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Way Back When: The Broncos' quarterback history with the Chargers


Comparing the early years of the Denver Broncos with those of the Chargers (Los Angeles in 1960, then San Diego) is like comparing the poor house to the high-rent district.

The Chargers had Sid Gillman as their head coach, future Hall of Famer and father of the modern passing game. The Broncos did not.

The Chargers had a litany of star quarterbacks, wide receivers, passing routes and playoff games. The Broncos did not.

But the Broncos were trying desperately to keep up. Quite often this meant looking longingly to the Chargers roster and acquiring a castoff or spare part, someone considered expendable by Gillman.

The Broncos' first such acquisition was in 1966, the year before Lou Saban took over the moribund Denver franchise.

Denver signed free agent Tobin Rote as a backup quarterback to compete with Mickey Slaughter and John McCormick as our passers.

Unfortunately, Rote was well past his glory days, by what looked to be about 40 pounds, and he went just 3-of-8 as a Denver quarterback, with one interception.

Before he is dismissed by readers who understandably have never heard of him, please take note that once upon a time in pro football, Rote led the 1957 Detroit Lions to the National Football League championship and in 1963 quarterbacked the Chargers to the American Football League crown and won the AFL MVP award.

Tobin Rote led teams to greatness, but time always wins, and he had nothing left when the Broncos rolled the dice on him.

The following year, as mentioned, Lou Saban took over with a 10-year contract as the Broncos' head coach and general manager.

Saban had won back-to-back titles in Buffalo and knew fully well that he could not win in Denver without a quarterback who had pedigree.

Saban went back to the Chargers well and immediately traded two first-round draft picks for Steve Tensi.

Now, fans might say that was a bad trade. But really, it was an absolutely great trade for one of the game's top quarterback prospects.

Tensi had quarterbacked one of the highest-scoring teams in college football at Florida State and capped his collegiate career with five touchdown passes in a Gator Bowl win over Oklahoma. He had been drafted by the Chargers and the Baltimore Colts, and considering the Colts already had a Hall of Fame quarterback under center in Johnny Unitas, he signed with San Diego.

Gillman announced that Tensi was their quarterback of the future, but that he would just watch and learn the pro game behind AFL All-Star John Hadl.

This was a great prospect, and everyone in the game salivated over Tensi, including Saban.

Hence, the trade, which was much ballyhooed nationally.

Then, Tensi got hurt. Again and again.

He was playing before perhaps the worst offensive line in football and he sustained a broken collarbone and just about everything else imaginable trying to lead the ragtag Broncos.

In one of the most disappointing trades in Broncos history, the once-promising career of Tensi produced just 32 starts in four seasons in Denver, 38 touchdown passes and 45 interceptions. It was actually remarkable that he was able to keep those two stats that close, considering the ferocious pass rush he was always under.

And so it went.

San Diego battled the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders for Western Division supremacy, and Denver had the basement locked up.

Part of the continuing San Diego success was in the person of the great Hadl, who was one of the superb quarterbacks in the 1960s and 1970s, playing for San Diego through 1972.

But then in 1983 he was hired by head coach Dan Reeves of the Denver Broncos to tutor our new quarterback: wunderkind John Elway.

The Broncos immediately made the playoffs in 1983, Elway's rookie year. Then, Hadl moved on, but Elway changed the fortunes of the Broncos, the Chargers and every other team in the AFC West.

Elway's success vs. San Diego was such that a Washington Post newspaper headline in 1987 read, "Elway Doesn't Get Mad, He Gets Even With Chargers."

Under the magnificent Elway, the Broncos became the only AFC team to have three Super Bowl appearances in the 1980s, and he just kept rolling until the Broncos won consecutive Super Bowls in 1997 and 1998.

In fact, two of Denver's Super Bowls were in San Diego — the loss to Washington in Super Bowl XXII and Denver's first Super Bowl win in Super Bowl XXXII following the 1997 season.

So success moves in many ways.

Overall, Chargers fans saw more than they ever cared to when John Elway was dominating the Chargers.

But history is long, and there are still Broncos fans who remember the early years, those of Rote, Tensi and Hadl.

The future?

This week's game is part of it, but just a small part of what is certain to be splashed with color and painted by quarterbacks on both sides of the ball.

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