The sign on their locker-room door identifies them as The Mighty Broncos. Surely that can't be the Denver Broncos, the team with the vertical stripes on their socks? Well, look again. The Denver Broncos have not lost a football game in seven weeks, and last Sunday they beat the Kansas City Chiefs 14-10 to raise their record to 6-3-2 and take a half-game lead over both the Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders in the AFC West.
The Broncos won because they managed to survive a miserable start, just as they have managed to survive losing three of their first four games. By the middle of the second quarter the Chiefs were at the Bronco 20, leading 3-0 and threatening to run away with the contest. But Denver held, Jan Stenerud missed a chip shot field goal and the Broncos came to life.
Twice on second-and-nine in Denver's next series, Quarterback Charley Johnson threw deep to his right to Wide Receiver Haven Moses. The first pass gained 26 yards to the Chief 40. The second, from the Kansas City 18 just after the two-minute warning, was good for six points, Moses making a one-handed grab of a floater in the right front corner of the end zone.
The Broncos got the ball back quickly on an interception. Three plays later, when Jim Marsalis came in to replace injured Chief Cornerback Emmitt Thomas, Johnson went to Moses again. The Broncos were merely thinking of getting within field-goal range but Moses juked Marsalis at the 25 and went the rest of the way for a 40-yard touchdown.
The second half was disastrous for Kansas City. It stumbled and stammered until midway through the fourth quarter. Finally, Mike Livingston, who replaced an injured Lenny Dawson at quarterback four weeks ago and brought the Chiefs to life just when last rites were being administered, found Otis Taylor in the end zone with a seven-yard pass, narrowing the margin to four points.
Kansas City had one more try, but with 40 seconds to play Livingston's pass bounced off Tight End Gary Butler at the Bronco 19 and into the hands of Denver Safety Charles Greer.
"We're going now. First the division, then the championship, then the Super Bowl," said Tackle Larron Jackson in the locker room.
But weren't the Broncos aware of how close they had come to losing? "We knew we'd stop them," said Defensive End Lyle Alzado. "Coach Ralston knew. How could we doubt it?"
Credit the positive thinking to John Ralston, a certified Dale Carnegie instructor. When he came to Denver last year after producing two straight Rose Bowl champions at Stanford, he immediately started telling the Broncos, who had never had a winning season, that they could be winners. He even predicted a 10-4 season. When the team's record reached 1-4 he was asked what his new prediction was. Ralston reacted as if it were a trick question. Why wouldn't it still be 10-4? Skeptics tapped their temples and exchanged meaningful glances. That weekend the Broncos beat Oakland for the first time in 10 years.
Ralston did not expect immediate converts to his way of thinking, but he never doubted that he would get his message across. "You don't fake this sort of thing," he says. "If you put up a false facade of positive thinking, people will see through it. I'm just this way all the time." Eventually his players began to understand that the Dale Carnegie system fit John Ralston more than it had changed him. Two weeks ago, when he told the Broncos that their biggest problem in going to Pittsburgh would be fighting the victory celebration when they arrived back at the Denver airport, there were no longer any doubters.
"At first we all thought he was a little bit corny," said Tackle Mike Current last week. "We used to get out of meetings and laugh at him. Maybe some of us thought we knew more about football than he did. But he and his staff have shown us that they know what they're doing. This is my seventh year and it's the first time that on Thanksgiving I ever thought of anything but eating turkey."
On game days Ralston limits himself to just four tasks, the most important of which is to encourage the team. Last year when Floyd Little ran 55 yards for a touchdown in Yankee Stadium, Ralston almost beat him down the sideline to the end zone. "I'm the team's No. 1 cheerleader," he says with a big smile. "I make sure I talk to anybody who's just made a key mistake and tell him not to worry about it."
Not that Ralston believes that positive thinking alone can win football games. "You don't move up to a stove and expect to get warmth out of it without putting wood in it," is how he phrases it, and he has worked hard at refueling the Broncos. Since his arrival in Denver, the Broncos have added Johnson, their 22nd quarterback but the first one who has brought any real competency to the position; Center Bobby Maples; Wide Receivers Moses and Gene Washington; and Linebackers Ray May and Bill Laskey. Yet they still have their first four 1974 draft choices and 11 of last year's selections are on the squad.
Besides personnel changes, Ralston is responsible for three major alterations. First, all plays are now called by Offensive Coordinator Max Coley, although Johnson can overrule him. Second, Little has been turned into a more versatile performer. He has already caught more passes—35—than in any other season in his career and, with 834 yards rushing, more of them on sweeps than heretofore, seems assured of another 1,000-yard season. Last, and most important, the Broncos are committed to being unpredictable: they throw the ball 50% of the time on first down.
And the unpredictable offense is manned by some highly unlikely football players. Johnson has a Ph.D. in chemical engineering. Little is going to the University of Denver law school at night; he had to get a unanimous vote from his class to excuse him for the Broncos' Monday night game with the Raiders. Jackson will soon be a CPA, and Guard Tommy Lyons, probably the smallest offensive lineman in the league at some 220 pounds, is a medical student at the University of Colorado. Going into the Kansas City game the Broncos ranked second in the AFC in total offense and first in passing. Not that it's hard for Johnson and his receivers to think positively—they practice against the conference's third-worst pass defense.
The problem on defense has been too many characters and not enough character. Alzado, for instance, recently set what he was told was the world record for consuming Whoppers. He ate 10 in 30 minutes and says he could have singlehandedly set the two-man team record (13) if he had not felt an obligation to the squad not to make himself sick the week of the Pittsburgh game. Alzado used to practice for this sort of thing at Yankton (S. Dak.) College where he once slopped down 17 chocolate cream pies to win the campus pie-eating championship. At cornerback the Broncos have a 15th-round draft choice named Calvin Jones who is 5'7". Jones can touch the goalpost crossbar from a standstill and on a basketball court can dunk a volleyball. "I could dunk a basketball but my hands aren't big enough to grip it," he says. Defensive End Pete Duranko is the group's musician. He plays the harmonica, the kazoo and—his forte—the spoons, and leads the training camp jug band. Defensive Tackle Paul Smith accompanies on the washboard or the bongos while Alzado plays second spoons. As a gauge of the disparity between the Broncos' offense and defense, Lyons was a guest conductor with the Denver Symphony in the off-season.
Ray May, who came to the team from Baltimore before the fourth game, has tried to establish a sense of unity in the defense by introducing the practice of holding hands in the huddle. It was a point in May's favor that he had played on a Super Bowl winner. The Broncos might have looked askance at a Houston Oiler who suggested holding hands. So now the Whopper eater, the midget high jumper, the spoons player, et al., hold hands and are even beginning to display some defense, which makes the Broncos almost as good as John Ralston keeps telling them they can be.
"It's an all-encompassing obsession of mine and my family's to go to and win the Super Bowl," Ralston said last week. "Just like it was our all-encompassing obsession to go to and win the Rose Bowl. And it's going to happen sooner or later. It's inevitable." He smiled broadly. "It's inevitable."