It was a Sunday of upsetting surprises all around the National Football League. New England Quarterback Steve Grogan made true believers of the doubt-mongers and the Oakland Raiders, 48-17. Chicago's long-turgid Bears did a number on George Allen's Washington Redskins by the score of 33-7. Even Bart Starr pulled a mini-surprise as his Green Bay Packers won their first game by beating Detroit 24-14. But in the only game that featured two surprise teams, the upbeat Denver Broncos trounced the fearsome San Diego Chargers 26-0 before 63,369 raucous faithful in Denver's raw Mile High Stadium.
The San Diego Chargers? Fearsome? Who could get excited over that? Well, at game time San Diego was, amazingly, the top offensive team in the American Football Conference, with a 415 yard-per-game average, of which the Charger rushers had accounted for 223. Quarterback Dan Fouts had blossomed into the AFC passing leader with a 66.7 completion percentage, 618 total passing yards and—if you can believe it—no interceptions. And the Chargers, just last year one of the two worst teams in the NFL, had won three straight, including a smashing 43-24 rout of St. Louis.
Denver, coming off a mediocre 6-8 record, had also turned a corner. After losing their opener to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Broncos put the boots to the easily booted New York Jets 46-3, setting a team record in total offense (543 yards). Nobody was convinced of anything just yet, but then the Broncs trampled the improved Cleveland Browns 44-13, and suddenly the Charger game shaped up as an intriguing confrontation between a couple of teams that had been down, way down, on their luck in recent years. It would be San Diego's vaunted new offense against Denver's stingy defense and exceptional set of special teams. Though Denver's offense, conducted by paunchy Quarterback Steve Ramsey, had not shown any great flair, only a boring consistency, Running Back Otis Armstrong was healthy again after missing the last 10 games of the 1975 schedule because of a severe hamstring tear, and that had to count for a lot. What's more, second-year Wide Receiver Rick Up-church had erupted on the kick return scene with a roar by returning punts 73 and 47 yards for touchdowns against Cleveland. There were to be plenty more roars for Upchurch and all the Broncos on Sunday.
At the end of a rather torpid first quarter, during which both teams did a lot of ineffectual probing, Ramsey—who has heard his share of rowdy Rocky Mountain boos—sent Tight End Riley Odoms rumbling down the right sideline and hit him on the numbers for a 47-yard gain to the Charger 30. The drive fizzled, but Jim (Tank) Turner salvaged three points for the Broncos with a 47-yard field goal.
October 10, 1976
Puzzled, apparently, by Denver's four-linebacker defense, the Chargers bogged down at midfield on their next series and the one after that. Then Charger Punter Mitch Hoopes made the fatal mistake of driving a 43-yard kick into the hands of Upchurch. Taking the ball on the Denver eight-yard line, Upchurch slanted up-field, broke a tackle at his 40 by spinning clear around and, without breaking stride, raced down the left sideline to complete a 92-yard touchdown trip. Denver 10. San Diego zip.
At halftime the Chargers had outplayed the Broncs statistically, with a total of 187 yards, 66 on the ground. But Fouts had suffered his first interception—a harmless one, it turned out—by Denver Middle Linebacker Randy Gradishar. Denver's offense, meanwhile, had generated only 98 yards, with Armstrong held to a scant 23 in six carries. Ah, but it was not to remain that way.
Armstrong, the NFL's leading rusher in 1974, wound up into high gear as the second half wore along, and finished with 91 yards on 23 carries. On Denver's second series of the second half, Ramsey connected with Upchurch for 57 yards, and Turner kicked a 25-yard field goal for a 13-0 lead. Minutes later Turner added a 36-yard field goal and the Broncos moved to a 16-0 lead.
In the fourth quarter the Broncos turned the game into a rout. Armstrong cracked and cracked again at the young San Diego defense, and the Chargers began to crumble. The Broncos recovered a Charger fumble at the San Diego 34, and Armstrong went to work. He banged the left side for eight yards, then left again for another eight. Ramsey called Armstrong's number once more, but this time O.A., as Armstrong calls himself, went right for his eight yards. Lonnie Perrin, a 6'1", 222-pound rookie fullback from Illinois, went airborne for the touchdown, and Turner later booted his fourth field goal, this one from 27 yards. So it was Denver 26, San Diego O. End of San Diego's undefeated season.
Still, after suffering through last year's 2-12 record and 6 straight sub-.500 seasons, few people around San Diego are complaining about one measly defeat. Coach Tommy Prothro has cleaned the Chargers' house thoroughly. Only five players remain of the odd lot Prothro took over from Harland Svare three seasons ago after the Chargers were involved in the worst drug scandal in pro football history. His broom having swept clean, Prothro cast about for a way to revitalize his stagnant Model T offense. With a move worthy of his reputation as a chess master, Prothro picked up Bill Walsh, the lean, thoughtful, 44-year-old offensive strategist who over an eight-year period had turned the Cincinnati Bengals into the top passing team in the NFL.
"Paul Brown gave me a great deal of latitude," Walsh says of his Cincinnati tenure. "I had plenty of time to work out my own system of football, to express myself offensively. I take great pride in the artistic end of it." Working with quarterbacks of such disparate temperaments and talents as Greg Cook, Virgil Carter and Ken Anderson, Walsh was the innovator of many new offensive ploys—like putting tight ends in motion—that are only now filtering through to the rest of the league. "I put Fouts on a par with Anderson in terms of intelligence," says Walsh. "And that's very important, even when you call all the plays from the sideline, as I do with the Chargers. What's more, Dan's tough. He's been prone to getting nicked in the past, but with the formations we're employing now, there's less chance of him getting busted up than there ''was before."
To put something special on the far end of this passing game, Prothro worked a swap with Cincinnati that sent Defensive End Coy Bacon east in return for Wide Receiver Charley Joiner. Joiner caught 12 passes for 252 yards and two touchdowns in San Diego's victories over Kansas City, Tampa Bay and St. Louis. Tight End Pat Curran was the leading San Diego receiver last year with 45 catches for 619 yards, but never scored a touchdown. Earlier this season Fouts finally hit him for six points. "It felt good," Curran says. "After waiting that long, I told Fouts in the huddle that if he ran, I'd tackle him."
But a sound passing game is only one facet of total offense. Don Woods, the fullback who gained' a rookie-record 1,162 yards in 1974, has recovered fully from his knee surgery of last season and popped for 195 yards in his first three games. Running mate Rickey Young had 233.
Cerebral and streamlined on offense, the Chargers still have a way to go defensively, as Sunday's game demonstrated so clearly. Still, there is enough talent and residual depth for the Chargers to have a winning season, or at least to break even, despite a schedule that will bring two games with Oakland and single head-bangers with Houston, Pittsburgh and Baltimore. One new Charger, the mercurial Mercury Morris, who was picked up from Miami after San Diego's No. 1 draft choice, Running Back Joe Washington of Oklahoma, damaged his knee during the preseason, is positively ebullient about his team's chances. "These guys lost 12 games last season," chirps Morris. "Why, I don't think I've been on teams that lost 12 games total. Seriously, though, this squad reminds me in attitude of the 17-0 Dolphins. They're beginning to believe, and once you believe, fully, you can do it all."
But Denver, equally revived, also seems to have Morris' kind of attitude about its own prospects, particularly with Armstrong back in the lineup. O.A. gained 96 yards against Cincinnati in the opener even though the Bengals were keying on him. The Broncos ultimately lost 17-7. Against the hapless New York Jets, Armstrong slammed for 94 yards more, but that isn't saying much. "The Jets could easily go 0-14 this year," says Turner, who came to Denver from New York six years ago. "I have nightmares about being traded back to the Jets." Turner shudders. "This team here is getting there, just like San Diego," he says. "That's the good thing about what's happened so far—here is the formerly one-horse Western Division of the AFC with three good teams banging pads for a change. That's the way it ought to be."
In fact, Denver's victory over San Diego—the first Bronco shutout since 1971 and only the third in the club's 228-game history—combined with New England's wipeout of Oakland, left the Broncos, Chargers and Raiders in a three-team deadlock for first place, all with 3-1 records. "Before the season began," Prothro said in the San Diego dressing room, "I'd have been happy with 3-1 at this point. The Broncos kicked the hell out of us. Well, nobody will go undefeated this season."
Maybe not. After Upset Sunday, only one of the NFL's 28 teams—the Dallas Cowboys—was still undefeated and untied. And for their part, the Cowboys escaped the biggest of all upsets by rallying from 13 points down to defeat the expansion Seattle Seahawks 28-13. Well, there's always next Sunday.