As an American Football League expansion team, the Miami Dolphins were going through the typical growing pains in their inaugural season. They were 0-5 as they hosted the Denver Broncos on October 16, 1966. Head Coach George Wilson’s team was the usual first-year grouping of unwanted veterans and inexperienced young players. Quarterback was a problem area as veteran Dick Wood was found wanting and the coach’s son, George Wilson Jr., was getting a shot. Fullback was another problem area, as Billy Joe (pictured above), formerly of the Broncos and Bills, did not appear to be the answer. Coach Wilson had considered starting ex-Bears FB Rick Casares, but he missed the team’s Saturday practice and lost his starting chance. The defense had been the more impressive unit thus far, but even then the new team had suffered some bad defeats.
The Broncos were 7.5-point favorites coming into the game, although they were hardly any better. They were 1-4 and had already undergone a coaching change with Mac Speedie resigning after the second game and assistant coach Ray Malavasi taking his place. They also had problems at quarterback, where injury-prone John McCormick was starting. HB Abner Haynes’ best years were behind him, as were split end Lionel Taylor’s, and they were missing FB Cookie Gilchrist, highly productive in 1965 but who was holding out (and, as rumored at the time of the game in Miami, was about to be dealt to the Dolphins). The team that seemed constantly to be in rebuilding mode had 17 rookies on the roster.
There were 23,393 fans in attendance at the Orange Bowl. The teams traded punts to start the first quarter. On their second series, a well-executed screen pass from George Wilson Jr. to Billy Joe resulted in a 67-yard touchdown. Gene Mingo added the extra point to give the Dolphins the early 7-0 lead.
It immediately got worse for the Broncos when Abner Haynes fumbled the ensuing kickoff and TE Bill Cronin recovered for the Dolphins at the Denver 20. Three plays later, Mingo added more points with a 25-yard field goal.
Neither team was able to move effectively until the Broncos got a break when Miami HB Joe Auer fumbled the ball away at his own 22. John McCormick completed a pass to TE Al Denson and Haynes finished off the ensuing series with a five-yard touchdown carry. Gary Kroner added the extra point to narrow Miami’s lead to 10-7.
Heading into the second quarter, neither team was able to get out of its own end of the field. The Dolphins nearly scored again on a long carry by Joe in the second quarter, but a 62-yard run down the sideline was nullified by an illegal use of hands penalty. However, three plays later Miami got another big play when Wilson threw to flanker John Roderick for a 64-yard gain to the Denver six, but another Auer fumble that LB Archie Matsos recovered for the Broncos ended their chance to score again.
Neither team moved the ball to start the third quarter and Denver’s second series concluded with McCormick being intercepted by LB Tom Erlandson, giving the Dolphins possession at the Broncos’ 37. On the second play, Wilson took off for a 19-yard run and six plays later Auer scored a touchdown from a yard out. Mingo’s PAT extended the home team’s lead to 17-7.
The Broncos again fumbled the ball away on the ensuing kickoff, but the Dolphins fumbled it back to them two plays later. 38-year-old QB Tobin Rote relieved McCormick. Rote had played for Miami’s Coach Wilson in Detroit, made successful stops in the CFL and San Diego in the intervening years, and was lured out of retirement by the Broncos. With the old pro at the helm, the Broncos reached the Miami 49 before Rote was sacked on consecutive plays for losses totaling 18 yards. Denver once again had to punt the ball away as the game entered the fourth quarter.
Both teams remained stymied on offense and McCormick re-entered the game, only to be intercepted on consecutive possessions by CB Dick Westmoreland. The second gave the Dolphins the ball at the Denver 16 and, four plays later, Auer ran for another TD from three yards out. With less than two minutes remaining on the clock, it only served to further bury the visitors as Miami came away with a 24-7 win.
In a game in which both teams had difficulty sustaining drives, the Dolphins outgained Denver (217 yards to 118) although the Broncos had the edge in first downs (11 to 10). Denver turned the ball over six times, to four suffered by Miami, and the Dolphins, who had recorded only two sacks in their previous games, had five, as opposed to three by the Broncos.
George Wilson Jr. (pictured below, handing off to Joe Auer) completed 9 of 18 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown with one intercepted; he also rushed for 21 yards on three carries. Billy Joe had only 15 rushing yards on 11 attempts, but caught three passes for 60 yards and the big first quarter touchdown. TE Dave Kocurek had four catches for 46 yards while John Roderick led the Dolphins in receiving yards with 64 on his lone reception. Joe Auer rushed for 32 yards on 17 carries that included two touchdowns, but he also had problems with fumbling. Defensively, DE Ed Cook unofficially was in on three of the sacks, DT Al Dotson, recently reactivated, was in on two along with his eight tackles and three assists, and Dick Westmoreland had the two fourth quarter interceptions.
For the Broncos, John McCormick had a dismal passing performance as he was successful on just 9 of 25 throws for 90 yards and gave up four interceptions. Tobin Rote was one-of-two for 12 yards and was sacked four times. Abner Haynes gained 38 rushing yards on 14 carries that included a TD and also caught three passes for 28 yards. Lionel Taylor also had three pass receptions, for 45 yards.
“We felt we could win this one before the game and they went out and did a fine job,” said Coach George Wilson of his team in the jubilant locker room. “The defense was great. Billy Joe’s was the big play (the 67-yard touchdown in the first quarter). It was a hell of a call.”
“When you get a taste of honey, you’re like a snowball going downhill,” said an elated Billy Joe. “You can throw all those mistakes of the past out the window. We got the momentum now.”
The Dolphins won again the next week at Houston but lost the remainder of their games until the season finale to finish at 3-11 and tied with the Oilers at the bottom of the Eastern Division. Denver continued to struggle and ended up last in the Western Division with a 4-10 record.
George Wilson Jr. was the starting quarterback for two of Miami’s wins but went down with an injury. As it was, he completed only 41.1 percent of his passes for 764 yards with five touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Billy Joe, who fell by the wayside following Cookie Gilchrist’s arrival, rushed for 232 yards on 71 carries (3.3 avg.) and caught 13 passes for 116 yards and the long touchdown against the Broncos – his only one of the season. Joe Auer led the team in rushing with 416 yards, caught 22 passes for 263 more yards, and led the club with nine touchdowns.