November 19, 2010
The Houston Oilers, defending champions of the American Football League, had gotten off to a rough start in 1961. They were 1-3-1 after five games, and George Blanda (pictured above), the 33-year-old quarterback who had revived his pro football career in ’60 while leading the club to the title, was benched for two games.
However, owner Bud Adams fired Head Coach Lou Rymkus at that point and replaced him with Wally Lemm. There was an immediate turnaround, and by the time the Oilers hosted the New York Titans at Jeppesen Stadium on November 19, they had reeled off four straight wins. Blanda was back at the helm. In the preceding four contests, he had passed for 1076 yards (including 464 in a game at Buffalo alone) with 11 touchdowns and 7 interceptions.
The Titans, coached by legendary QB Sammy Baugh, were 5-4 coming into the game. While the offense was capable of providing some excitement, in particular due to the presence of split end Art Powell and flanker Don Maynard, the defense was porous, especially the defensive backfield. Having started off 3-1, New York was in danger of falling out of contention in the Eastern Division.
There were 33,428 fans in attendance at the small venue as Houston took command quickly and decisively. Blanda tossed his first touchdown pass, of 28 yards to flanker Charley Hennigan, at the conclusion of an 80-yard drive early in the first quarter. With 4:40 remaining in the opening period, Blanda tossed a six-yard TD pass to HB Billy Cannon to conclude a six-play possession that covered 31 yards. Before the first quarter was over, the Oilers scored again as Blanda threw another pass to Cannon that covered 78 yards for a third touchdown.
The Titans offense didn’t threaten until midway through the second quarter. Flanker Don Maynard put New York on the board, making an outstanding catch on a four-yard pass from QB Al Dorow, but DE Don Floyd blocked the extra point attempt.
Blanda poured it on as he connected with split end Bill Groman for a 66-yard TD and with Cannon once more for a six-yard score. The tally at the end of the first half was 35-6 and the veteran quarterback had set a new AFL record with five touchdown passes.
Three minutes into the third quarter, Blanda threw for his sixth touchdown, connecting with Groman on a 46-yard play. He tossed his seventh, tying the NFL record held at that point by Sid Luckman of the Bears and Philadelphia’s Adrian Burk, in the fourth quarter on a play that covered 11 yards to Groman.
Dorow, who was constantly harassed by the aggressive Houston defense, tossed a second TD pass, of 11 yards to TE Thurlow Cooper, to salvage a slight bit of pride for the Titans. Houston won by a final score of 49-13.
The Oilers rolled up 555 yards, to 347 for New York, and the Titans further hurt their cause by turning the ball over four times, as opposed to just once by Houston. There was plenty of aggressive play on both sides, and several fights broke out, including one that cleared both benches. Altogether, 18 penalties were called, resulting in 193 yards (11 for 128 yards on Houston, 7 for 65 yards on the Titans). Three players were ejected.
In throwing for seven touchdowns, George Blanda completed 20 of 32 passes for 418 yards and was picked off once. Three Houston receivers gained over 100 yards – Bill Groman led the group with 5 catches for 152 yards and three TDs, followed by Charley Hennigan, who caught 8 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, and Billy Cannon added 122 yards on 7 receptions with three scores. Cannon added another 41 yards on 14 rushes, behind FB Charley Tolar, who gained 58 yards on 11 carries, and FB Dave Smith with 49 yards on six attempts.
For the visitors, Al Dorow went to the air 47 times and had 21 completions for 278 yards with two TDs and three interceptions. HB Dick Christy led the club with 7 catches for 103 yards out of the backfield. FB Bill Mathis ran for 68 yards on 14 carries.
It was another big performance by the defending champions as they surged back into the Eastern Division race. Ultimately, the Oilers went undefeated the rest of the way, winning the division with a 10-3-1 record and again beating the Chargers for the AFL title. The Titans ended up in third place at 7-7.
The offense in particular achieved many superlatives. George Blanda threw 36 touchdown passes, exceeding the existing NFL record of 32, and also led the AFL in passing yards (3330), yards per attempt (9.2, almost two yards per pass better than the runners-up), yards per completion (17.8), and percentage of TD passes (9.9). Considering he had actually missed two full games due to being benched, it was an amazing overall performance. Blanda was selected as AFL Player of the Year by the Associated Press and UPI.
Bill Groman, with his three touchdown catches against New York, caught a TD pass in his 8th consecutive game. While he was shut out the next week, he ended up with 17 touchdown receptions to not only lead the league but tie the existing NFL record. Groman caught 50 passes for 1175 yards.
Charley Hennigan set a single-season record with 1746 receiving yards that not only was never beaten in the AFL, but wasn’t exceeded in the NFL until 1995. He ranked second in both receptions (82) and receiving touchdowns (12).
Billy Cannon led the AFL in rushing with 948 yards on 200 carries and was also the league’s all-purpose yardage leader with 2043. The 1959 Heisman Trophy-winner out of LSU scored a total of 15 touchdowns (6 rushing, 9 receiving). As his performance against the Titans demonstrated, Cannon was a potent pass receiving threat out of the backfield and caught 43 passes for 586 yards.