Charley Johnson was an interesting addition to the Denver Broncos Ring of Fame. When I looked at his wimpy stats and mediocre performances throughout his career, I just didn't get it. But then I realized that this perception is the fundamental problem with a fan from the next generation who examines the worth of a player who retired several years before he (the fan) was born.
Instead, I needed to look at what Charley brought to the Denver Broncos organization that went beyond the mediocre stats and lack of tallies in the win column. Charley Johnson represented the dawn of a new era in Broncos history. Denver went through about two dozen starting quarterbacks from Frank Tripucka's retirement to Johnson's arrival. The result was as heartbreaking to the fans as it was predictable. Just like today, with Pat Bowlen taking control of his franchise, a team needs stability at the top in order to be successful in the NFL.
Johnson's career with Denver began in his eleventh year in the NFL and he was coming off a five-year stint of mediocre and oft-injured seasons. Johnson entered the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals and he played very well early in his career, but he was cut in 1969 after four consecutive years of injuries and benchings that led to his dismissal from the team. He was picked up by the Houston Oilers and had a couple of average seasons before joining the Denver Broncos during the 1972 offseason.
Stats aside, Charley Johnson brought one thing that no other player had been able to bring to the fans in Denver up until that point. That one thing was a belief that any game could be won. Not even Floyd "The Franchise" Little brought that core belief to the fans in the Mile High City.
Floyd Little was the best player on the team for the better part of a decade, but it took a stable presence at the quarterback position for Floyd to really begin to enjoy his place on the offense. I have read that his most memorable season as a Bronco before Charley Johnson became the starter was when Marlin Briscoe started the entire season in the late 60's. Little suffered through as many quarterbacks as any player or team should suffer through, but his career definitely found a second wind with ole Charley under center.
The first signs of this came early in Johnson's first season with the Broncos. Back in the early 70's, there were few teams that were consistently a dominate force in the league. The Denver Broncos faced two of those elite teams in consecutive weeks during October of 1972. The first was against the Minnesota Vikings, and firstfan provided an amazing recounting of that game in our very first collaboration just under a year ago.
1972 Broncos v Vikings
Mile High Stadium
This game typifies the efforts of the Denver Broncos of the sixties and early seventies. In order to understand the atmosphere in which the Broncos played in this era one must have a feeling for the emotion which surrounded this team and the city of Denver. I am unaware of any other city that has ever loved a professional team to the degree that the people of Denver and Colorado and the Rocky Mountain area loved the Broncos. Even though the team had never even had a winning season in the entire twelve years of its existence, the support never wavered.
The '72 season had started out with a convincing win over Houston. Houston had finished the previous year with a record identical to Denver's and many thought this would be a good measuring stick to see if we were getting any better and the win over Houston gave everyone hope. The next three weeks saw us get crushed by San Diego on the road and Kansas City at home and smothered in Cincinnati. The next week we were home against one of the strongest teams in the entire NFL, the Minnesota Vikings. The Vikings were led by Fran Tarkenton and their defense was called the Purple People Eaters and was perhaps the best defense in the NFL. Minnesota had finished the year before at 11-3 and shared the best record with Dallas. Nobody outside of the Rocky Mountain area gave Denver even a ghost of a chance.
The start of the game went pretty much as most experts on the East Coast thought. The Viking defense just stuffed us. Some people were surprised that Minnesota was having a hard time moving the ball against our own defenders and this was about the time the moniker Orange Crush began to be used. Midway through the second period Minnesota had a 6-0 lead. We stopped them and forced a punt. John Ralston was the coach and he pulled our Quarterback Steve Ramsey and put in the wily old veteran Charley Johnson. Charley must have seen something in that defense that he thought he could exploit. He drove the Broncos to the 36 yard line. Ralston sent in a play from the sidelines. It was a run but Charley changed the play in the huddle to a screen to Floyd Little. Floyd caught the pass, got a couple of blocks, put on a few moves and then outran every Viking defender to the end zone. The fans went absolutely wild and Denver went into the locker room at half up 7-6.
This was a wake-up call to the Vikings and they came out after the half charged up and ready to kill the hapless Broncos. They put up 10 points in the third quarter and took control of the game. The Broncos seemed to have two traits in those days; both of which repeatedly broke your heart. They would start the season with a bang and give everyone hope; then fade away the second half of the season. They did this in games too. They would play close for the first half or even the first three quarters, but then loose in the end. This looked like a typical Bronco game until Minnesota fumbled.
Next came one of the most outstanding performances in the history of Bronco football. Floyd Little took a handoff and was immediately in the sights of Alan Page. That behemoth was ready to kill the 5'10' Little. Somewhere in the far distant future some archeologist working on a dig just north and east of the new Mile High Stadium is going to find Alan Page's jock strap because on that play Floyd Little faked him completely out of the one he was wearing. In escaping Page, Floyd ran directly into a linebacker and put another move on the backer. This guy came closer than Page but could only grab Little's jersey. Floyd dragged him for about five yards before he broke free. The stats showed it to be a 25 or 30 yard TD run but I think Floyd ran about sixty yards to the end zone counting all the cut backs and weaves. I don't know if it is true or not, but one writer said all eleven Vikings had an opportunity to tackle Floyd Little on that play and none could get him down. The fans went nuts and momentum had shifted back to the Broncos. We closed the gap to 16-14.
After an exchange of punts the Broncos got the ball back with less than eight minutes left in the game. We weren't much of a passing team in those days and Ralston orchestrated a time-gobbling twelve play drive. Charley Johnson executed it perfectly. With less than a minute to go Floyd Little scored his third touchdown of the day and the Broncos took a 20-16 lead. The fans went wild. Their beloved Denver Broncos were on the cusp of defeating one of the best teams in the NFC. Unfortunately Fran Tarkenton wasn't done. The hearts of the Bronco players and fans were ripped out once again as Tarkenton engineered a drive and scored with seconds left. The Broncos were defeated 20-23.
A lesser team would have been devastated by this disheartening loss, but not our Broncos. They went out the next week and beat the snot out of the oakland raiders, giving them one of only three losses the raiders would suffer that year.
|Charley Johnson was the first talented veteran signal caller to don a Bronco uniform since 1962; when Frank Tripucka retired.|
Charley Johnson would throw for 164 yards and a touchdown in that game against Minnesota and gave all Broncomaniacs a glimpse of what was in store for them in the next four seasons. The doormats of the league were finally lifting themselves out of the gutter and opponents would no longer look upon the Broncos as an easy win.
The second elite opponent Denver would face that month would be the hated division rivals, the Oakland Raiders. The Broncos, up until this point, had lost twenty consecutive games against the dirty-rotten scoundrels and their chief henchman in Al Davis, but that streak was about to end. In probably the greatest game the Broncos' fans had ever seen from their team up until that point, Charley Johnson and the Broncos doggedly hung tough with the more talented Raiders all game long, upsetting the eventual AFC West Division Champions, 30-23 in Oakland.
Charley Johnson completed over 70% of his passes and threw for 361 yards and two touchdowns with a quarterback rating of 137.5. It would easily be Johnson's best game of his entire fifteen-year career. The Raiders would go on to claim a 10-3-1 record, but from that point on they would not take the Broncos lightly.
Here is a slide show with a few of the key plays from this game.
|Charley Johnson's Career Stats|