The American Football League wound up its first season with a good football game. The Houston Oilers, led by a smart, aggressive quarterback, a pair of strong young runners and some enthusiastic pass receivers, won 24-16 over the Los Angeles Chargers. More important to the league, whose woes have been more fiscal than physical, 32,183 people paid to watch the game—the biggest paid crowd in the short history of the AFL.
George Blanda, who played for a long time with the Chicago Bears, was the quarterback of the Houston team, and he used the tools at his command with a veteran's skill. He completed 16 of 32 passes against a defense which, on occasion, erred grievously, and none of his throws were intercepted. He used his strong young running backs sparingly, but at the right times. Billy Cannon, who was the prize in a preseason suit between the Oilers and the NFL Los Angeles Rams, proved his worth by running indefatigably. Dave Smith, a useful, if small, fullback, also performed well.
But it was Blanda who made the difference in this game. The key play was an 88-yard pass from Blanda to Cannon early in the fourth period. It came on third down, in the face of an extremely aggressive Charger defense that seemed to have taken control of the game.
"They played us very tight," Blanda said later. "They had the corner back and the safety up real close, and I knew the play was there. You know, Billy Cannon is very fast. I figured he could get a step on Jim Sears, the safety. Sears was isolated on Cannon in this up-close defense, and Cannon went by him and got the step, and all I had to do was hang the ball up there for him." Cannon caught the pass at midfield and outran Sears for the touchdown.
January 9, 1961
That wasn't the end, however. A little later Houston drove to the Charger one-yard line, where on fourth down they had inches to go for a first down. A field goal would have put them ahead 27-16—beyond imaginable reach. But the Oilers elected to go for the first down on the Charger one, and they missed. The Chargers, exhilarated by the heroism of the defensive platoon, marched down-field confidently. The Oilers finally stopped them on the Houston 22 with just a minute left to play.
"We scored four times on this club on wedges inside the five," Blanda explained. "We figured Volney Peters [a tackle] was the weak spot in their defensive line and that Fred Wallner [offensive guard and line coach] could move him. You have to try what you feel sure you can do. I called the play, and they closed every one down to the middle and pinched off the hole."
It was a wild, harum-scarum game, marred by frequent fights on the field that reflected the animosity the two coaches—Sid Gillman of the Chargers and Lou Rymkus, a disregarded assistant to Gillman on the Rams in 1958 and 1959—feel toward one another. But the two teams looked far better than the rather undisciplined clubs that began the season. Paul Lowe, a thin, quick halfback for Los Angeles, ran beautifully all day. Jack Kemp, the Charger quarterback, threw well enough but was handicapped by receivers who fielded the ball like intoxicated jugglers. ("If we had been catching the ball in the first half," Gillman said after the game, "their pass defense would not have looked so good." He was right.) The defenses on both sides left inviting gaps from time to time, but both teams played fiercely and well enough for the most part.
On the basis of this game, it may be said the AFL is on the way.