John Ralston’s enthusiasm changes the culture

The Broncos didn’t just change coaches when John Ralston replaced Lou Saban as head coach and general manager. They took a 180-degree pivot in styles.

Instead of tempestuous reactions, the former Stanford coach bubbled optimism. A certified Dale Carnegie instructor, Ralston wanted to change the organizational culture by force of personality. Every day was about “getting better.” It wasn’t a matter of if the Broncos would improve, but when, and he boldly proclaimed that the Broncos would finish the 1972 season 10-4.

“You don’t fake this sort of thing,” he told Sports Illustrated in 1973. “If you put up a false facade of positive thinking, people will see through it. I’m just this way all the time.”

Then the Broncos exhausted that quantity of defeats in the four weeks after the win over Houston, hitting loss No. 4 with an excruciating 23-20 loss to the Vikings in which Denver conceded a game-winning Fran Tarkenton-to-Gene Washington touchdown pass with just 17 seconds remaining.

The Broncos would finish the 1972 season 5-9, but Ralston was unfazed.

His sentiment was justified a week later when the Broncos marched into Oakland and defeated the Raiders 30-23. It snapped a 14-game Raiders win streak in the series that dated back to 1965. The game marked the Broncos’ first win there in a decade.

It wasn’t a coincidence that the game was Charley Johnson’s first as the Broncos’ starting quarterback. Ralston acquired him from the Houston Oilers for a third-round selection, and he profoundly changed the team.

“He taught us how to win,” wide receiver Haven Moses would later recall.

In his first start as a Bronco, Johnson completed 20 of 28 passes for 361 yards and two touchdowns as the Broncos built a 24-3 lead and held on for the 30-23 win at Oakland. It would be the first of 27 consecutive starts for Johnson, who held down the position for all but two games until the accumulation of injuries began to catch up with him midway through the 1975 season.

“Before the game, they would stand him up on a table and tape him from head to toe. We called him ‘The Mummy,’” wide receiver Haven Moses later recalled. “His body had been ravaged over time. But he was a smart quarterback. He was a very patient quarterback.”

And he was a perfect complement to Ralston. The Broncos ended 1972 still searching for their first winning season, but the wait was about to end.

1972 schedule

Date Opponent Score
9/17 houston oilers 30-17
9/24 at san diego chargers 14-37
10/1 kansas city chiefs 24-45
10/8 at cincinnati bengals 10-21
10/15 minnesota vikings 20-23
10/22 at oakland raiders 30-23
10/29 cleveland browns 20-27
11/5 at new york giants 17-29
11/12 at los angeles rams 16-10
11/19 oakland raiders 20-37
11/26 at atlanta falcons 20-23
12/3 at kansas city chiefs 21-24
12/10 san diego chargers 38-13
12/17 new england patriots 45-21

1972 offense

Pos Player Starts
qb charley johnson 9
qb steve ramsey 5
rb bobby anderson 9
rb joe dawkins 5
rb floyd little 14
wr dwight harrison 1
wr haven moses 6
wr rod sherman 13
wr jerry simmons 8
te billy masters 14
c george goeddeke 1
c larry kaminski 9
c bobby mapples 4
t mike current 14
t marv montgomery 14
g larron jackson 14
g tommy lyons 9
g mike schnitker 5

Broncos wallop San Diego 38-13 in a game played in 9-degree conditions, the coldest regular-season home game in Broncos history.

1972 defense

Pos Player Starts
de lyle alzado 14
de tom domres 3
de john hoffman 1
de rich jackson 4
de lloyd voss 7
dt pete duranko 13
dt paul smith 14
lb fred forsberg 6
lb bob geddes 3
lb tom graham 9
lb bill mckoy 9
lb chip myrtle 14
lb don parish 1
cb leroy mitchell 14
cb randy montgomery 8
s charles greer 14
s steve preece 9
s george saimes 3
s/cb billy thompson 8

Record: 5-9

Third place, AFC west