Tuesday, January 15, 2013

When the Orange Got Crushed

Before the 1977 NFL season, the Denver Broncos were practically invisible.

They never made the playoffs — so it follows that they had never been to a Super Bowl. In fact, they rarely had a winning season.

But that changed in 1977.

The Broncos didn't win with their offense that year. Half the teams in the AFC scored more points than Denver did.

Denver won with defense. No team in the AFC and only two teams in the NFC allowed fewer points than the Denver Broncos, whose defense earned the nickname "Orange Crush." Only one team — division rival and defending NFL champion Oakland — scored 20 points or more against Denver during the regular season.

My memory is that Denver's defense captured the imagination of the sports world that year. But, in the end, the Broncos couldn't capture the NFL title.

They've played in several Super Bowls now, but, on this day 35 years ago, the Broncos played in their first–ever Super Bowl. Appearing in the Super Bowl became almost a routine thing for Denver fans in the 1980s and less so in the 1990s (although the '90s brought the Broncos their first triumph), but in 1977 it was a brand–new experience for them and for their team.

And, as has been the case with most first–time Super Bowl teams, the outcome of the game wasn't favorable.

I guess the enduring memory for me from Super Bowl XII is of Dallas' Butch Johnson snagging a Roger Staubach pass that seemed to be just beyond his reach, tumbling into the end zone and bouncing to his feet, ready to pounce on the ball — and he would have, too, if the official had not signaled a touchdown.

To this day, I still don't know if it was a legitimate catch, but in that pre–challenge era, there was no way for Denver coach Red Miller to dispute it.

It was just one of those can't–miss kind of games — for the Cowboys, not the Broncos.

Staubach completed more than two–thirds of his passes, helping the Cowboys race to a 13–0 halftime lead. Eventually, the Cowboys won, 27–10, giving Dallas coach Tom Landry his second — and last — NFL title.

But even more remarkably, the most valuable player award went to not one but two defensive players, Dallas' Randy White and Harvey Martin.

White and Martin combined for seven tackles and two sacks of Denver quarterback Craig Morton.

Once upon a time, Morton had been Dallas' quarterback, but Morton was stymied in Super Bowl V, and Landry alternated between Morton and Staubach for the first half of the 1971 season before settling on Staubach.

Morton's career in Dallas was over. He stayed in Dallas a few more seasons, but Staubach was the starter, and Morton looked for a fresh start. A few years with the Giants didn't work out for him, and, in 1977, he found himself in Denver.

Morton completed only 42% of his passes that season — but, as I say, the Broncos only gave up 20 points or more once during the regular season so Denver really didn't need him to contribute much.

The Steelers scored 21 on the Broncos in the first round of the playoffs, but the Broncos unexpectedly scored more points than they had in any other game all year (even though Morton completed less than half of his passes) and advanced to the AFC championship game, where they beat the Oakland Raiders.

But Dallas' Doomsday Defense overwhelmed Morton, who completed about one–fourth of his passes and was intercepted four times.

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