I was chatting today with some “newbie” Bronco fans, and could barely believe my ears as they berated my beloved boys in blue. “Oh, the coach should have done this,” or “Why don’t they do that,” and, of course, “The team stinks.” Was I upset? Maybe a little, but, more than that, I was reminded of another Bronco team: The 1977 “Orange Crush” Broncos. What? The 12-2 team that garnered Denver’s first ever Super Bowl appearance? How can that be? Read on...
In the 1960’s, and early 1970’s, the Broncos had some pretty weak teams. The team tried using new coaches, trading for new players, and just about anything else short of VooDoo to win games. Nothing seemed to work very well. Even with Floyd Little in the backfield, (one of the best backs of his era), the team was pretty much an annual 5-8-1 team with the occasional 5-9 thrown in. Fans loved to berate them calling them the “Donkeys,” and poking fun at their on-field incompetence. Even in 1973, when second year coach, John Ralston, (AFC Coach of the Year that season), took the team to a record of 7-5-2, (their first winning record since the 1962 season), the fans still jeered.
Ralston would only coach the team five years, and is pretty much forgotten by history now, but he posted winning records in three of those five years while finishing second in the AFC West each of his last three seasons as the team’s coach. Still, it wasn’t good enough for the fans, and most laid into Ralston as if his were a losing team. Despite winning, they were still the Donkeys, and many fans wouldn’t let them forget it. Whether it was Ralston’s “hand-holding” defensive huddles, his inability to win his division, or just the constant, “Off With His Head” screamed by fans, the coach was let go, and a new coach, Red Miller, was brought in. Make no mistake about it. Even though Red Miller was the new coach, he took another man’s team, John Ralston’s team, onto the field that fall; a fact few people choose to remember. All fans knew then, and all fans remember now was the team really started to win.
Fans started referring to the Defense as the “Orange Crush” as that team of perennial runners-up were beating everyone. They won their first six games in 1977 before losing to the Oakland Raiders at home the day before Halloween. Then they went on to win their next six games before losing to the Dallas Cowboys by eight points in a meaningless game at the end of the season. The incompetent losers were 12-2, and about to take home field advantage into their first ever post season action. There were a lot of people excited about the Bronco’s fortunes who gladly jumped on the winning bandwagon, but there were nearly just as many name-calling naysayers carrying buckets full of insults ready to douse the team at the first opportunity.
Even though the Broncos would end up beating the Pittsburgh Steelers, (pretty much the same team that won four Super Bowls in the 1970’s), and the Oakland Raiders with Ken Stabler and Fred Biletnikoff on the road to New Orleans to meet America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys, I can still remember many people saying, “Oh, they’re the luckiest team in football,” “Why don’t they get rid of Craig Morton,” or “The team stinks.” Seriously, even at 12-2, there were fans who thought the team only lucky, thought the team wasn’t playing well, and, of course, thought the team stunk. You just can’t please some people, even with a 12-2 record!
Nowadays, fans look back on that team and remark that it was one of the best Defenses ever, or at least one of the best Linebacking Corps even though, back then, they were just “lucky” to many. Few people fondly remember that Offense, and they sure weren’t record breakers, but being good enough to be on the winning side 12 times in one year has to count for something even though, back then, they too, were just lucky. I guess, back then, I was lucky, too.
I was lucky because I was one of those Bronco fans who reveled in the season of the Orange Crush. I was lucky enough to watch a team blossom and find a way to win, week in and week out. I was also lucky enough to witness the revelation of the armchair quarterbacks who, in the midst of a winning season, still believed they knew how to improve the performance of a 12-2 team. I was lucky because it helped me learn that, in any sport, there are always going to be at least two types of fans - one type who will support the team through thick or thin, and another type who will always berate the them. I learned that neither success nor failure changes that.
So, the next time you watch your favorite team play, and you start getting excited, take time to think about those 1977 Broncos, and ask yourself, “What kind of fan am I?” The choice is yours, but don’t you think it’s better to cheer a team that loses, than to berate a team that wins? It sure was in 1977, and, at least for me, it still is 33 years later. Go Broncos! You’ll always be winners with me.
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