Do you ever wonder how things might have been if things had gone just a little differently?
In 1971, coach Lou Saban drafted Lyle Alzado to play defensive end for the Denver Broncos. Over his eight-year career playing for Denver, Alzado played in 99 games, recovered 14 fumbles, and notched a safety.
As outlined in Mile High Report’s Greatest to Wear series, Alzado’s impact on a struggling Broncos franchise was substantial.
In 1972, Alzado began to get national attention for his intense and intimidating style of play as he produced 10.5 Sacks to go with 91 Tackles. In 1973, Lyle posted another great season and the Broncos had a winning record for the 1st time in franchise history with a 7–5–2 mark.
1974 saw Alzado gaining significantly more notice as one media source named him All-AFC, with 13 Sacks and 80 Tackles (8 for a loss). His name was being mentioned among the NFL’s top Defensive Ends -- Elvin Bethea, Jack Youngblood, L. C. Greenwood, Claude Humphrey, and Carl Eller. The Denver Broncos posted their 2nd consecutive winning season, going 7–6–1. The 1975 season brought about a change and Alzado moved to the Defensive Tackle spot. He responded with 91 Tackles and 7 Sacks, but the team regressed with a 6–8 record.
The 1977 campaign, up to that point, was the most successful in franchise history. The Broncos had one of the NFL’s best defenses, went 12–2 and then beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders en route to Super Bowl XII. They were stomped by the Dallas Cowboys 27–10. The season was still a big success for Alzado, who was voted consensus All-Pro and consensus All-AFC as well as winning the UPI AFC Defensive Player of the Year. He also led the Broncos in Sacks with 8, while making 80 Tackles.
The Broncos went to the AFC playoffs again in 1978, losing in the 1st round to the eventual champion Steelers. Alzado had 77 Tackles and 9 Sacks and recorded his 1st NFL safety. He was 2nd team All-Pro and a consensus All-AFC pick.
After making the Pro Bowl for the 2nd consecutive year, Alzado - who had led the team in Sacks in 5 of the last 7 years - and the Broncos had a contract dispute. The Broncos Front Office responded by trading him to Cleveland for draft picks.
However, nobody remembers Alzado as a Cleveland Brown, but rather the Raider he became in 1982.
What if Alzado never became a Raider?
Here’s how the Browns may have had the opportunity to keep Alzado from becoming a Raider. On Jan. 4, 1981, in the divisional round of the playoffs, Alzado’s Cleveland Browns were playing the Oakland Raiders. With time winding down and a win within Cleveland’s reach, Red Right 88 happened.
Trailing 14-12 with less than a minute remaining in the game, the Browns had the ball on the Raiders 13-yard line and were in position for a potential game-winning field goal. Browns quarterback Brian Sipe conferred with head coach Sam Rutigliano, who called a pass play, “Red Slot Right, Halfback Stay, 88,” and instructed Sipe to “throw it into Lake Erie” (throwing the ball out of play as it was only 2nd down), if the play was anything less than wide open. On the ensuing play, Sipe chose to force a pass to tight end Ozzie Newsome. However, the pass was intercepted in the end zone by Raiders safety Mike Davis, who had cut in front of Newsome’s square-in pass route, putting an end to the Browns’ season. Oakland subsequently advanced to the AFC conference championship, where it defeated the San Diego Chargers and went on to win Super Bowl XV over the Philadelphia Eagles.
The logic behind trying for the touchdown was that Browns kicker Don Cockroft had previously missed two field goal attempts, had one extra point attempt blocked, and had another aborted following a bad snap. In addition, the weather was brutally cold and windy. “What many people don’t know about that situation is that I was a long way from being 100 percent physically in 1980,” Cockroft said in a 2006 interview. “I had two herniated discs and needed four epidurals to just get through the season. I probably should have gone on IR.”Cockroft was released by the Browns at the end of their 1981 training camp and retired soon after.
Had the play been executed properly, it would have presumably resulted in a touchdown. The primary receiver, Dave Logan, was crossing left-to-right, had a step on his defender and was open at the six-yard line. Sipe misread the defensive back’s movements and thought Logan was covered so he went to the secondary receiver and threw in traffic where it was intercepted. Furthermore, Cleveland’s drive had occurred right after the Raiders themselves had blown a chance at a short field goal attempt, moving the ball to a 3rd and 1 situation on the Browns 15-yard line only to lose it by being stuffed for no gain on consecutive running plays.
Had the Browns won this game, they would have advanced to the AFC Championship and might have gone on to win it all. Now, all AFC Championship jokes aside for Cleveland, if they had won that Super Bowl, they might not have had the 5-11 swoon in 1981 that led to Alzado’s departure for the Raiders. While his two fumble recoveries during his time with the Browns weren’t much to celebrate, Alzado’s reputation as an accomplished pass rusher doesn’t show up in the stat sheet because sacks weren’t recorded as an official stat until 1982.
If Alzado hadn’t become a Raider, Oakland might not have won Super Bowl XVIII in a game where he notched 2.5 sacks. Without the Raiders, that image of him as Broncos traitor would never have happened. As with other Broncos players that went on to play for other teams, Broncos Country would have welcomed him back into the fold had he wanted to. Unfortunately, he reveled in his Raider-dom and the “criminal/bad boy” connotation that went with being a Raider, especially at that time.
Had Lyle Alzado never been a Raider, he would be in the Broncos Ring of Fame.
Sure, you can cast doubt on that proclamation by bringing up Alzado’s steroids history or the player coup he led to oust coach John Ralston following the 1976 season, which are valid points.
However, it’s doubtful that the Broncos Ring of Fame is steroid-free. Others that participated in the coup are honored, most notably Tom Jackson.
The fact remains that Alzado played eight seasons in Denver and was instrumental in the first AFC Championship in franchise history as a cornerstone of the Orange Crush defense. His resume as a Bronco still holds strong against others already honored. His impact as a positive force for the Broncos extends beyond his 2-All Pro and 2-Pro Bowl nods he registered playing for Denver.
Maybe one day he’ll get the Broncos recognition he deserves.