|9/12||at Cincinnati Bengals||7-17|
|9/19||New York Jets||46-3|
|10/3||San Diego Chargers||26-0|
|10/10||at Houston Oilers||3-17|
|10/24||at Kansas City Chiefs||35-26|
|10/31||at Oakland Raiders||6-19|
|11/7||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||48-13|
|11/14||at San Diego Chargers||17-0|
|11/21||New York Giants||14-13|
|11/28||at New England Patriots||14-38|
|12/5||Kansas City Chiefs||17-16|
|12/12||at Chicago Bears||28-14|
The rise of the Orange Crush and the fall of Ralston
Joe Collier had been the Broncos’ defensive coordinator since 1972, after defensive backs coach John Ralston hired him. Collier had been with the Broncos since 1969, joining the club that year after three years as Buffalo’s head coach, where he was Lou Saban’s successor. But it wasn’t until his defense began collecting future stars that he was able to do what he wanted. By 1976, the pieces were in place.
Early-to-mid 1970s drafts had brought Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Louis Wright, Lyle Alzado and Barney Chavous to join Paul Smith and Bill Thompson, who had been defensive linchpins since before the AFL-NFL merger.
But the final piece of the puzzle was converting to a 3-4 defense on a full-time basis, which happened early in the 1976 season. It was a change dictated by necessity after Alzado suffered a season-ending knee injury in a Week 1 loss to Cincinnati. The defensive change played to the unit’s strengths and allowed both Joe Rizzo and Bob Swenson to join Jackson and Gradishar in the starting lineup. But the biggest individual beneficiary was Rubin Carter, an unheralded defensive tackle as a rookie who emerged as a terror when pushed to nose tackle in the 3-4 alignment. Collier did what great coaches do: He designed a strategy to maximize his players’ strengths and minimize their weaknesses, and the defense made a quantum leap.
In the weeks that followed the change, Denver shut out two opponents and allowed just two foes to break 20 points. This was an era of overpowering defenses league-wide, but only the Steelers allowed fewer points in 1976 than the Broncos, who conceded just 14.7 points per game. It was the stingiest defense of any to that point in Broncos history.
The Orange Crush was born.
But Ralston would not be on the sideline to see it mature. In the days following the 9-5 finish — the best to that point in team history — several players met with owner Gerald Phipps and team executive Fred Gehrke to air their grievances. Ralston was stripped of his general manager’s title, and on Jan. 31, 1977, he resigned, leaving behind an upgraded roster and unfulfilled expectations.