June 19, 2011

1963: Raiders Obtain Archie Matsos from Buffalo

It had been a rocky first three years for the Oakland Raiders franchise. They had been a late entry into the American Football League, after the Minneapolis ownership group defected to the NFL, and had played their home games in San Francisco the first two seasons (Kezar Stadium in 1960, Candlestick Park in ’61). While they finally found a temporary home in Oakland in ’62 at Frank Youell Field, the struggling club went a dreadful 1-13. Their combined record from 1960 through ’62, under three head coaches, was 9-33.

The Raiders had a new head coach and general manager for 1963 in 34-year-old Al Davis, who had been an assistant under Sid Gillman with the Chargers. Davis immediately set about refurbishing the team and on June 19, 1963 made a significant trade to help the defense, sending CB Hank Rivera, DT Pete Nicklas, and DT George Shirkey to the Buffalo Bills for an established AFL star middle linebacker, Archie Matsos.

Matsos (often referred to simply as Arch) had been drafted out of Michigan State by the Baltimore Colts in the 16th round in 1958, but at 6’0 and 212 pounds was considered too small to be a NFL linebacker. He joined the Bills in the newly-formed AFL in 1960 and proved that, while he may have lacked size, he made up for it with speed and agility. In that first season, he intercepted eight passes and was a consensus first-team All-AFL selection. He played in every game for Buffalo in his three years there, received first-team All-AFL honors again in 1961 and was selected for the first two AFL All-Star Games, played after the 1961 and ’62 seasons.

“He's not as big as we'd like but he is fast and is agile,” said Davis. “He is good against both the pass and run and figures to make a big contribution to the team in '63.”

Two of the players traded for Matsos, Rivera and Nicklas, were rookies in 1962 while Shirkey was a three-year veteran who had been with Houston in 1960 and ‘61. Rivera played in just three games in his lone season in Buffalo, while Nicklas and Shirkey failed to make the team, ultimately making the deal appear to be a major steal by Davis.

Oakland’s offense was boosted by the other major acquisition of that offseason, split end Art Powell, who was signed after playing out his option with the New York Titans (renamed Jets for ’63). Powell left college early and had played both split end and defensive back with Toronto in the Canadian Football League, then spent one year as a defensive back/kick returner for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1959 before moving on to the Titans in the AFL. He put up big numbers, along with flanker Don Maynard, but had also gained a reputation as a malcontent – the type of player that Al Davis would regularly stock up on over the years, often with great success.

The Raiders won their first two games in ’63, but then reverted to form by losing four straight. However, they didn’t lose again the rest of the way, running off a string of eight consecutive wins to stun the league with a 10-4 record. It was second only to the champion Chargers in the Western Division (a team Oakland defeated twice).

The 29-year-old Matsos had his greatest season, intercepting four passes and gaining consensus first-team All-AFL recognition once more. Moreover, he helped solidify a young unit that included DE Dalva Allen, rookie DT Dave Costa, and two other All-AFL players, CB Fred Williamson and safety Tom Morrow.

On offense, Davis used a tandem of Cotton Davidson and Tom Flores at quarterback, who combined for 3377 yards and 31 TD passes. Powell was sensational, catching 73 passes for 1304 yards and 16 touchdowns. Equally sensational was holdover HB Clem Daniels, who led the AFL in rushing with 1099 yards and also showed outstanding downfield receiving ability out of the backfield, catching 30 passes for 685 yards (a league-leading 22.8 yards-per-reception). Two solid veterans, center Jim Otto and guard Wayne Hawkins, anchored the line.

To be sure, there were still plenty of holes to fill on the team, and Davis cautioned Oakland fans not to expect too much too soon. “You’ve got to understand, it isn’t realistic to hope for all good bounces, to think of a title in 1964 or 1965,” he told a banquet audience after the ’63 season. “We’re building.”

The words of warning were appropriate, for the Raiders dropped to 5-7-2 in 1964. But they improved to 8-5-1 in both 1965 and ’66 and were AFL Champions in 1967.

Matsos was gone by then. Suffering from the flu at the start of the ’64 season, he was not at full strength (and likely was playing at under 200 pounds) but regained form steadily as the campaign progressed. He played one more season with the Raiders in 1965, but with a group of good young linebackers joining the team, Matsos was traded to Denver for Hewritt Dixon, a tight end that was converted to running back in Oakland with good results. One of the good new linebackers, Dan Conners, replaced Matsos in the starting lineup. The Broncos dealt him to San Diego during the ’66 season – his last - after the Chargers lost their starting middle linebacker, Chuck Allen, to a broken leg.

Overall, Archie Matsos ended up receiving first team All-AFL recognition three times and was chosen for three AFL All-Star Games. With his speed at the middle linebacker position, he intercepted a total of 22 passes, one of which he returned for a touchdown. A stalwart performer of the new league’s early years, he brought ability and leadership to the rebuilding Raiders.

Likewise, Art Powell was a standout on offense in Oakland, gaining selection to four straight AFL All-Star Games and catching 254 passes for 4491 yards (a healthy 17.7 avg.) and 50 touchdowns. However, like Matsos he wasn’t around by the time the Raiders won a championship – he was traded to Buffalo following the 1966 season in the deal that brought QB Daryle Lamonica to Oakland, who had an MVP year in leading the club to the top of the AFL.