January 1, 2010

1961: Oilers Defeat Chargers for First AFL Championship

The American Football League wound up its first season with the Houston Oilers hosting the Los Angeles Chargers in the championship game at Jeppesen Stadium on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1961.

The Oilers, under Head Coach Lou Rymkus, cruised easily to the Eastern Division title with a 10-4 record (the second place New York Titans were 7-7). They boasted the most significant rookie signing of the inaugural season in HB Billy Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner out of LSU. 33-year-old QB George Blanda had come out of a year’s retirement from the NFL’s Bears to direct the offense, throwing for 2413 yards and 24 touchdown passes along the way; he was also the new league’s second leading scorer with 115 points thanks to his consistent placekicking. Flanker Charley Hennigan and split end Bill Groman came out of nowhere to become productive receivers (Groman led the AFL in receiving yards with 1473).

The Chargers were coached by Sid Gillman, an innovator in the development of the passing game. QB Jack Kemp led the AFL in passing and was second in yards through the air (3018) and completion percentage (52.0). They also had an effective running game led by HB Paul Lowe, the second leading rusher with 855 yards on a league-leading average gain of 6.3 yards-per-carry. Unfortunately, the team drew poorly in Los Angeles playing at the Memorial Coliseum and competing against the NFL’s Rams.

There were 32,183 fans present in 50 degree weather for what proved to be a good game to cap the inaugural season. Defense dominated the first quarter, with 41-year-old Ben Agajanian kicking field goals of 38 and 22 yards to stake the Chargers to a 6-0 lead (Agajanian had kicked with the Los Angeles Dons of the AAFC in 1947-48 and also played in the NFL as one of the earliest kicking specialists).

Houston scored the first touchdown of the contest on a 17-yard pass play from Blanda to FB Dave Smith after a 40-yard drive in which the veteran quarterback passed 8 times in 12 plays. Blanda and Agajanian traded field goals, and at halftime the score stood at 10-9 in favor of the Oilers.

Both offenses opened up more in the second half. Blanda continued to rely on his passing game while Lowe ran effectively for the Chargers. Groman hauled in a 7-yard TD pass from Blanda, and the Chargers responded with a long drive capped by Lowe’s two-yard scoring run. Houston was still ahead by a point after three quarters, 17-16.

The biggest play of the game came early in the fourth quarter with the Oilers facing a third-and-nine situation at their own 12 yard line. Blanda hit Cannon on a pass out of the backfield and the prize rookie halfback outran the San Diego secondary for an 88-yard touchdown. Twice the Chargers drove into Houston territory, only to lose the ball on downs on each occasion. The last time was at the 22 yard line with a minute remaining; had the Chargers been able to score a touchdown they would have had the opportunity to try for a two-point conversion (an option the NFL didn’t adopt until 1994) and tie the game, but it was not to be. The Houston Oilers won the 1960 AFL Championship by a score of 24-16.

George Blanda (pictured dropping back to pass at top) directed the Oilers well, completing 16 of 31 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Thanks to the long scoring reception, Cannon (pictured above left) had 128 yards on three catches and also led the team with 50 rushing yards on 18 carries. Dave Smith had the most receptions with five, for 52 yards. Hennigan had a solid four catches for 71 yards and Groman was three for 37 and a TD.

Paul Lowe (pictured at right) was the star for the Chargers, rushing for 165 yards on 21 carries and a TD. Jack Kemp completed 21 of his 41 passes for 171 yards with two picked off. Split end Don Norton and flanker Royce Womble both caught a team-leading six passes, although TE Dave Kocurek had the most receiving yards with 57 on three receptions (Norton had 55 and Womble 29).

Both teams repeated as division champions in 1961, but the Chargers were based in San Diego by then. After losing $900,000 and seeing his team play before far too many empty seats in the huge Memorial Coliseum, owner Barron Hilton responded to overtures to move the franchise down the Pacific coast where there was more fan potential and no NFL competition.