John Ralston and Dan Devine’s career arcs in the NFL were almost identical. Both were Head Coach and General Manager, both had their greatest success in their second season on the job and both faced player rebellions that helped ouster them during their final seasons. Devine coached in Green Bay from 1971 to 74, Ralston in Denver from 1972 to 76. The difference was, Devine left behind an aging, disorganized team, while Ralston left behind a rebuilt organization both on and off the field that went to the Super Bowl for the first time the following season. The foundation of today’s Denver Broncos was laid by John Ralston in the mid-seventies.
Before Ralston, the Broncos had never posted a winning season in twelve years, winning no more than five games in a season for ten consecutive years, including Ralston’s rookie year in the NFL. But in 1973, he led a ragtag Broncos squad to within one score of upsetting the Oakland Raiders for the AFC West Division Title at 7-5-2. The team slipped backwards in 1974, still competitive, but at 7-6-1 far behind the dominate Raiders who finished 12-2. They fell further in 1975 to 6-8, but rebounded to 9-5 in 1976, but again, well behind the 13-1 Raiders.
Like Devine, Ralston’s undoing was at the quarterback position. A trade before his first season in 1972 acquired veteran Charley Johnson, who had led the Cardinals to several winning seasons before giving way to Jim Hart. Thought to be washed up, Ralston stole Johnson from the Oilers for a third round draft choice. Johnson was a team leader and chief architect of the 73 squad. But hobbled by bad knees, Johnson had lost his effectiveness by 1975 and retired, leaving Ralston with Steve Ramsey, who he had inherited from the previous regime. Ramsey was a subpar quarterback, but in the era before free agency, the best he could find. The Bronco offense staggered under his leadership in 76 and the rock ribbed defense rebelled, demanding Ralston resign at season’s end.
Ralston was especially known for his can-do approach to thinking. A graduate of the Dale Carnegie Course, Ralston had brought his college approach to the NFL with ice cream socials on Saturday nights before games and having the team hold hands in the huddle. But what was inspirational in 1973, had become old hat by 1977. Despite this, Ralston had built an exceptional team that included Linebackers Randy Gradishar and Tom Jackson. 33 of his players were on the 1977 team that went 12-2 and won the AFC Title before being defeated in the Super Bowl by the Dallas Cowboys. The difference? New Coach Red Miller had brought in veteran Quarterback Craig Morton.
Listen to this from a Sports Illustrated article from 1977.
Ralston was a great delegator of authority, a trait the players came to construe as a lack of ability. They whispered that the coach could not even diagram the offense. Whether he could or couldn’t, the offense did not work. The rift between the team’s offensive and defensive players grew so wide that they avoided one another on the bench during games. “We were frustrated,” admits Linebacker Randy Gradishar. “The defense was holding teams down, and then the offense would let them up.”
The exact same charge has been leveled against Devine time and again by detractors.
Like Devine, Ralston had and still has his defenders. Quarterback Charley Johnson, who outside football earned a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, has boundless respect for Ralston, but notes that his taking back the play calling in 1975 resulted in disaster. This should sound familiar to Packer fans who remember the infamous 1972 playoff game with Washington in which Devine and Starr struggled with the same control issue.
Ironically, Dan Devine could have picked up Charley Johnson before the 1972 season as well and in 1974, the Dallas Cowboys had offered him Craig Morton for less than he paid for John Hadl, but Devine had thought Morton over the hill. Devine’s record in the NFL was 25-27-4. Ralston’s was 34-33-3. Both coaches were laid low, to an extent, by relying too much on college inspirational coaching tropes. Devine was accused of being dishonest by his players, Ralston of being corny and out of touch. Both men were enormously successful at the college level. Both proved that coaching methods that worked with 19 and 20 year old college football players, could be successful on a limited basis at the pro level, but wore thin after a couple of years.