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Denver Broncos Changing Faces: From The Start of A Fandom to A Strike Season

March 20 2012; Englewood, CO, USA; General view of Broncos headquarters before the start of press conference to announce the formal signing of quarterback Peyton Manning. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE
March 20 2012; Englewood, CO, USA; General view of Broncos headquarters before the start of press conference to announce the formal signing of quarterback Peyton Manning. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-US PRESSWIRE

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.

Take a jump with me and recall how the Denver Broncos starters have changed over the years.

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.

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
LCB Cornell Gordon
FS Paul Martha
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)
RG Mike Schnitker
K Jim Turner

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
FS Steve Preece

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
RLB Ray May
RCB Calvin Jones
SS Billy Thompson
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)
RLB Tom Jackson
LCB John Rowser

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)
LCB Louis Wright
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)
P Norris Weese

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
C Mike Montler
RG Paul Howard
P Bucky Dilts

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:

1978 1979 1980 1981 1982
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
K Fred Steinfort

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