Sports Simulation Board Games

"What If" AFL Football: Jim Haluska, Ernie Pitts and the 1957 Denver Broncos

by Keith Avallone, PLAAY Games

You may be reading this thinking, "Wait a minute: the Denver Broncos were part of the AFL, and that didn't start until 1960! So—who ARE the 1957 Denver Broncos?" There's a full explanation in the write-up for the 1957 Pro Season card set for SECOND SEASON, but the short version is that when I was created the 1957 NFL teams, I was reminded that a good number of players who played in the NFL in '57 would later go on to play in the AFL in '60. At some point in the process the thought occurred to me, "What if the AFL had started in '57 instead of '60? What would it have looked like?"

After many hours of research, I came up with what I feel is a more-than plausible presentation to that question. The eight 1957 AFL clubs are made up entirely of real football players, players who would have been prime recruits for a new pro football league in '57. Some of them had just retired from the NFL, others had been drafted, spent time in a pro camp, and then released. Still others had gone north to play in Canada. In all, the '57 AFL for SECOND SEASON is an authentic representation of what an expanded pro football universe might have looked like to 1950s pro football fans.

Click here for an up-close look at all twenty-two Denver starters.

The idea so fascinated me that I decided to play out a full season for one of the clubs. I settled on the Denver team despite its being one of the weaker clubs in the collection, since PLAAY Games is based in the Denver area. I felt that, with luck and some smart coaching, I could get the club to 7-7. Here's how the season unfolded, game-by-game (post-game record in parentheses).

at Denver 31, Houston 28: The season began in exciting fashion as the Broncos rallied for 10 points in the fourth quarter to grab the lead and survived a last-minute Oiler drive that ended with a missed 45-yard field goal attempt as time expired. QB Jim Haluska was 10 of 18 with two touchdowns, including a 22-yard strike to Ernie Pitts, who also scored on a 32-yard interception return. (1-0)

at Los Angeles 52, Denver 20: The high-flying Chargers embarrassed the Broncos on both sides of the ball, bolting to a 31-6 halftime lead. Los Angeles QB Adrian Burk torched the Denver defense for 301 yards and five touchdowns, on just 16 throws (he completed 13 of them). Denver was never in it, and Haluska was benched for Charlie "Choo Choo" Brackins, who threw a late, meaningless TD pass. (1-1)

Denver 12, at Dallas 7: A hard-nosed, hard-earned road win thanks to an opportunistic Broncos defense that picked off five Texan passes. Milt Konicek booted four field goals to bail out a sputtering Denver offense: Haluska was 8 of 17 for 125 yards, and the Broncos run game could only generate 113 yards rushing on 43 carries! (2-1)

Minnesota 17, at Denver 14: A crushing loss for the Broncos, who were leading 14-0 with under five minutes to play. QB Hal Ledyard's touchdown pass to SE Buddy Bass got Minnesota on the board. After the Fighting Saints' defense forced a Denver three-and-out, HB Roger Hampton gathered in a Ledyard screen pass, made LB Bob Michalik miss a tackle, and dashed 50 yards to paydirt, with 1:19 to play, tied 14-14 with the PAT. After the kickoff, Brackins goes deep and is intercepted, but the Denver defense makes a stand and forced a Minnesota punt with under twenty seconds to play. Ernie Pitts fielded the punt—and lost the ball! Minnesota recovered at the Denver 10 with six seconds left. Chet Van Atta knocks through the game-winning field goal as time expires. Oh my. (2-2)

at Boston 16, Denver 9: Classic AFL football here, with mis-firing offenses and unpolished defenses. In the second quarter, Boston QB Jack Del Bello found end Lowell Perry on a 62-yard pass play, setting up Zollie Toth's short TD run, the only touchdown of the game. Both kickers (Konicek for Denver, Cenci for Boston) were 3-of-4 on short field goal attempts. Once again, a late miscue haunted the Broncos: having forced a Boston punt with two minutes to play, a roughing the kicker penalty on Denver's Gord Massa gave the Patriots a first down and allowed them to run out the clock for the win. (2-3)

at Denver 24, Buffalo 24: The Broncos found some offense, just in time to pull out a tie with the visiting Bills. Trailing 24-14 in the fourth quarter, Denver put together back-to-back scoring drives. RB O.K. Ferguson capped an 82-yard drive with a short scoring run, and, after a Buffalo punt,the Broncos again drove deep into Bills territory. Konicek's 24-yarder with eight minutes left lifted the Broncos to a tie. (NOTE: I believe this was the only time all seaason that Denver scored on successive drives.) Ferguson had his best game so far, 141 yards rushing on 19 carries, and Bob McCool punched across a pair of short scoring runs. (2-3-1)

at Denver 38, New York 21: This time, it was the Denver defense's turn to earn game-winner honors, setting up 21 fourth-quarter points with two fumble recoveries (DE Harlan Geach, S Hal Norris) and a 47-yard interception return (DHB Richie Woit) that turned a 21-17 deficit into a 38-21 rout. The late fireworks offset an heroic passing performance from NY QB Tom Dimitroff, who threw three touchdown passes, despite being sacked five times. (3-3-1)

Denver 20, at Houston 7: A huge road victory that gave the Broncos a winning record after eight games and moved the team into first place in the division! Once again, Denver relied on its ground game, FB Paul Barry picked up 70 yards and HB O.K. Ferguson added another 60, each scored a touchdown. Denver's special teams came through with a pair of blocked kicks to help offset an effective passing day from Oilers QB Wade Mitchell, who was 21 of 35 for 229 yards. (4-3-1)

Los Angeles 41, at Denver 0: With an enthusiastic home crowd cheering on its first-place club, the Broncos fell flat in every aspect and were dominated by visiting Los Angeles. Chargers QB Burk had another big day, passing for 374 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and he got an additional 165 yards from his running game. Denver had nothing offensively, as Haluska went 5 of 13 and was sacked twice before being replaced by Brackins, who was sacked three times himself and threw an interception. Bronco runners netted just 60 yards. (4-4-1)

Dallas 23, at Denver 10: The Broncos hoped to get back on track with a home game against the division rival Texans, and early on it looked as if they would. Ernie Pitts' 82-yard punt return gave Denver a 10-0 first quarter lead. But Dallas' defense took its cue from last week's Chargers win, and pressured Denver passers into six sacks and a pair of interceptions. Dallas QB Corny Salvaterra connected on 17 of 37 passes for 205 yards, and kicker Tad Weed booted three field goals as the Texans scored 23 un-answered points to put this one away. (4-5-1)

at Minnesota 23, Denver 16: With a win badly needed to stay in the hunt, its chronic lack of offense sent Denver to another defeat. The Broncos stayed close thanks to five Minnesota turnovers (three lost fumbles, two interceptions), but could generate only eight first downs as an early 13-7 lead evaporated. The Broncos QB shuffle continued: Haluska started, but connected on just 6 of 23 passes and got the hook late in the third period. (4-6-1)

Boston 28, at Denver 27: A dramatic finish to a wild game. Haluska was (again) yanked early, replaced by Brackins. Two Konicek field goals and a short Bob McCool touchdown (and two-point conversion) erase an early 14-0 Boston lead, and the game was suddenly tied at 14-14. Fourth quarter, tied at 21-21, the Patriots' Del Bello-to-Perry connection hooked up again long-distance, a 51-yard strike that put Boston in the lead 28-21. Inside a minute to play, Boston was forced to punt, and the Broncos hoped for a miracle. Pitts gathered in Schaefer's punt, headed up the sideline, found some room—and he was GONE! 82 yards for a touchdown, WOW! Only forty seconds left to play! But the Broncos need a win to stay in contention for the division, so they had to go for two points. Brackins dropped back, looked for Gillom at the back of the end zone—incomplete! Ohhhhhh. (4-7-1)

at Buffalo 23, Denver 7: With the playoffs out of reach, the Broncos came out flat. It was a familiar scenario: Haluska starts, completes 3 of 13 with an interception, replaced by Brackins. Brackins connects on 7 of 17 for just 66 yards with an interception. Meanwhile, the Bills built a 20-7 halftime lead fueled by a pair of TD passes from QB Harry Gilmer. Buffalo's defense limited Denver to 132 yards of total offense and just eight first downs. (4-8-1)

at New York 6, Denver 3: Nothing to play for but pride (both teams) on what I imagine would have been a cold, blustery December afternoon in New York. It was ugly. Brackins got his first start, and he promptly missed his first nine passes. The Titans Dimtroff was equally bad (or, was the Denver defense good?), finishing 8 of 23 with two interceptions. Two big plays in the fourth period: Dimitroff connected with Mulholland for 28 yards on third and 18, setting up Trozzo's 19-yard field goal, which gave New York the lead. Haluska came in for Brackins, and got the Broncos to the New York 41 with four minutes to play. But the drive stalled there, and Konicek missed what would have been the game-tying 49-yard field goal. (4-9-1)

So what looked pretty optimistic at mid-season ended up right about where I expected—last place in the division. But even so, it was a really fun ride. I found myself wishing that the season wasn't ending—but that's the great thing about sports games, we can always tee it up again!

I'm happy to share the season's statistics with you, just click here for a summary. Here are some of the highlights/conclusions.

QB CONTROVERSY: In eleven of the Broncos fourteen games I made a quarterback switch, a few times as an effort to light a spark, but usually because the starter was playing poorly. And usually that starter was Jim Haluska. I kept going back to him, though, because while he made few plays with his passing arm, he also didn't have the same propensity as Brackins for the big pick-off. (Each threw seven interceptions, but Brackins had half the pass attempts.) Both passers completed about 43% (ugh!) I was disappointed in both, but more so in Brackins, who I had envisioned as sort of an early version of Marlin Briscoe, and exciting scrambler who could come off the bench and make things happen. Brackins should have been a threat running the ball, but he wasn't: 17 rushes, 21 yards. And he only threw two TD passes.

AVERAGE RUNNING GAME: I expected HB O.K. Ferguson to have a shot at a 1,000 yard season, but he was actually out-shone in the backfield by FB Paul Barry. Ferguson gained more yards (692, to Barry's even 500), but Barry had a better per-carry average (4.3 to Ferguson's 4.1), more often picked up the tough yards, and also tied for the team lead in pass catches (22). FB Bob McCool led Denver with six touchdowns rushing, on 55 carries. As a team, the Broncos had 487 attempts for 1824 rushing yards (3.7 yards per carry) and scored 13 touchdowns.

LACKLUSTER RECEIVING CORPS: What does it say about a club's passing attack when its leading receiver catches only 22 passes in fourteen games? Barry and E Horace Gillom each had 22 catches, E John Ladner had 21. Only Gillom had more than a single TD catch (he had two!).

GOOD SPECIAL TEAMS: Placekicking was capably manned by LB Milt Konicek (19 of 31 FGA), although he did not make a kick longer than 40 yards all year and tailed off noticeably the second half of the season. Gillom did double-duty as a starting end and punter, and averaged 40.3 yards on 66 punts, with 17 inside the 20 and only two touchbacks. Outside of his costly fumble in the Minnesota game, Ernie Pitts was sensational returning kicks, averaging 11.3 yards on 27 punt returns, bringing two back for touchdowns.

RESPECTABLE DEFENSE: The Broncos played creditably on defense, holding opposing runners to 3.7 yards per carry, and allowing only 44% pass completions. On the other hand, Denver's pass rush registered only 22 sacks and the defense gave up 38 touchdowns (16 run, 22 pass). Part of that was due to the offense's distinct lack of firepower, which made for extended time on the field and field position problems. Individually, Pitts and DB Paul Rotenberry tied for the team lead in interceptions with 5 each. DE Walt Jenkins lead the club with 9 sacks.

TEAM MVP: Tough one, but I'll give the award to Pitts, with Gillom a fairly close second. Pitts was one of the league's few true play-making stars as a DB, and scored touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams. My biggest regret of the project was not using Pitts more on offense. He caught a 22-yard touchdown pass in the opener against Houston, but only one other pass all season. I kept wanting to "save" him for a key moment late in the game, but it just never happened.

SUMMARY: This was a fun, fun project that I was sorry to see end. I'm considering doing a similar play-through with the Minnesota team, incorporating the already-played games against Denver. It's really fascinating how these players come to life, and I have greatly enjoyed looking up information about the players online. To be continued!