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Billy Thompson reflects on Ken Stabler's vibrance, talent

Take a photographic trip through the series history between the Broncos and the Raiders.

In Denver in the 1970s, the Broncos were fighting hard to escape the pervasive reputation that they were losers. They managed to get their head above water, finally getting their first winning season in 1973, 13 years after the team was founded.

But at the same time, they would have to fight even harder to work their way up in the AFC West, which was particularly tough against the Oakland Raiders and their fearless and footloose quarterback Ken Stabler.

Stabler, who passed away on Wednesday at the age of 69, was a frustrating opponent for the Broncos, though assuredly a much respected one.


"The years that he was there, he was incredible — as a secondary guy, a guy who defended against his passes," Ring of Fame defensive back Billy Thompson said on Friday. "And I loved playing against him because he was the best. He'd look you off and he could throw the football. I mean, he could put it on the money. Unbelievable talent."

Stabler and the Raiders had been able to consistently beat the Broncos during those years in the early and mid-70's. From 1971 through 1976, Stabler played in 10 games against the Broncos, winning seven, tying one and losing just two. In four straight matches, Stabler didn't throw a single interception.

However, the Broncos were building a defense that would become a much more formidable opponent in 1977. The Raiders were coming off a Super Bowl season capping five straight years going to the playoffs, but their first rematch that year would be a reversal of fortune.

Stabler and the Raiders offense had a heap of trouble against the 'Orange Crush' defense, throwing seven interceptions in that one game, tied for an NFL record that stands today. The Raiders would even up the season series during their next match, but the Broncos came out on top again when it really counted in the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl appearance.

And for a team that had so much difficulty against a wildly successful quarterback like Stabler, it was like a burden had been lifted.

"It was like finally we got over the hump," Thompson said. "When I first came into the league in '69, it was Kansas City and the Oakland Raiders. And I had played two years of college ball with Art Shell, and he would always tell me 'Don't worry, Billy, you'll get your chance,' after every game after they killed us. And in '77, I walked over to him and I said 'Now it's our chance.'"


After that, the Raiders missed the playoffs in back-to-back years and Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers, and so one of the greatest players in a storied rivalry had to leave it behind.

Stabler was quite the competitor and quite the personality. Though the two teams were rivals, he made a clear impression on Thompson. They would later meet again at Stabler's golf tournament, held on the Western Slope, where they got know each other better.

"He was a class guy, a player, a guy that you loved to play with or loved to be a teammate of," Thompson said. "He was a winner. When you play football, the object of the game is to win and that's what he did. I played in a couple Pro Bowl games with him. He could man the huddle. He was an incredible athlete, quite frankly, and I think we're going to miss him. The world's going to miss him."

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