The recipe for Orange Crush Super Bowl Punch is as follows: take five 10-ounce bottles of Orange Crush, add two quarts of ginger ale, two pints of orange sherbet, one cup of limeade concentrate, a fifth of gin or vodka and two trays of ice cubes. And, of course, it would not hurt to mix in a Craig Morton, a Haven Moses and a head linesman who might not recognize a fumble if he found it under his bed sheets. As Broncomania raged far into the night last Sunday in Denver, one could imagine an entire city pouring such a beverage all over itself, and if you happened to be an Oakland Raider, you went away from the American Conference championship game thinking it might be the Year of the Horse in China and Colorado, but it's the Year of the Zebra in the NFL.
Once again a fellow in one of those striped shirts—a zebra, a game official—made a crucial decision that will live on long after the amazing Denver Broncos have taken their act to New Orleans for Super Bowl XII against the Dallas Cowboys. In what was otherwise a stunning and rousing game that Denver probably deserved to win anyhow, the Broncos were helped immensely by a fumble that was ruled to be no such thing by an official who may not have been in a position to make the call in the first place.
Before and after this critical play near Oakland's goal line in the third quarter, Morton and Moses stung the Raiders with a passing combination that filled Mile High Stadium with a roar resembling that of a squadron of Concordes on takeoff. It has been a familiar sound around Denver for several months now, but never had Morton's arm and Moses' hands wreaked such devastation.
In the first quarter Morton, perhaps the most maligned quarterback of our time, hit Moses with a 35-yard strike that became a 74-yard touchdown play when Moses snagged the perfect spiral, did a Nureyev along the sideline in front of the Oakland bench and started racing for the French Quarter. In the fourth quarter Morton found Moses in the Raiders' end zone from 12 yards away and threw him a low pitch that the wide receiver gathered in with a diving catch for what proved to be the clinching score in the 20-17 thriller.
January 9, 1978
A good many people, however, are going to argue that the real clincher came in the third period when Denver, leading 7-3 and about to score again following a fumble recovery by Brison Manor on the Oakland 17, was saved by a zebra's whistle, when a fumble was not a fumble in the same way that Baltimore's Bert Jones did not fumble—ho! ho! ho!—in the New England game.
It was a maddening and confusing scene near the goal line after Oakland's Jack Tatum cracked Denver's Rob Lytle knocking the ball loose, and Mike McCoy recovered it for the Raiders at the Oakland five. And it was just as maddening up in the press box, where various NFL moguls needed 30 minutes to get their story straight and provide an official explanation.
No, it wasn't a fumble, folks. Head Linesman Ed Marion said he had blown the ball dead before Lytle was blasted by Tatum, that his forward motion had been stopped. To most people, it appeared that no one had laid a finger on Lytle until Tatum hit him, and that Lytle's motion was still forward when the ball popped loose. Oakland Corner Linebacker Floyd Rice felt this so strongly that during the ensuing argument he pushed both Marion and Umpire Ralph Morcroft. The half-the-distance unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called against Rice meant very little, for the ball was already on the Oakland two, and on the next play Jon Keyworth took a pitchout from Morton, got a good block from Otis Armstrong and sprinted around right end for the touchdown to make the score 14-3.
For its part, Oakland had not looked sharp—Ken Stabler hadn't been able to find Dave Casper yet, mainly because Casper was getting mugged by the Bronco linebackers on every play—and now, suddenly, the Raiders had a zebra problem on top of everything else.
Upstairs, there was a rather bizarre scene after the non-fumble. Sitting only a few feet apart were NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and Oakland Managing General Partner Al Davis, who is not Rozelle's greatest fan. Rozelle sat silently throughout the fumble incident, only occasionally whispering something to one his employees.
But Davis was yelling. "What's going on here?" he hollered. "What the hell's going on here?"
Every time Davis watched the fumble replayed on a televison monitor, he looked bilious.
"What am I, a street urchin?" Davis hollered. "I know who's supposed to make a call on that kind of play. It's not the head linesman. What the hell can they see from where they are?"
Davis then turned and noticed that Rozelle was deep in a huddle with Assistant Supervisor of Officials Nick Skorich, NFL PR chief Jim Heffernan and AFC official Val Pinchbeck. "Look at them," Davis said, "They're working up the story."
Later on, the parties directly involved had a word or two on the subject.
"There was no whistle," McCoy said. "No whistle, I'm telling you. I heard the hit and here came the ball."
Lytle said, "I really wasn't thinking about it. I was hurting too much with a hip pointer. It might have been a quick whistle, I'll have to admit."
What the incident did was detract from the splendid job that Coach Red Miller's Broncos did in taking the battle straight to the Raiders and never losing their poise or their confidence. This was a fine football team ready to play a good game—and win it, as Miller had predicted the day before.
The Broncos came on the field with the kind of emotion expected of them. They hopped around like collegians, or maybe people who have a friendly neighborhood druggist. At times Lyle Alzado, the bearded defensive end, appeared to be lecturing the Raiders, pointing, gesturing and babbling away, particularly at Tackle Art Shell. Whether it was in the game plan or not, the Bronco defense went about the business of tiring out the Oakland offense. Or rendering it useless, as Linebackers Joe Rizzo and Randy Gradishar did when they turned Fred Biletnikoff upside down after a catch and sent him from the game with a dislocated shoulder.
On their first two possessions, the Raiders simply had the ball forever. The first time, they kept it 18 plays and used up more than eight minutes, as Shell and Guard Gene Upshaw cleared wide holes for Pete Banaszak. Banaszak carried the ball on eight out of nine plays as the Raiders droned down to the Denver three. There, however, Stabler threw away a third-down pass, Biletnikoff being covered in the end zone. The Raiders had to be content with Errol Mann's 20-yard field goal, which, momentarily at least, silenced the 74,982 fanciers of Orange Crush Super Bowl Punch.
On its second possession Oakland kept the ball for a little more than seven minutes, and largely on the strength of a couple of Stabler tosses to Branch and Biletnikoff, the Raiders rumbled to the Denver 12. But Mann's 29-yard field-goal attempt, which he was obliged to kick with the laces facing him, not away from him, smacked into the right upright and glanced off the wrong way. No good.
Thus, after the first 18½ minutes of the game, the arithmetic was fascinating: the Raiders had held the ball for more than 16 of those minutes but had come away with no more for their efforts than a crummy three points.
And it was between those drives that Morton did the first of his wonderful things with Moses. The first touchdown play, the 74-yarder, was a tip-off that Morton was ready to play. Here was the Denver quarterback, hobbling around with a sore hip and a bruised reputation. He had been in the hospital until Thursday and had not practiced all week, and he looked like a fellow who couldn't outrun an armadillo. The day before the game, in fact, Miller told the other Broncos that Morton's availability probably would not be determined until game time. But Morton said he had found Jesus, and he had found a lovely wife, too. Perhaps as important, he also found Haven Moses. During the afternoon, Moses caught five passes for a whopping 168 yards—and those two touchdowns.
And then there was the Denver defense. It bent and wrinkled, but it never stopped punishing the Raiders. Only the magnificent Casper could make it ooze blood. Casper finally eluded the Denver linebackers long enough to catch Stabler's two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.
Early in that final quarter, after Casper had caught his first touchdown pass to narrow Denver's lead to 14-10, another furious rush from Alzado and friends forced Stabler to make a poor throw over the middle and into the chest of Bronco Linebacker Bob Swenson. That turnover gave Denver the ball on the Oakland 17 and led to the pass Morton sailed toward the end-zone sod, in the hope that Moses would get there first, which, magnificently, he did.
This put Denver ahead 20-10, but when Jim Turner, who had a miserable day, missing three field goals, couldn't even get the extra-point try away because of a bad snap, Oakland needed only a touchdown and a field goal in the final 7:33 to force an overtime for the second straight week. Casper got the touchdown, making a difficult catch in the end zone, but the Raiders never saw the ball again as Denver, getting big efforts from Lonnie Perrin and Armstrong, ran out the final three minutes and eight seconds.
Later, Moses said he didn't do anything special to get so open so often. "I was just playing my tail off," he said. Nor would Morton reveal any secrets, after he thanked the Lord and his wife.
"The first touchdown was a Q pattern," he said. "It was a route we felt would be a good one against them. Haven ran it perfectly. The last touchdown was one of those things that happens in a game. It was supposed to be for Riley Odoms, but he slipped down. Haven saw the thing break down and changed his direction. I was lucky to have enough time to see him."
Morton practically collapsed in the dressing room, while on the field the Orange Crushers were tearing down both goalposts and pretty much acting as if somebody had found gold again near the South Platte River. He could hear a couple of thousand fans chanting, singing, laughing, weeping.
"It's not the hip," Morton said. "I'm frankly just overcome with emotion."
At the same time, so was Davis.
"We didn't play very well, damn it, but the fumble comes big," he said. "The fumble comes real big."
As big as New Orleans.