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Legend and Legacy: The Broncos and Blanda, Pt. 1

Flip through photos of each of the 16 head coaches in Broncos history.

In looking at the most historic games in Denver Broncos history, there are some recurring themes and players from other teams, and good moments or bad, some of these folks had an amazing role in our team history.

So it was with George Blanda.

Most avid football fans and media are aware of his late game heroics with the Oakland Raiders, part of the tapestry of George Blanda's Hall of Fame career, and several of those moments against Denver could be a series unto themselves.

But before then, there was Houston, where the two Broncos-Oilers games in the 1966 season provided not just one, but two of the most memorable games in Broncos history. I will take them one at a time, and this column is a look at the first, with game two to be posted next week.

Houston won the first two championships in American Football League history and was generally an outstanding team through the first half of AFL history, while the Broncos ... well, our greatness of today was preceded by the most humble of beginnings.

On Saturday night, Sept. 3, 1966, the Broncos kicked off a new season at Houston's gigantic Rice Stadium before 30,156 fans against the Oilers, quarterbacked as usual by Blanda.

It was a warm, humid night in Houston, but the Broncos were frigid.

On opening night of 1966 Denver set and tied an all-time pro football record, one which will never be broken, by gaining zero first downs in a game. Zero.

The final score was 45-7, and if ever there were a game that was not as close as the score indicated, this was surely it.

How did the Broncos get seven points without a first down?

Defensive back and kickoff return specialist Goldie Sellers returned a first-quarter kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown to knot the score at 7-7 with 2:49 left in the first, and that would be that for the Broncos.

In the most ignominious night imaginable for a team that had already been the poster child for bad teams, the Broncos proceeded to get nothing on offense all night long.

Mickey Slaughter started at quarterback for the Broncos, and before being removed due to an injury, he went 0-for-7 passing.

Then John McCormick came in as Slaughter's replacement (McCormick was a tough guy who was my favorite player for a brief period in my youth), but he fared no better.

In fact, things got worse.

McCormick completed two passes in 13 attempts, so the Bronco signal callers went a combined 2-for-20 that night, for a net yardage of one yard.

McCormick's only two completions were both to running backs, one each to Abner Haynes and to Charlie Mitchell, but one gained eight yards and the other lost seven, for a net passing offense of one yard for Denver.

But McCormick also lost five yards on a rushing attempt, so the two Bronco quarterbacks, combined, had a minus four yards of total offense for the night.

The Broncos did have 33 yards rushing, for a total offensive output of 34 yards. A far, far cry from Peyton Manning's offense on a given drive, never mind a game.

Punter Bob Scarpitto, another of my favorites, had nine punts against the Oilers.

But on the other side, Blanda was feasting on Bronco defensive backs. He completed 13 of 25 passes for 210 yards, but four went for touchdowns.

Of course, he was the Houston placekicker as well, so he also kicked six extra points and added a field goal for good measure, having a hand or foot in 33 of the Oilers' points.

Just think of it a second—that is lot of ways to score for a quarterback. Blanda is in fact the last NFL quarterback to also serve as his team's full time placekicker.

After the game Denver coach Mac Speedie, who had won championships as a receiver with Otto Graham and the Cleveland Browns, told the press, "Without a doubt, this was the worst exhibition of football I have ever seen. We got the hell beat out of us, period."

No one argued with Mac's description.

As if the humiliation was not great enough, Houston running back Ode (silent "e") Burrell, number 25, had rushed for 81 yards through the Bronco defense but saved his piking on for postgame in the locker room.

Burrell was honest (which is why we tell players to praise the opponents or otherwise hold your tongue) in saying that Denver did not even look like a professional team out there. He was candid and blunt in his negative comments.

Denver had just had one of the worst games in football history, tying a record for zero first downs that could never be surpassed for negativity and generally playing with the heart of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz.

Now, as it happened and as is usually the case, there were some Broncos with steam coming out of every orifice.

One was Ray Jacobs, a big, tough defensive end from Howard Payne University in Texas and a player who played every game like he was defending The Alamo.

He took great umbrage at the comments by Ode Burrell and saved the newspaper articles to put on Denver's small but dumpy locker room bulletin board when Houston visited Denver for the rematch later in the year.

And that rematch will be the topic of next week's column, as it still stands as one of the most historic Bronco home games I have ever witnessed.

Why write about a game so bad as the one above, one might ask.

Because history is not just about the championships and great records. You cannot just take your negative moments and hide them under the rug.

Players and coaches are always saying, "We have to learn from this, we have to get better next time."

Because those are more than just empty words, we have to accept everything as a part of what makes us, and in our case, what makes Broncos Country. Fans who stick with a team after that 45-7 debacle are real supporters, and in Denver's case they were the foundation of a fan base that now is entering its 46th consecutive sellout season.

Further, I know we have great fans who know a lot about the present, but I also know we have the kind of great fans who want to know more than the most recent yesterdays, which after all, lay the groundwork for today and tomorrow.

Next week, Broncos-Blanda, Part Two.

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