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.

1976 Schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/12 at Cincinnati Bengals 7-17
9/19 New York Jets 46-3
9/26 Cleveland Browns 44-13
10/3 San Diego Chargers 26-0
10/10 at Houston Oilers 3-17
10/17 Oakland Raiders 10-17
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

Oct. 24, 1976: Rick Upchurch ties an NFL record with his fourth punt return touchdown of the season in a 35-26 win over Kansas City.

1976 Offense

Pos Player Starts
WR Rick Upchurch 9
WR Jack Dolbin 5
LT Bill Bain 13
LG Tom Glassic 14
C Bobby Maples 10
RG Tom Lyons 14
RT Claudie Minor 14
TE Riley Odoms 14
WR Haven Moses 14
QB Steve Ramsey 12
HB Otis Armstrong 14
HB Lonnie Perrin
FB Jon Keyworth 13
FB Jim Klick
P Bill Van Heusen
P Norris Weese
PK Jim Turner

1976 Defense

Pos Player Starts
LE Barney Chavous 14
NT John Grant 10
NT Rubin Carter 14
RE Paul Smith 10
LO Bob Swenson 6
LILB Joe Rizzo 12
MILB Randy Gradishar 14
ROLB Tom Jackson 14
LC Louis Wright 14
RC Calvin Jones 8
RC Steve Foley 6
WS John Rowser 14
SS Billy Thompson 14

Record: 9-5
Second place, AFC West

Nov. 7, 1976: With two field goals and six extra points, Jim Turner becomes the fifth player in pro football history to surpass 1,200 points.