COLUMNS

The best first seasons in Broncos history: No. 5 – Craig Morton

Jul 8, 2022, 2:23 PM | Updated: 2:42 pm

Craig Morton...

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

EDITOR’S NOTE: With Russell Wilson joining the Broncos, Andrew Mason takes a look back at the best first seasons for Broncos in team history.

In the first few months of 1977, the Broncos had a new head coach and a dominant returning defense.

On the sideline, Red Miller replaced John Ralston on the sideline after a player revolt following a 9-5 season that was the best in Broncos history to that point. On the field, coordinator Joe Collier’s switch to a 3-4 alignment early in the 1976 campaign after an injury to Lyle Alzado unleashed what became known as the “Orange Crush.”

But quarterback was still a conundrum. Three men threw passes for the Broncos in 1976: Steve Ramsey, Craig Penrose and Norris Weese. None completed more than 51.1 percent of their passes. None had more touchdowns than interceptions.

Even by the low standards of the dead-ball era of NFL history, the Broncos were lacking at quarterback. Their completion percentage in 1976 was 22nd of 28 teams. Just four teams tossed more interceptions than the Broncos’ QBs did as a group.

So, Miller and the Broncos went quarterback shopping in the 1977 offseason. They found two passers on the scratch-and-dent pile.

One of them, future college coaching legend Steve Spurrier, wouldn’t even make the regular-season roster.

The other, Craig Morton, changed Broncos history.

Morton was available after two-and-a-half frustrating seasons with the New York Giants. In those years, he threw 20 more interceptions (49) than touchdowns (29). With a sieve of an offensive line, New York lost 25 of the 33 games he started. He took a beating. At 34 years of age, the football world considered Morton to be damaged goods.

And even the Broncos considered him a stop-gap. Upon trading for him — sending Ramsey as part of the package — general manager Fred Gehrke said Denver acquired Morton “to give us some stability while our two youngsters [Weese and Penrose] develop.”

Even Morton’s teammates didn’t stop in their tracks at the deal.

“When they made the trade, it really didn’t come out and hit me,” Moses said in the 1977 postseason. “It wasn’t like Denver got someone along the line of Bob Griese or Bert Jones.”

But as it turned out, they did.

Morton was that good — and better than he had ever been, even better than when he led Dallas to the 1970 NFC championship and a spot in Super Bowl V.

But it didn’t come together right away. The Broncos won their season opener against the St. Louis Cardinals — but in a 7-0 win, they had as many punts as points.

If you look at Morton’s numbers for the season, they wouldn’t catch your eyes today. He completed 51.8 percent of his passes. His passer rating was 82.0. He had nearly twice as many touchdown passes as interceptions, but the ratio was 14-to-8.

But his touchdown-pass rate was the league’s fifth best — one every 18.1 attempts. So was his interception rate — one every 50.8 attempts. He ranked second in the league with 7.6 yards per attempt. His passer rating was fourth in the league — and second in the AFC.

For the standards of 1977, Morton was stellar.

And he did much of it while nursing a hip injury that worsened in the final weeks of the year. By the week of the 1977 AFC Championship Game, Morton was hospitalized. Doctors and nurses drained blood and fluid from his hip. He didn’t practice, and unlike Peyton Manning decades later, he couldn’t watch on an iPad. Coaches ferried the game plan to him so he could study during his convalescence.

But by game day on New Year’s Day 1978, Morton was ready. In the first quarter against the Oakland Raiders, he gingerly made a play-action fake and hit Haven Moses in stride for a 74-yard touchdown connection. The Broncos never trailed after that, ekeing out a 20-17 win to earn a trip to Super Bowl XII.

The Broncos lost that game, of course. Dallas dominated Denver, winning 27-10. Morton struggled under an intense rush from the Doomsday Defense. But it didn’t dull the accomplishments of the season, and the fusillade of firsts — playoff appearance, division title, playoff win, AFC championship — that happened.

And none of it would have transpired without Morton at the controls.

Fast-forward 45 years. The Broncos have another new, 30-something quarterback with at least a decade of pro experience. Wilson doesn’t have the same questions today as Morton did in 1977.

But the Broncos would be thrilled if Wilson’s maiden voyage in orange and blue is as successful as Morton’s.

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THE BEST FIRST SEASONS IN BRONCOS HISTORY:

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