was drafted in 1971 and would become one of the cornerstones of the Orange Crush defense. Safety Bernard Jackson was drafted in 1972. 1973’s draft brought in linebackers Tom Jackson (yes, that Tom Jackson) and Joe Rizzo. Perhaps the most important draft pick for the Broncos in the 1970s came in 1974 when they spent their first-round pick on the great and underrated linebacker, Randy Gradishar.
After a losing campaign in Ralston’s first season, 1973 would be Denver’s first-ever winning season at 7-5. 1974 would see Denver go 7-6-1, but miss the playoffs again.
The Broncos continued to build. In 1975, though the team went 6-8, they drafted the two corners that would anchor the secondary, Steve Foley and future All-Pro Louis Wright.
The offense was improving as well. Wide Receiver Haven Moses had been their best player since 1968, but he was joined by Tight End Riley Odoms in 1972 and the centerpiece of the 1970’s Broncos running game, Otis Armstrong in 1973, who posted 1,400 and 1,000-yard seasons in 1974 and 1976, respectively. By 1975, they added an explosive receiver and punt returner Rick Upchurch.
The 1976 Broncos would finish the season with a franchise-best 9-5 record and while they were competitive, they just didn’t have enough firepower to make the playoffs.
Everything changed in 1977. Ralston stepped down and Red Miller was brought in to guide an already talented team to their first-ever playoff berth. The defense was already showing signs of dominance under Ralston but gelled under Miller’s leadership. By Week 7 of the 1977 season, the Broncos were 6-0 and the defense was known as “The Orange Crush Defense”, giving up a total of 46 points during those games.
The offense was coming together as well. The receiving corps was still very good with Upchurch, Moses, and Odoms, as was the ground game, led by Armstrong. The only component that was lacking was the quarterback and in the 1976 offseason, veteran Craig Morton was brought in to revive an anemic offense. The offense averaged just over 22 points per game during those first six games. (their 7 total points scored in Week 1 brought the average down significantly)
The challenge for the Broncos in 1977 was to get past their division rivals, the Oakland Raiders, who were also the defending Super Bowl champions. If that weren’t enough, the dominant team of the 1970s, the Pittsburgh Steelers, were still a powerhouse.
After starting 6-0, Oakland came to town and unfortunately for Denver, spoiled their perfect start with a 24-14 win. Although Denver defeated them two weeks prior, it was a difficult loss as the Raiders were up 24-0 in the third quarter. It was a wake-up call and more importantly, it lit a fire under the Broncos especially since a showdown with Pittsburgh the following week loomed over them.
In order to prove they were contenders, the Broncos needed to beat the Steelers. Following a first-quarter drive that ended with a Rob Lytle touchdown run, the explosive Rick Upchurch made his first big play of the season by returning a punt 87 yards to put the Broncos ahead 14-0, still in the first quarter. In a game where yards and points were scarce, Morton was able to find Moses for a 20-yard second-quarter touchdown to put the Broncos up 21-0 at the half. The game ended 21-7 as the Orange Crush defense took over and pounded the Steelers into submission.
By Week 12, the Broncos clinched the division with a 24-14 win over the Oilers, and at the same time, the Raiders fell to 9-3 after losing a tight battle 12-7 to the Chargers. With every victory, the fans and the city were more and more excited and it was during 1977 where “Bronco-Mania” was truly born.
The Broncos had finally made it to the playoffs. They shared the league’s best record (12-2) with the Dallas Cowboys. The only problem was, Dallas had defeated Denver in the final regular-season game, 14-6.
As luck would have it, Denver had to play their first playoff game against the powerful Steelers. Denver’s defense would intercept Terry Bradshaw three times while Craig Morton was efficient as the Broncos won 34-21.
Although the Cowboys would win Super Bowl 12, the Broncos had finally turned into a respectable team and the 1977 “Orange Crush” team will always have a special place in the hearts of Broncos fans.
The defense, rated number one against the run and third overall, would send five players to the Pro Bowl and four of them would make first-team All-Pro. (Lyle Alzado, Tom Jackson, Louis Wright, Randy Gradishar, and Bill Thompson)
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Bronco-Mania would reach new heights in the 1980s with the John Elway teams that went to three Super Bowls but would culminate in the late 1990s when they finally reached the summit of the NFL by defeating the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl 32 and the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 33. Even after this year’s Super Bowl win, the roots of Bronco-Mania can be traced to their first very special team of 1977, the original “Orange Crush Defense.”