December 10, 2011

1960: Chargers Come From Behind to Beat Broncos, Clinch Division Title

The Los Angeles Chargers had an 8-4 record and seemed poised to win the Western Division in the first year of the new American Football League as they hosted the Denver Broncos on December 10, 1960. Under Head Coach Sid Gillman, they started slowly and were 2-3 before winning six of their next seven games to take control of the division. The club developed a quick-striking offense guided by NFL-castoff QB Jack Kemp (pictured at right) and featuring rookie HB Paul Lowe. However, fielding an exciting and winning team was not enough to bring fans to the huge Memorial Coliseum, and the Chargers regularly played before a large expanse of empty seats.

The Broncos came into the game at 4-7-1, meanwhile, having started off respectably at 4-2 before losing five of their next six, with a tie interspersed. Head Coach Frank Filchock’s team had far more penurious ownership than the Chargers and were esthetically lacking in their ugly brown and gold (more appropriately yellow) uniforms with the infamous vertically-striped socks. QB Frank Tripucka, a veteran of both the NFL and CFL (as was Filchock), passed often, mostly to end Lionel Taylor. HB/PK Gene Mingo was another notable performer, but at this point Denver was a losing team that was playing out the schedule – and looking to be a spoiler. LA had won the first meeting of the two teams in Denver by a close score of 23-19.

There was a typically sparse turnout of 9928 at the Coliseum for the Saturday game. Denver took the early lead thanks to a 41-yard field goal by Mingo and added to it when Tripucka connected with Taylor for a 49-yard touchdown.

However, the Chargers came right back with Kemp throwing to FB Howie Ferguson for a 39-yard TD and, before the first quarter was over, gained the lead on a three-yard run by Lowe that made it 14-10.

Mingo put the Broncos back in front in the second quarter with a one-yard plunge and added the extra point that made it 17-14. It was Mingo adding more points with a 12-yard field goal before flanker Royce Womble caught a 12-yard scoring pass from Kemp to again put LA in the lead at 21-20. 41-year-old placekicking specialist Ben Agajanian added a 23-yard field goal to make it a four-point game before Mingo kicked another three-pointer, this time from 13 yards near the end of the first half, and the Chargers narrowly led by 24-23 at halftime.

The game continued to be a close, back-and-forth affair until midway through the fourth quarter. In the third quarter, Denver went back in front thanks to a pass play from Tripucka to end Jim Greer that covered 21 yards. Agajanian booted a field goal of 40 yards for the Chargers to start off the final period and Mingo responded in kind from 28 yards. The Chargers were behind by 33-27 with just under seven minutes remaining.

In the key play of the game, the Chargers took advantage of a shanked 20-yard punt by George Herring, who was reacting to a fierce rush led by DB Bob Zeman, giving them possession on the Denver 35. San Diego methodically drove to a touchdown with Kemp going in from a yard out. Agajanian’s extra point put LA in front by a point at 34-33.

LA then scored again thanks to an interception less than two minutes later as DE Maury Schleicher picked off a deflected Tripucka pass and returned it five yards to the Denver 20. Kemp followed up with a 15-yard TD throw to end Don Norton running a slant pattern behind the goal post, effectively finishing off the Broncos. The Chargers won the game by a score of 41-33 and clinched a berth in the AFL title game.

The Chargers had actually lost out on two additional scores before finally putting the feisty Broncos away. Zeman picked up a fumble and ran 52 yards for an apparent TD, but the play had been whistled dead. The other occurred when Mingo fielded a kickoff but fumbled on his three yard line. The ball rolled into the end zone and the Chargers appeared to recover but an offside penalty negated the play.

Denver outgained the Chargers with 391 yards to 347, although Los Angeles had more first downs (22 to 20) and fewer turnovers (two, to four by the Broncos). Denver also sacked Kemp four times while the Chargers got to Tripucka once.

Paul Lowe (pictured at left) rushed for 106 yards on 19 carries that included a touchdown. Jack Kemp completed 15 of 32 passes for 205 yards with three TDs and two intercepted. Don Norton had 5 catches for 81 yards and a score.

For Denver, Frank Tripucka went to the air 35 times and completed 17 for 291 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions apiece. Lionel Taylor (pictured below) typically paced the pass receivers as he recorded 9 catches for 171 yards and a TD, and as a result increased his league-leading season total to 88, which exceeded the existing NFL record of 84 that was set by Tom Fears of the Rams ten years earlier. FB Dave Rolle carried the ball 17 times for 68 yards and Gene Mingo added 37 yards on 12 attempts, one of which was a touchdown that was part of the 21 points in all that he scored.

The Chargers ended the regular season with a 10-4 record and went on to lose the first AFL Championship game to the Houston Oilers. Following the season, the franchise relocated to San Diego. The Broncos were last in the Western Division at 4-9-1.

By the system in use at the time, Jack Kemp led the AFL in passing (by today’s system, he ranked fourth) while placing second in attempts (406), completions (211), yards (3018), and completion percentage (52.0). He also led the league by averaging 7.4 yards per attempt while he tossed 20 touchdown passes but also 25 interceptions. Leading him in most categories was Frank Tripucka, who topped the AFL in attempts (478), completions (248), yards (3038), and interceptions (34).

Paul Lowe placed second among the new league’s rushers with 855 yards on just 136 carries, giving him an AFL-best 6.3 yards-per-carry. He scored eight rushing TDs (as did Kemp). Lionel Taylor finished at the top of the pass receivers for the first of five times (four consecutive) with 92 catches. His 1235 yards ranked third and 12 touchdown receptions tied for second with Houston’s Bill Groman. Gene Mingo led the AFL in scoring with 123 points that included a league-leading 18 field goals. He also scored six touchdowns and 33 extra points.