The operator answers the phone by saying, "World Champion Oakland Raiders," but for two weeks the greeting had had a hollow ring to it. After all, the Raiders were not even in first place in their division. On Oct. 16 the upstart Denver Broncos, led by their "Orange Crush" defense, had made last season's Super Bowl winners look like the San Pedro Beach Bums while shellacking them 30-7. In the process, the Broncos had taken over Oakland's accustomed spot atop the AFC West. But last Sunday in Denver the Raiders rang true. Playing flawlessly and looking very much like world champions, Oakland throttled Denver 24-14. It wasn't that close. Early in the fourth quarter the score was 24-0.
In many ways the game was a mirror image of the one two weeks earlier. That day the home team, Oakland, turned the ball over eight times and repeatedly gave the visitors good field position. This time around it was Denver that gave its faithful—all 75,007 of them—little to cheer about. The Broncos coughed the ball up just three times, but spent most of the afternoon about eight miles from the Oakland goal line because of the Raiders' incomparable kicker, Ray Guy, who was virtually a one-man defense. When the Raiders drafted Guy in the first round in 1973, the choice was greeted with skepticism, because nobody had ever spent their No. 1 pick on a punter. Last Sunday he looked like one of the best first-round selections in NFL history.
In the first half Guy kicked off three times and punted four, and only two of the boots were returnable. Denver's Rick Upchurch fumbled the first one, and the Broncos ran the second all the way back to their seven-yard line. Denver's best starting field position in the opening two quarters was its own 22. That was with five seconds left in the half when Guy miscalculated his angle and punted a ball into the sideline stands. The Broncos' longest first-half drive covered 43 yards—which didn't even get them into field-goal range. For their part, the Raiders had to march just 55 yards for their first touchdown and 15, after a Denver fumble, for their second. In between, Errol Mann kicked a 42-yard field goal as Oakland built a 17-0 halftime lead.
Oakland Quarterback Kenny Stabler had berated himself for going to the air too quickly on Oct. 16. "We let the Broncos off the hook," he said before Sunday's game. "We have big men. We should use them to keep pounding away, wearing the Denver defense down. The Broncos play aggressively, and you beat them aggressively. You don't fool them. You go in and bat 'em around."
November 7, 1977
That's exactly what the Raiders did this time. Oakland stayed on the ground, running the ball on 57 plays, almost twice as many times as it had in the first Denver game. Clarence Davis rushed for 105 yards, most of it behind the Raiders' massive left side of Tackle Art Shell and Guard Gene Upshaw. The AFC's leading rusher, Mark van Eeghen, added 82 more.
And when the Broncos tried to get aggressive on defense, the Raiders stunned them. Denver had blitzed Stabler dizzy in the first game, forcing him into seven interceptions. Midway through the first quarter Sunday, the Raiders moved the ball to the Bronco 21, where they faced a third-and-six. Denver tried a safety blitz. Stabler saw it coming and passed to a wide-open Cliff Branch at the six for Oakland's first score. Crash went the Orange Crush.
The Broncos did stage a fourth-quarter rally, Quarterback Craig Morton taking them on 80-and 70-yard scoring drives to cut into the Raiders' lead. Though it had no impact on this game, that effort was not for naught. Oakland and Denver are now tied for first place in the AFC West with 6-1 records. The Broncos have the tougher schedule ahead, with games against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Dallas, but if Oakland and Denver should go undefeated the rest of the way, the division winner would be decided on the basis of the composite score of their two games. By pushing across those two late touchdowns, the Broncos clinched the season's series 44-31.
Still, the defeat was a rude comedown for the Broncos after a week of Rocky Mountain high. The Raiders' game was the Broncos' 53rd consecutive sellout. They sell more season tickets—73,089—than any other NFL club, but until recently Denver fans spent most of their time sitting on their hands. This season's 6-0 start changed all that.
Colorado Governor Richard D. Lamm declared last Sunday Orange Crush Day in a proclamation full of "Whereas" clauses. You know, "Whereas, Mr. Stabler spent much of the previous contest puzzled about the whereabouts of his offensive line (but constantly aware of the whereabouts of the Denver Bronco defensive line); and Whereas, Mr. Stabler therefore was guided by circumstance to throw numerous passes expeditiously and with considerable talent directly to a Mr. Joe Rizzo, Mr. Louis Wright, Mr. Randy Gradishar, Mr. Paul Smith, and Mr. Billy Thompson; and Whereas, those participants are not on Mr. Stabler's team and...." And so on and so on.
A local radio station distributed 75,000 orange cards at the stadium. They said GO BRONCOS on one side and had an ad on the other. When they were held aloft before the opening kickoff, they turned Mile High Stadium into a veritable orange bowl. Unfortunately, by the middle of the fourth quarter, the dispirited gathering had turned the cards into just so many paper airplanes.
The Orange Crush drink people also capitalized on the excitement. They have been awarding five cases of their product to the outstanding Bronco defensive player each game. Linebacker Bob Swenson has won the award a couple of times and has been busily trying to foist the soda off on anybody who will take it. As one of his teammates said, "Five cases, that's a lifetime supply." Last week a beverage distributor offered Orange Crush T shirts for sale and managed to unload 30,000 of them, at $4.50 a pop, in just two days.
All week long the Raiders had seemed monumentally unimpressed by the hoopla surrounding the game. They are not a rah-rah group. Pro football teams frequently take on the character of their coach, and these are clearly John Madden's Raiders. Madden is pragmatic and unflappable. Before the Raiders' first practice last week, the coach gave the team what one of his players described as "quite a talking to." Specifically, Madden discussed the team's two most recent performances, the Denver loss and a 28-27 come-from-behind win over the Jets. "He said we hadn't played up to championship level," said Upshaw. "He said it very, very intensely. We all got the message. He didn't scream. He didn't have to. If he has to scream at us, he seems to know just when to do it. John knows the pressure points of this team. That's why he's been so successful."
Madden has coached Oakland for eight full seasons now, and he has won seven division titles, a conference championship and a Super Bowl. He is just 41 years old. Hardly anyone still believes he is Raider Managing General Partner Al Davis' puppet, but when the NFL's top coaches are listed, Madden is frequently overlooked. Let's see, there's Don Shula, Bud Grant, George Allen, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Chuck Knox and, oh yeah, John Madden. Perhaps that's because Madden is too much an unkempt pumpkin of a man. Or perhaps he is too low-key. When the Raiders are at home, he will sit down in the press lounge two hours before a game, drink a cup of coffee, watch other NFL games on TV and kibitz with writers. Frequently he tells debunking stories about his coaching prowess, rather than planting self-serving ones as other coaches do. He seems totally unimpressed with his station in life.
Last week Dinah Shore brought a film crew to the Raider practice field to tape a segment for an upcoming show. When a writer asked Madden if she had come to interview him, he burst out laughing at the very thought of it. The writer might as well have asked the Raider ball boy if he was going to start at quarterback against the Broncos. "John Madden is not the kind of guy who gets on Dinah Shore's show," Madden said. "She probably came to see Kenny Stabler." Then, sounding slightly awed, he added, "I saw her though. Bumped right into her as she was coming in." Had she recognized him? "Yeah," he said, obviously pleased. "I was real surprised." He really was, too.
Despite Sunday's dousing, the Broncos' playoff hopes are still very much alive. Most of the credit for Denver's improvement has gone to the team's new coach. Red Miller, formerly the offensive coordinator for New England. Last year, led by a defense that allowed less than 15 points a game, the Broncos had a 9-5 record, their best ever. Nonetheless, after the season a group of players, who came to be known as the Dirty Dozen, called a press conference to announce that they would no longer play for Coach John Ralston, who, they said, had completely lost touch with his team.
Ralston was a great delegator of authority, a trait the players came to construe as a lack of ability. They whispered that the coach could not even diagram the offense. Whether he could or couldn't, the offense did not work. The rift between the team's offensive and defensive players grew so wide that they avoided one another on the bench during games. "We were frustrated," admits Linebacker Randy Gradishar. "The defense was holding teams down, and then the offense would let them up."
Miller seemed the perfect coach to defuse this situation. In 17 years as an NFL assistant he had established a reputation for building strong offenses and communicating with his players. When he went to the Patriots as offensive coordinator in 1973, he inherited one of football's worst attacks. Last year New England's offense ranked second in the NFL, and the night before the Patriots' playoff game with Oakland, Miller's linemen took him to dinner.
The first trade made after Miller took over brought Morton from the Giants in exchange for Quarterback Steve Ramsey and a 1978 middle-round draft choice. It was grand larceny. Morton is currently the AFC's third-ranking passer; Ramsey is selling real estate in Dallas. Morton, who had been unmercifully booed by Giant fans during the 1976 season, is the 26th quarterback to play for the Broncos in 18 years and most of the others have been greeted as the Messiah. Morton's coming did not arouse that kind of enthusiasm. In fact, he is not yet the darling of the understandably skeptical Denver fans, although it seems likely that he will come closer than any of his predecessors to leading the Broncos to the Promised Land.
Morton never doubted that he would be successful in Denver. Last summer while the local press was still speculating whether he would be the Bronco starter, Morton confidently declared, "This is a place for a veteran who can run a team and lead it to the playoffs, to step in and take over. I can do that." Last week he said, "These players knew when I came here I'd win for them." Apparently they did. Before the start of the season they unanimously elected him offensive captain.
At age 34, life has taken several pleasant turns for Morton. In New York, where he had no supporting cast, he was frustrated by conservative game plans and the fans' jeers. The situation got so bad that he finally flashed an obscene gesture at the crowd. Now game plans are no problem. "I always thought that Coach Landry was football's offensive genius," he says, "but I'd have to say that Red Miller is at least tied with him." And next Monday, after Denver's game with Pittsburgh, Morton is getting married to his longtime sweetheart, Susie Sirmen. "I don't care how badly I get pounded in the Pittsburgh game," he says beaming from ear to ear. "That day I'll feel great. She's the joy of my life."
In the first Denver-Oakland game, Bronco Linebacker Tom Jackson tried to be the bane of Madden's life. "I know the Raiders like to intimidate the other team, so I wanted to show them that wouldn't work," Jackson says. After almost every play in that game Jackson ran to the Raider sideline and yelled something at Madden. "When I was sure we had the game won, I yelled, 'It's all over, fat man.' I thought he would be angry. Instead he just looked kind of amused."
That's Madden. He knew all along he'd get the last laugh.