Building Legitimacy

Lou Saban’s arrival in 1967 as the Broncos’ head coach and general manager offered another sign that the Broncos were serious about moving beyond survival and into contention.

Saban had won two AFL championships as Buffalo’s head coach, and immediately set about finding the pieces that would bring Denver out of the mire of the bottom of the AFL standings. He added defensive linemen Rich “Tombstone” Jackson and Paul Smith, picked cornerback Bill Thompson in the 1969 draft and, with his first first-round pick, tapped Floyd Little, who would fashion a Hall of Fame career in orange and blue.

But Saban didn’t have much luck at quarterback, and that, above all, held back the Broncos. By the time Saban resigned in 1971, the Broncos were still looking for their first winning season.

John Ralston replaced Saban as head coach and general manager and took the Broncos the rest of the way. His stellar drafting rounded out the roster, as the Broncos found stars such as Riley Odoms, Otis Armstrong, Randy Gradishar, Tom Jackson, Louis Wright and Rick Upchurch in his first four drafts.

But it was a trade for Charley Johnson that did the most to bring the Broncos to legitimacy. The former Cardinals and Oilers signal-caller — and future chemical engineering professor — brought poise, intelligence and toughness to the position, and guided the Broncos to what seemed to be the promised land — their first winning season, a 7-5-2 mark in 1973.