This week the Denver Broncos travel to Nashville to play the Tennessee Titans, with the Broncos fresh off a win that both is the first for John Elway as the head of football operations and for John Fox as head coach.
The victory over Cincinnati also is one more step, one more brick in the foundation of re-establishing the Broncos culture, for the team, the city and all the fans.
But growth is one step at a time, and this week the Broncos take their show on the road for the first regular season road game of 2011.
When Denver visits Nashville it will still seem a bit new to Bronco fans watching on television.
But if you think of the franchise not just as the Tennessee Titans, but as what it is, which is the original Houston Oilers, that rivalry is a lot stronger.
This will be the 36th time the Broncos have played the Oilers/Titans franchise, and in fact the first time Denver ever visited Tennessee for a game was not 2004, a 37-16 Bronco win on Christmas Day, but back on August 24, 1966, when Denver played the Miami Dolphins in an exhibition game in Memphis.
The Broncos and Oilers played twice annually from 1960 through 1969, and it started off very rough for the Broncos. The series now stands at a 14-20-1 record for Denver, but in those American Football League years Houston won 14 games, so since the merger which had both clubs becoming members of the National Football League the Broncos have led this series.
But the early years were rough.
I think there is a parallel to the current building of the Broncos. We go to Nashville hoping to get some of the injured players back and knowing we have a tough fight coming in the opponents’ backyard.
But that’s part of the challenge of the game. There is always a next game, and sometimes it is on the road against a tough opponent. That’s just the way it goes.
But one of the great wins in the AFL history of the Broncos came against this franchise when it was in Houston.
In 1966 the Broncos were a wretched team. They were in the last year of being an aimless team used mostly as cannon fodder for the rest of the AFL. The following year Lou Saban took over as head coach and Denver began a slow march onto the path of respectability as a football team.
But back to 1966.
On September 3 Denver opened the AFL season on Saturday night, September 3 at Rice Stadium against a vastly superior Houston team quarterbacked by future Pro Football Hall of Famer George Blanda.
The Broncos played one of the most ignominious games in franchise history that night, totally dominated in a 45-7 loss to the Oilers. In fact, so dominant was Houston in victory that Denver was held without a single first down from the line of scrimmage. The only first down the Broncos recorded was the automatic one that comes with a kickoff return touchdown, as Goldie Sellers returned a kickoff for Denver’s only score—and only first down—of the night.
It was a humiliating moment in franchise history, and more than a few Houston players chuckled about it in the press reports.
The return match took place in Denver just three weeks later. By then the Broncos had fired head coach Mac Speedie and replaced him on an interim basis with tough Ray Malavasi. In Malavasi’s first game as head coach Denver lost at home to the New York Jets, 16-7.
When the Oilers came in the following week, October 2, Denver appeared to have no chance against a vastly superior team. But sometimes the word “team” is key.
I saw one of the greatest individual displays ever that day by Houston quarterback George Blanda. But it came in a losing effort.
Blanda of course also was the placekicker for Houston, and in that game he threw five touchdown passes, kicked five extra points and added field goal to account for 38 Houston points.
But Denver combined points from offense, defense and special teams and won the game, 40-38 before 27,203 at old Bears Stadium. The winning points came on a 46-yard field goal by Denver kicker Gary Kroner with just 27 seconds left, a stirring moment that offset five Blanda TD passes of 18, 79, 27, 23 and nine yards, as well as his own 49-yard field goal for the remaining Houston points.
Just for good measure, the Broncos had another kickoff return by Sellers in this game, this one for 100 yards.
It was a great game, an AFL classic, and the “team” found a way to get a win.
So the Broncos go to Tennessee looking for a win in their first road game of the year, but will do so against an opponent that is an AFL original and thus one of the seven oldest rivals in franchise history.