Last August the Green Bay Packers lost a football game to the College All-Stars, and in that upsetting moment the National Football League for the first time displayed some human frailties to its business rival, the American Football League. The All-Stars who met and defeated the Packers, then champions of the world, were not yet even pro rookies and they had practiced together for only a few weeks. But they won by summoning for that one game all of their physical potential, aggressiveness and emotional determination. An AFL club facing a more experienced NFL club in a World Series game would have to do the same thing. And the AFL could win such a game.
Four years ago when the AFL was organized, a World Series game between the two leagues would have been unthinkable. But neither league is the same today. The processes that have strengthened the AFL have served to weaken the NFL, and the most obvious process is the player draft. In the last four years the AFL has signed more than 100 players selected in the first 10 rounds of the NFL draft—and the AFL is increasing its take each year. These are the choice collegians who once went exclusively to the older league. At the same time the NFL has expanded from 12 to 14 teams, thereby spreading its talent even thinner. The AFL, with only eight teams, can stock each team more solidly. It follows that as the AFL continues to gain in the yearly draft and divide that talent only eight, not 14, ways, eventually the top team in that league will be stronger than the top team in the NFL.
The AFL has closed the gap between the leagues so rapidly that it is almost as difficult today for these prize draft choices to make the grade in the still new league as in the NFL. For example, there are 109 active rookies on the 14 NFL rosters, an average of 7.8 per club in 1963. But there are only 48 rookies on the eight AFL rosters, an average of six per club. Just as revealingly, the St. Louis Cardinals, who were in contention for the Eastern Division lead in the NFL most of the year, have so many young players they might be taken for an AFL team. Twenty players on the Cardinals' 37-man squad began their careers after the AFL was organized.
The AFL status is further improved by its decreasing dependence on the NFL's oversupply of talent. No longer can it be said that the league is dominated by castoffs. In 1960 half the players in the AFL had some NFL experience. Today, of the 254 active AFL players, only 57—or less than a quarter—have an NFL history. The number diminishes each year. In fact, on the three all-AFL teams that have been selected since 1960, only 10 out of 66 all-stars have been retreads from the other league. By and large, the AFL's superstars are its own. Even on the subject of castoffs, the AFL can point to the list of the current best passers in the NFL and claim that five of the top eight—Y. A. Tittle, Frank Ryan, Earl Morrall, Ed Brown and Bill Wade—are men who have been traded away by one or more teams. What are they if not castoffs in their own right?
December 16, 1963
While all of these statistics lend encouragement to the AFL's position as a challenger, a game is never won with statistics. The question ultimately is how would the best AFL team fare against the best NFL team in a championship game were one to be held this season or next. A good comparison might be the San Diego Chargers, seemingly the AFL's best at this juncture, and the Green Bay Packers, the NFL's dominant team for three years. Against the glittering array of Packer stars—Taylor, Dowler, Ringo, Starr, Jordan, Thurston, the Kramers—what can be said for the Chargers? Well, plenty.
First of all, San Diego is a first-class organization that is as old as one team in the NFL, Dallas, and a year older than another, Minnesota (a team that won three games in its first NFL season). San Diego has been guided by a coach and general manager, Sid Gillman, who carries more experience than 12 of the 14 NFL coaches and was himself a division winner as coach of the Los Angeles Rams in 1955. The Chargers have never had a poor draft. As a matter of fact, 20 of their 33 players today have come from among the NFL's top 10 rounds. Thirteen were from the top five rounds. And four Chargers—Ron Mix, John Hadl, Lance Alworth and Rufus Guthrie—were No. 1 draft choices of NFL teams. Eleven members of the team have played together for four seasons. It is a team with two quarterbacks—Tobin Rote (see cover) and John Hadl—who certainly measure up to Green Bay's Bart Starr and John Roach. It is a team with a pair of running backs, Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln, that any NFL club would trade for. Lowe's breakaway ability is unmatched in the Packer back-field. It is a team with Flanker Lance Alworth, as fast as any man in a football suit. It is a team with at least two of the best blocking linemen in football, Ron Mix and Ernie Wright—and Mix may be without a peer. It is a team that embraces such defensive stalwarts as 6-foot-9, 317-pound Ernie Ladd and 6-foot-5, 256-pound Earl Faison. In the final analysis, it is a team with speed, size, savvy, wise direction from the sidelines—a team that would have an intangible emotional edge in a World Series game against an NFL opponent. The NFL team, of course, would deserve to be favored, but it would not necessarily win.