It was a Sunday of upsetting surprises all around the National Football League. New England Quarterback Steve Grogan made true believers of the doubt-mongers and the Oakland Raiders, 48-17. Chicago's long-turgid Bears did a number on George Allen's Washington Redskins by the score of 33-7. Even Bart Starr pulled a mini-surprise as his Green Bay Packers won their first game by beating Detroit 24-14. But in the only game that featured two surprise teams, the upbeat Denver Broncos trounced the fearsome San Diego Chargers 26-0 before 63,369 raucous faithful in Denver's raw Mile High Stadium.
The San Diego Chargers? Fearsome? Who could get excited over that? Well, at game time San Diego was, amazingly, the top offensive team in the American Football Conference, with a 415 yard-per-game average, of which the Charger rushers had accounted for 223. Quarterback Dan Fouts had blossomed into the AFC passing leader with a 66.7 completion percentage, 618 total passing yards and—if you can believe it—no interceptions. And the Chargers, just last year one of the two worst teams in the NFL, had won three straight, including a smashing 43-24 rout of St. Louis.
Denver, coming off a mediocre 6-8 record, had also turned a corner. After losing their opener to the Cincinnati Bengals, the Broncos put the boots to the easily booted New York Jets 46-3, setting a team record in total offense (543 yards). Nobody was convinced of anything just yet, but then the Broncs trampled the improved Cleveland Browns 44-13, and suddenly the Charger game shaped up as an intriguing confrontation between a couple of teams that had been down, way down, on their luck in recent years. It would be San Diego's vaunted new offense against Denver's stingy defense and exceptional set of special teams. Though Denver's offense, conducted by paunchy Quarterback Steve Ramsey, had not shown any great flair, only a boring consistency, Running Back Otis Armstrong was healthy again after missing the last 10 games of the 1975 schedule because of a severe hamstring tear, and that had to count for a lot. What's more, second-year Wide Receiver Rick Up-church had erupted on the kick return scene with a roar by returning punts 73 and 47 yards for touchdowns against Cleveland. There were to be plenty more roars for Upchurch and all the Broncos on Sunday.
At the end of a rather torpid first quarter, during which both teams did a lot of ineffectual probing, Ramsey—who has heard his share of rowdy Rocky Mountain boos—sent Tight End Riley Odoms rumbling down the right sideline and hit him on the numbers for a 47-yard gain to the Charger 30. The drive fizzled, but Jim (Tank) Turner salvaged three points for the Broncos with a 47-yard field goal.
Puzzled, apparently, by Denver's four-linebacker defense, the Chargers bogged down at midfield on their next series and the one after that. Then Charger Punter Mitch Hoopes made the fatal mistake of driving a 43-yard kick into the hands of Upchurch. Taking the ball on the Denver eight-yard line, Upchurch slanted up-field, broke a tackle at his 40 by spinning clear around and, without breaking stride, raced down the left sideline to complete a 92-yard touchdown trip. Denver 10. San Diego zip.
At halftime the Chargers had outplayed the Broncs statistically, with a total of 187 yards, 66 on the ground. But Fouts had suffered his first interception—a harmless one, it turned out—by Denver Middle Linebacker Randy Gradishar. Denver's offense, meanwhile, had generated only 98 yards, with Armstrong held to a scant 23 in six carries. Ah, but it was not to remain that way.
Armstrong, the NFL's leading rusher in 1974, wound up into high gear as the second half wore along, and finished with 91 yards on 23 carries. On Denver's second series of the second half, Ramsey connected with Upchurch for 57 yards, and Turner kicked a 25-yard field goal for a 13-0 lead. Minutes later Turner added a 36-yard field goal and the Broncos moved to a 16-0 lead.
In the fourth quarter the Broncos turned the game into a rout. Armstrong cracked and cracked again at the young San Diego defense, and the Chargers began to crumble. The Broncos recovered a Charger fumble at the San Diego 34, and Armstrong went to work. He banged the left side for eight yards, then left again for another eight. Ramsey called Armstrong's number once more, but this time O.A., as Armstrong calls himself, went right for his eight yards. Lonnie Perrin, a 6'1", 222-pound rookie fullback from Illinois, went airborne for the touchdown, and Turner later booted his fourth field goal, this one from 27 yards. So it was Denver 26, San Diego O. End of San Diego's undefeated season.
Still, after suffering through last year's 2-12 record and 6 straight sub-.500 seasons, few people around San Diego are complaining about one measly defeat. Coach Tommy Prothro has cleaned the Chargers' house thoroughly. Only five players remain of the odd lot Prothro took over from Harland Svare three seasons ago after the Chargers were involved in the worst drug scandal in pro football history. His broom having swept clean, Prothro cast about for a way to revitalize his stagnant Model T offense. With a move worthy of his reputation as a chess master, Prothro picked up Bill Walsh, the lean, thoughtful, 44-year-old offensive strategist who over an eight-year period had turned the Cincinnati Bengals into the top passing team in the NFL.
" Paul Brown gave me a great deal of latitude," Walsh says of his Cincinnati tenure. "I had plenty of time to work out my own system of football, to express myself offensively. I take great pride in the artistic end of it." Working with quarterbacks of such disparate temperaments and talents as Greg Cook, Virgil Carter and Ken Anderson, Walsh was the innovator of many new offensive ploys—like putting tight ends in motion—that are only now filtering through to the rest of the league. "I put Fouts on a par with Anderson in terms of intelligence," says Walsh. "And that's very important, even when you call all the plays from the sideline, as I do with the Chargers. What's more, Dan's tough. He's been prone to getting nicked in the past, but with the formations we're employing now, there's less chance of him getting busted up than there ''was before."