December 24, 2013

1961: Oilers Repeat as AFL Champs with Win Over Chargers

The participating teams for the second American Football League Championship game on December 24, 1961 were the same that met in the inaugural contest the year before, although both had undergone notable changes. The San Diego Chargers, top team in the Western Division with a 12-2 record, had been based in Los Angeles in 1960. But after a year of low attendance and heavy financial loss, owner Barron Hilton shifted the club to San Diego. Coached by the innovative Sid Gillman, they still boasted a fine passing attack directed by QB Jack Kemp, who was also very mobile, and the running game was led by talented HB Paul Lowe. The defense was outstanding with the “Fearsome Foursome” of ends Earl Faison and Ron Nery and tackles Ernie Ladd and Bill Hudson manning the front line plus an excellent backfield that set a record with 49 interceptions during the season.

The defending champions, the Houston Oilers, had made a change at head coach. After getting off to a sluggish 1-3-1 start, Lou Rymkus was fired and replaced by Wally Lemm. The result was nine straight wins to finish out the regular season at 10-3-1 and again top the Eastern Division. 33-year-old QB George Blanda, who was briefly benched by Rymkus in the early going, set a record for touchdown passes with 36 during the regular season (which also exceeded the existing NFL standard). Flanker Charley Hennigan gained 1746 yards on his 82 pass receptions and split end Bill Groman caught 17 TD passes. HB Billy Cannon (pictured at top) led the AFL in rushing (948 yards) and all-purpose yards (2043). Houston also had a fine defensive line, led by DT Ed Husman and DE Don Floyd. The Oilers, who had beaten the Chargers by 20 points three weeks earlier, were favored by more than a touchdown in what was expected to be an offensive show.

There was a disappointing turnout of 29,556 fans in attendance at Balboa Stadium in San Diego. In the first quarter, the Oilers benefited from a turnover when Jack Kemp fumbled and Houston recovered at the San Diego 37. However, after reaching the 14 yard line, a Blanda pass was intercepted by CB Bud Whitehead, who returned it to the San Diego 48.

Now it was the Chargers with the momentum, and Kemp threw a screen pass to FB Keith Lincoln that picked up 13 yards. But on the next play, a long toss to the end zone was picked off by safety Fred Glick to end the threat. Later in the period, the Oilers again recovered a Kemp fumble, this time at the San Diego 24. After advancing five yards, Blanda lined up to attempt a field goal, but a bad snap was recovered by the Chargers. The first quarter, while eventful, remained scoreless.

The Oilers red-dogged with regularity on defense to disrupt San Diego’s passing attack. Ed Husman (pictured at left) was the most notable of the linemen who did so well at containing Kemp’s running as well as forcing him to rush his passes.

In the second quarter, San Diego’s Paul Maguire had trouble handling a bad snap from center in punt formation and kicked the ball a wobbly nine yards. Houston took over at the San Diego 39 and, while not able to move on offense, finally came up with points when Blanda kicked a 46-yard field goal four plays later.

The Oilers missed a scoring opportunity when, after driving 39 yards to the San Diego 22, Blanda again was picked off on a pass into the end zone, this time by safety Charlie McNeil. That was it for scoring chances in the second quarter until George Blair attempted a 44-yard field goal for the Chargers at the end of the half that was unsuccessful and the tally remained 3-0.

In the third quarter, Houston put together a sustained drive of 80 yards in nine plays. It concluded when Blanda, under pressure from San Diego’s pass rush, connected with Billy Cannon, who caught the ball at the 20 and went the distance for a 35-yard touchdown. Blanda added the extra point and the Oilers led by 10-0.

The Chargers finally got on the board early in the fourth quarter with a 12-yard Blair field goal. That series was set up by another McNeil interception, this time in Houston territory, and Kemp’s passing plus the running of HB Bo Roberson advanced the ball to the five yard line before having to kick.

With time running out, a 56-yard Jim Norton punt had the Chargers starting at their 37 in a final desperation drive. Kemp threw to FB Charlie Flowers for eight yards and Roberson for five more to reach midfield. A pass interference call on the Oilers moved San Diego to the Houston 38 with the clock down to one minute to play. But it all ended when DB Julian Spence intercepted a Kemp pass at the Houston 30, pulling the ball away from the intended target, TE Dave Kocurek. The Oilers repeated as AFL Champions by a surprisingly low final score of 10-3.

There were several altercations between players during the game, and afterward safety Bob Zeman appeared to go after one of the officials, while San Diego’s Coach Gillman launched a furious verbal assault at them as the participants left the field.

The teams were even with 256 total yards apiece while the Oilers had the edge in first downs with 18 to San Diego’s 15. Most notably, there were a total of 13 turnovers, with Houston giving up seven to six for the Chargers. Also (and likely adding to the fury of the Chargers toward the officials after the game), San Diego was penalized 10 times at a cost of 106 yards, to five flags thrown on the Oilers for 68 yards.

Billy Cannon was the game’s MVP as he rushed for 48 yards on 15 carries and caught 5 passes for 53 yards that included the only touchdown. George Blanda went to the air 40 times and completed 18 for 160 yards and a TD, but tossed 5 interceptions. FB Charley Tolar gained 52 yards on 16 rushing attempts and Charley Hennigan had 5 catches for 43 yards.

For the Chargers, Jack Kemp was successful on 17 of 32 throws for 226 yards while being intercepted four times. He also was well-contained, running for just five yards on four carries, and was sacked six times. Dave Kocurek caught 7 passes for 123 yards. Bo Roberson ran for 37 yards on 8 attempts and Paul Lowe gained 30 yards on five carries. Charlie McNeil (pictured at right), Bud Whitehead, and Bob Zeman each intercepted two passes apiece.

“Our pre-game strategy was to rush him (Kemp) early so he’d have to keep two backs to block,” explained Houston’s Coach Lemm. “We planned to go into deep coverage afterwards, but our rushes worked so well we stuck to it.”

“We made too many mistakes to beat a good football club,” summed up Sid Gillman from the losing side.

Wally Lemm left the Oilers for the NFL Cardinals in the offseason and was replaced by Frank “Pop” Ivy. Houston topped the Eastern Division for a third straight year, but lost an overtime thriller to the Dallas Texans in the AFL Championship game. San Diego dropped to 4-10 as injuries decimated the club, but bounced back to win the league title in 1963.