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.

Horn was adequate, and the defense was improving. On a chilly 49-degree afternoon in Week 1, it accounted for three takeaways: two forced fumbles and an interception. Miami fumbled twice more on interception and punt returns, and kicker Garo Yepremian missed two field-goal attempts.

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.

1971 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/19 miami dolphins 10-10
9/26 at green bay packers 13-34
10/3 kansas city chiefs 3-16
10/10 oakland raiders 16-27
10/17 san diego chargers 20-16
10/24 at cleveland browns 27-0
10/31 at philadelphia eagles 16-17
11/7 detroit lions 20-24
11/14 cincinnati bengals 10-24
11/21 at kansas city chiefs 10-28
11/29 at pittsburgh steelers 22-10
12/5 chicago bears 6-3
12/12 at san diego chargers 17-45
12/19 at oakland raiders 13-21

1971 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb don horn 9
qb steve ramsey 5
rb bobby anderson 13
rb floyd little 13
rb fran lynch 1
rb dickie post 1
wr jack gehrke 10
wr dwight harrison 5
wr john mosier 1
wr jerry simmons 12
te billy masters 12
te jim whalen 2
c/g george goeddeke 12
c larry kaminski 3
t mike current 14
t roger shoals 14
g sam brunelli 4
g larron jackson 9
g tommy lyons 1
g mike schnitker 13

1971 defense

Pos Player Starts
de lyle alzado 11
de carter campbell 2
de rich jackson 8
dt dave costa 14
dt tom domres 5
dt jerry inman 3
dt paul smith 13
lb fred forsberg 14
lb chip myrtle 14
lb olen underwood 4
lb dave washington 10
cb leroy mitchell 14
cb billy thompson 14
s charles greer 14
s george saimes 14

Record: 4-9-1

Fourth place, AFC west