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So, too, do the Denver Broncos, who have made a number of changes as a result of last year's disappointing 7-6-1 finish. Coach John Ralston blames himself for not realizing you can't stand pat in the NFL.
"I confess very freely to making a cardinal error," Ralston says. "I guess it's part of paying your tuition in the National Football League. The previous year we had played Oakland for the division championship in the final game of the season and we lost by four points. I'm thinking, 'Geez, we're only four points out of the division championship; this is going to be a snap. All we've got to do is keep the squad together and do a little better job of coaching and we're going to be in the whole deal.' Well, it just doesn't work that way. You've got to be making changes every year and I made hardly any."
This year Ralston has dealt away eight veterans, junked the three-man defensive rush, shuffled his linebackers and installed Louis Wright, the No. 1 draft choice from San Jose State, at left cornerback.
Four out of Denver's first five draft choices went for the defensive help Ralston needs to reduce the 294 points, 88 third-down completions and 265 first downs the team gave up last year. The return of veteran Tackle Paul Smith, who was out with a snapped Achilles tendon in '74, should stiffen the defense. The linebacking also has been upgraded with the addition of rookie Bob Swenson, who was signed as a free agent from California.
The offense needed fewer repairs, principally because of Otis Armstrong, who gained a league-leading 1,407 yards last season. Armstrong, who scored nine touchdowns and averaged 5.3 yards a carry, is contemplating a 2,000-yard season. Teaming with him is Jon Keyworth, a 6'3", 235-pound battering ram who led the AFC in rushing touchdowns with 10. In reserve is Floyd Little, looking like the '72 model again.
Quarterback Charley Johnson threw for 18 touchdowns despite sporadic protection. "We feel this way about Charley," Ralston says. "He won't carry a team, but he can win in this league consistently if you have a good defense and a good solid running game."
Denver has the best tight end in football in Riley Odoms, who led the club with 42 receptions for 639 yards and six touchdowns, and competent wide receivers in Haven Moses and Billy Van Husen, who also does the punting. Rookies Jack Dolbin and Rich Upchurch give the Broncos outside speed for the first time. Dolbin is a tough refugee from the WFL Chicago Fire, for whom he played several games with a broken jaw. His first catch as a Bronco went for a 93-yard touchdown in the Colt exhibition. On a previous play he had suffered a broken nose.
The Chargers' basic strength is an offensive line that opens good holes for Don Woods, the AFC Rookie of the Year, who in 12 games gained 1,162 yards. Woods' running mates, unfortunately, are not nearly as skilled. Prothro's primary concern is his quarterbacking. Dan Fouts has had a history of injuries, Jesse Freitas has yet to show a take-charge attitude, and Virgil Carter is trying to get on track after a year in the WFL. They are helped, however, by Gary Garrison, one of the league's best receivers, and Dwight McDonald, a rookie from Utah who looks good despite the fact that he wasn't drafted because scouts said he was too slow.
Three rookies will figure prominently in Prothro's front four: Fred Dean, Louie Kelcher and the team's No. 1 draftee, Gary (Big Hands) Johnson. Prothro is encouraged by the performances of Kelcher and Johnson, who have been particularly impressive for youngsters.