I was totally excited when my parents moved from West Des Moines, Iowa to Littleton, Colorado in 1969. I was finally going to be able to root for a "hometown" NFL team. Well, actually, it was a hometown AFL team at that time, but still . . . I had a professional football team in MY town. For a 5th grader -- and his dad -- this was a big deal.
I spent many days, as that first season started learning the names of the various players on the team. Steve Tensi, Floyd Little, Billy Thompson and others became the players that my friends and I would try to emulate in our schoolyard football games. Little did I realize, that those names and faces would change with regularity.
Perhaps one of the reasons that I have been able to weather the turbulence of recent Broncos' seasons (the last five to ten) is because I have had both the pleasure and frustration of seeing many of the same kinds of changes over the last forty-two seasons.
Take a jump with me and recall how the Denver Broncos starters have changed over the years.
When I first became a Broncos fan, the starters for my team were:
|QB||Steve Tensi||LDE||Rich Jackson|
|HB||Floyd Little||LDT||Jerry Inman|
|FB||Tommy Smiley||RDT||Dave Costa|
|WR||Mike Haffner||RDE||Paul Duranko|
|WR||Al Denson||LLB||Carl Cunningham|
|TE||Tom Beer||MLB||John Huard|
|LT||Sam Brunelli||RLB||Chip Myrtle|
|LG||George Goeddeke||LCB||Grady Cavness|
|C||Larry Kaminski||RCB||Billy Thompson|
|RG||Bob Young||SS||Charlie Greer|
|RT||Mike Current||FS||George Burrell|
|K||Bobby Howfield||P||Gus Holloman|
That first season of my fandom, the Broncos went a disappointing 5-8-1 and finished in 4th place (out of five teams) in the AFL West. The only team that finished with a worse record were the 4-9-1 Cincinnati Bengals (that's right, football fans, the Bengals were once in the same division as Denver).
Before the next season began, the Broncos changed three offensive starters, five defensive ones and one special teams starter. The changes were:
|QB||Paul Liske||LDT||Paul Smith|
|FB||Willis Crenshaw||MLB||Fred Forsberg|
|TE||Jim Whalen||RLB||Dave Washington|
|P||Billy Van Heusen|
The Broncos finished a disappointing 5-8-1, in last place, in the newly formed NFL's AFC West.
1971 saw massive changes to the starting lineup -- nine changes on offense, seven on defense and one on special teams. These changes included four players being moved to new positions. The changes were:
|QB||Don Horn||LDT||Dave Costa (from RDT)|
|FB||Bobby Anderson||RDT||Paul Smith (from LDT)|
|WR||Jack Gehrke||RDE||Lyle Alzado|
|WR||Jerry Simmons||LLB||Dave Washington (from RLB)|
|TE||Billy Masters||RLB||Chip Myrtle|
|LT||Roger Shoals||LCB||Leroy Mitchell|
|LG||Larron Jackson||FS||George Saimes|
|C||George Goeddeke (from LG)|
These changes did little to improve the fortunes of the Broncos as they finished 4-9-1 and in last place in the AFC West for a second season in a row.
The changes in 1972 were of a more modest degree with only five offensive changes and six on defense. These changes were:
|QB||Charlie Johnson||LDE||Lloyd Voss|
|WR||Rod Sherman||LDT||Dave Costa|
|LT||Marv Montgomery||LLB||Fred Forsberg (from MLB)|
|C||Larry Kaminski||MLB||Tom Graham|
|RG||Tommy Lyons||RCB||Randy Montgomery|
I was treated to the fourth losing season in a row, though, I suppose I could find some comfort in the fact that the Broncos finished in third in the AFC West, one-half game in front of the San Diego Chargers. Not really much of a comfort, though.
1973 brought modest changes to the offense and significant changes to the defense. These changes led to the first winning season in Broncos' history -- a 7-5-2 record and a second place finish in the AFC West. The changes were:
|FB||Joe Dawkins||LDE||Paul Duranko (from LDT)|
|WR||Haven Moses||LDT||Paul Smith (from RDT)|
|TE||Riley Odoms||RDT||Barney Chavous|
|C||Bobby Maples||LLB||Bill Laskey|
|FS||Charlie Greer (from SS)|
The next season saw the Broncos again make modest changes to the offense and more significant changes to the defense. 1974 also saw the Broncos post their second-ever winning season at 7-6-1, along with a second second-place AFC West finish. The changes were:
|FB||Otis Armstrong||LDE||Barney Chavous (from RDT)|
|WR||Billy Van Heusen||LDT||John Grant|
|LT||Claudie Minor||RDT||Paul Duranko (from LDE)|
|MLB||Ray May (from RLB)|
In 1975, the Broncos made modest changes to both sides of the ball . . . and took a step backwards:
|QB||Steve Ramsey||RDT||Paul Smith|
|FB||Jon Keyworth||LLB||Tom Jackson (from RLB)|
|LG||Tommy Lyons (from RG)||MLB||Randy Gradishar|
|RG||Paul Howard||RLB||Ray May (from MLB)|
|FS||John Rowser (from LCB)|
Denver dropped to 6-8-0, yet still finished second in the AFC West, edging out the 5-9-0 Kansas City Chiefs and the 2-12-0 San Diego Chargers.
The Broncos changed out about half of their starters as they entered the 1976 season:
|RB||Otis Armstrong||NT||Reuben Carter|
|WR||Rick Upchurch||RDE||Paul Smith (from RDT)|
|LT||Bill Bain||LOLB||Bob Swenson|
|LG||Tom Glassic||LILB||Joe Rizzo|
|RG||Tommy Lyons (from LG)||RILB||Randy Gradishar (from MLB)|
|RT||Claudie Minor (from LT)||ROLB||Tom Jackson (from LLB)|
The Broncos surged forward in this season, finishing with a 9-5-0 mark. This was good enough for a second place finish in the AFC West, but left them behind the 11-3-0 New England Patriots for the lone wild card playoff spot. They were also behind the 10-4-0 Cincinnati Bengals and the 9-5-0 Cleveland Browns.
1977 was a season of miracles. Modest changes were made to the starting lineup with great results:
|QB||Craig Morton||RDE||Lyle Alzado|
|WR||Jack Dolbin||RCB||Steve Foley|
|LT||Andy Maurer||FS||Bernard Jackson|
The Broncos finished the 1977 season with a 12-2 record and in first place in the AFC West. They defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-21 in a divisional round playoff game. They defeated the Oakland Raiders 20-17 to claim the AFC Championship. I was screaming my head off in my freshman dorm's common room as the Orange Crush defense took on the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XII. Sadly, I had to suffer through the Broncos 27-10 loss in that game. Still, the expectation had been set. Not only had the Broncos made it to the playoffs, they had made it to the Super Bowl.
The next five seasons saw minimal changes to the starting lineup, along with minimal success on the field:
|LT||Claudie Minor (from RT)||RB||Rob Lytle||RB||Dave Preston||FB||Rick Parros||QB||Steve Deberg|
|C||Bill Bryan||WR||Rick Upchurch||FB||Jim Jensen||WR||Steve Watson||RT||Ken Lanier|
|RT||Tom Neville||RT||Dave Studdard||LOLB||Rob Nairne||RDE||Rulon Jones||LOLB||Jim Ryan|
|RDE||Brison Manor||LILB||Larry Evans||LOLB||Bob Swenson||SS||Dennis Smith|
|P||Luke Prestridge||RCB||Aaron Kyle||FS||Mike Harden|
|FS||Steve Foley (from RCB)||K||Rich Karlis|
1978 saw a 10-6-0 record lead to a division title, but also to a 33-10 loss to Pittsburgh in the divisional round of the playoffs. The following season, that same 10-6-0 record was only good enough for a second-place AFC West finish and a wild card playoff spot -- a game which Denver lost 13-7 to the Houston Oilers. The Broncos went 8-8-0, fourth place in the AFC West -- finishing ahead of only the 4-12-0 Seattle Seahawks -- and missed the playoffs. In 1981, the Broncos bounced back to a 10-6-0 record. They tied San Diego for first place in the division, but lost the playoff tiebreaker to the Chargers. The 1982 season was rocked by a fifty-seven day-long players strike that resulted in a shortened nine game season. The Broncos finished a disappointing 2-7-0 and in last place in the AFC West.
Next time: Denver Broncos Changing Faces: The Elway Years