First-round pick Marv Montgomery signs his contract.
The Year of “Half a Loaf”
As the 1971 season began, Saban was only four years into his 10-year contract. But after 1970 brought a free-fall from a 4-1 start to a 5-8-1 finish, there was discontent. He still hadn’t solved the conundrum at quarterback, and after starting Steve Tensi, Pete Liske, and Al Pastrana in 1970, Saban settled on former Packers quarterback Don Horn in 1971, trading for him in a deal that involved swapping first-round picks in the 1972 draft.
The final fumble on a mishandled punt return by Jake Scott was recovered by Bobby Anderson; the turnover gave the Broncos first-and-10 at their 23-yard line with 1:14 remaining. That was enough time for Horn to throw, to send Floyd Little out on the kind of pass pattern he ran three years earlier against Buffalo when the Broncos were down by one point in the last minute.
Instead, Horn handed off to Little three consecutive times. Only after Little got out of bounds with 27 seconds left at the Denver 38 did Saban send in a pass call; Horn quickly found Anderson for 12 yards. But with 19 seconds remaining, there was no margin for error since Little’s three runs had gobbled up 47 seconds of clock time. When the Broncos took a 15-yard penalty on the next play, the 10-all draw was assured.
Boos engulfed the Broncos as they left the field, and all were directed at the head coach. But Saban had some logical reasons for playing it tight late in the game. The dirt infield for baseball at Mile High Stadium had not been covered with grass for the fall, and footing was treacherous. And prior to Anderson’s fumble recovery, the offense had gone three-and-out, and Horn had slipped while trying to throw, resulting in a 9-yard loss that effectively ended the drive.
“We tried to lose it once, and I wasn’t going to let us give it away at the end by trying to throw from deep in our own territory—especially when we had to throw out of the muck,” Saban said.
All things considered, a tie was a good result given the opposition. The Dolphins were at the precipice of a dynasty. They made the postseason the year before under recently hired coach Don Shula and would represent the AFC in the next three Super Bowls, winning two.
But no one cared about the Dolphins’ pedigree after Saban uttered the words that doomed him in Denver:
“It’s an old saying, but I’d rather have half a loaf than none.”
These were not the words that could assuage an angry fan base. And they were not the words his team wanted to hear, either.
“He said that if I didn’t run the clock out, I wouldn’t play the rest of the season,” Horn told The Denver Post in 2012. “Settling for the tie was deflating to the whole team.”
Two weeks later, the Broncos returned to Mile High Stadium, having lost to the Green Bay Packers in Milwaukee in the interim. Fans brandished half-loaves of bread as the Broncos fell to the Chiefs, 16-3.
It was the beginning of the end for Saban, who resigned as head coach with the Broncos lumbering along at 2-6-1. He later resigned as general manager after the season. Once again, the Broncos would start over.