September 9, 2010

1960: Broncos Defeat Patriots as AFL Debuts

The fourth, and ultimately most successful, organization to be known as the American Football League (AFL) had its regular season debut on September 9, 1960 as the Boston Patriots played host to the Denver Broncos. There were 21,597 fans in attendance at Boston University’s Nickerson Field (on the site of the former Braves Field) on a muggy Friday night as Patriots tackle Tony Discenzo booted the opening kickoff to the Broncos.

The Patriots, coached by Lou Saban and having badly beaten the Broncos in a preseason game a few weeks earlier, were considered to be heavy favorites coming into the opening game. Their biggest problem had been securing a home field (a chronic issue that would not be fully resolved until 1971, when the club moved to Foxboro, Massachusetts), having been turned down by Boston College, Harvard University, and baseball’s Red Sox, who owned Fenway Park. With help from the mayor, Boston University was prevailed upon to make its stadium available.

As for Denver, Head Coach Frank Filchock, a former NFL quarterback who went to the CFL, had been coaching with Saskatchewan and followed his general manager, Dean Griffing, to Colorado. Filchock recruited Frank Tripucka, a product of Notre Dame who had also played in the NFL and CFL, as an assistant coach but by the time the season rolled around Tripucka was the starting quarterback. As was the case with several of the AFL teams, money was tight and the Broncos wore uniforms that had been discarded by a defunct college all-star contest known as the Copper Bowl and became the joke of the league: mustard yellow (charitably called gold) jerseys with brown pants and helmets and vertically-striped brown and yellow socks.

The Broncos wasted no time in showing off some razzle-dazzle in returning the Patriots’ opening kickoff as HB Bob McNamara handed off to HB Al Carmichael, who had once returned a kickoff 106 yards for the Packers, on a reverse; Carmichael made it to his 17 yard line. Denver kept the ball on the ground, with Carmichael running five yards on the first play from scrimmage, and had to punt.

36-year-old QB Ed “Butch” Songin, a local product from Boston College who had also played briefly in Canada, completed the AFL’s first pass, to end Jim Colclough. There was no scoring until late in the period when Gino Cappelletti, who had played collegiately at the University of Minnesota and briefly in the CFL after going undrafted by the NFL, kicked a 35-yard field goal that put the Patriots up by 3-0.

Denver got on the board in the second quarter when Tripucka threw a swing pass to Carmichael who dashed 59 yards for a touchdown and the score stood at 7-3 at halftime.

The Broncos scored on another big play in the third quarter as HB Gene Mingo returned a punt 76 yards for a TD; however the exhausted Mingo, who also was the team’s placekicker, missed the ensuing extra point attempt.

Both defenses played well, and the Patriots made a big play defensively in the fourth quarter when DB Chuck Shonta intercepted a pass and returned it 52 yards to set up a 10-yard touchdown pass from Songin to Colclough. The Broncos held on, however, and won by a final score of 13-10.

Denver outgained the Patriots with 323 total yards to 219, and especially held an edge in rushing yards with 149 to 79. Gene Mingo was the top rusher, gaining 66 yards on 8 attempts. Al Carmichael was the all-around star, leading the Broncos with 130 yards on 6 pass receptions, including the one TD, while adding 24 yards on 9 carries and returning two kickoffs for a total of 54 yards. Frank Tripucka completed 10 of 15 passes for 180 yards with a TD and an interception.

Butch Songin went to the air 24 times and had 12 completions for 145 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions (both by Denver safety Goose Gonsoulin, on his way to leading the AFL with 11). FB Jim Crawford led the team in rushing with 29 yards on 8 carries; HB Larry Garron was right behind at 26 yards on 7 attempts. Jim Colclough caught 4 passes for 42 yards and a TD; Crawford also had 42 receiving yards on his two receptions.

Ultimately, both teams completed the season at the bottom of their respective divisions. The Patriots had a 5-9 record, while Denver was 4-9-1.

Gene Mingo led the AFL in scoring (123 points) and field goals (18) while contributing 33 extra points and six touchdowns; his 76-yard punt return was the longest in the league’s first season. Denver ranked at the bottom in team rushing and Frank Tripucka went to the air often, leading the league in passing attempts (478), completions (248), and yards (3038) - he also led the circuit by throwing 34 interceptions.

By the passer rating system then in use in the AFL, Butch Songin ranked fourth and behind Tripucka in third. However, by the modern system he ranked second (70.9) and his Denver counterpart seventh, and had a far better touchdown-to-interception ratio (22 TDs and 15 INTs to Tripucka’s 24 touchdowns and 34 interceptions). Gino Cappelletti scored just 60 points in ’60, but he would be shifted from the defensive backfield to offensive end and become the all-time scoring leader in the AFL’s ten-year history.