In San Diego, a peculiar town, last Sunday will be remembered as the day the Chargers misplaced their offense. Exactly what happened to it is a question that will be argued for quite awhile. Some say the Buffalo Bills rubbed out the Charger offense with a fanatical effort. Others think the Chargers erased themselves with one of their notorious el foldos. Whatever the truth may be, there simply was no Charger offense on the day it was needed the most, and the Bills—who are still agog at the ease of their 23-0 victory—are champions of the American Football League for the second year in a row.
For an insight into what an astonishing thing it was, listen to Joel Collier, the young defensive coach of Buffalo: "If anybody had told me we could shut out the Chargers I would have fallen over dead. San Diego has the best offense the American Football League has ever seen. All we were hoping we could do defensively was contain Lance Al-worth. We figured if we could do that we could hold San Diego to two touchdowns and a field goal, and then we could win if we scored 20 points. But to shut them out, why, that's fantastic."
Even more fantastic was the authority with which Buffalo did it, creating a feeling that if the teams played until Easter the Chargers would not come close enough to the Buffalo goal line to make their cheerleaders clear their throats. For an offense which had John Hadl, the league's leading passer, Paul Lowe, the most productive rusher in AFL history, and Alworth, the league's finest receiver, among its assets, that was not only embarrassing but inexplicable. "There's no way they can beat us," Alworth kept saying after the game. "There's just no way it can happen."
But of course it did. And nobody was happier than Jack Kemp, the Buffalo quarterback, who was voted the game's most valuable player. Kemp played for San Diego in championship games in 1960 and 1961—during the infant years of the league—and went to Buffalo on waivers in 1962. That season he had a broken middle finger on his right hand. Nearly every time the center slapped the ball back to him, Kemp's finger popped out of joint. He would hand off the ball, or pass it, and then jerk his finger back into place on his way to the huddle. The Charger coach and general manager, Sid Gillman, after informing a booster club that he did not think he could win with Kemp, placed him on waivers. The Bills claimed him for $100, and he has won two titles for them. This second one was his most satisfying, for he did it on the other fellow's turf.
January 3, 1966
Kemp was very edgy before the game. He had received an inspirational telegram from Cookie Gilchrist, the fullback Buffalo traded to Denver before the season opened, but he was not completely assured. Kemp knew he would have far fewer weapons to work with than his counterpart, Hadl. The two best Buffalo receivers—Elbert Dubenion and Glenn Bass—have been out with leg injuries since early in the season, and the Bills have not yet found a slick running back with the speed to go outside. So Buffalo was forced into an offensive plan that used two tight ends, Paul Costa and Ernie Warlick, for blocking strength, and two big backs, Wray Carlton and Billy Joe, to plumb the middle. The hope was that ball control and defense could win. The trouble with that hope was that San Diego had, at least statistically, the toughest rushing defense in the league and also the most dangerous offense.
The Buffalo players, however, were so aroused that one might have thought they were fighting for democracy rather than for the difference between the winners' share of $5,000 and the $3,000 that would go to the losers. The defensive unit was especially piqued. All week they had been reading about the wonderful San Diego offense. The players shouted back and forth a slogan which might be paraphrased as, "Take a look at this, Sid," meaning Gillman. They got the slogan from their punter, Paul Maguire, who had run past the San Diego bench and yelled such things after a long kick in last year's championship. The slogan rebounded off the walls in the Buffalo locker room as the Bills rushed out to the field at Balboa Stadium to make sure Gillman knew what they meant.
"We had tremendous motivation to prove that we are the best," Kemp said. "All season long we scratched, scrambled, dug and fought. We were determined not to get beat. We wanted to show them right here in San Diego. Beating San Diego in San Diego is the biggest thing in my life."
But in that peculiar town there is some question how seriously the populace considered the events that were of such emotional importance to the Bills. In almost any other city a ticket for a championship professional football game would have been something a man would fight for with bare knuckles. In San Diego several thousand tickets were still for sale at game time. Balboa Stadium holds 34,500, and the official paid attendance was 30,361—a figure that is humiliating for a sport that insists it is the most booming in America and for an area that is certain it has more virtues than any other part of the country.
One indisputable virtue is the weather. Sunday was a glorious day. The sun was bright, the sky was the color of a robin's egg, there was not enough wind to scrape two palm leaves together, and more than half the people in the stadium seemed to be wearing red Christmas sweaters. The climatic perfection probably was one reason the stadium was not full. Southern California is a place for participant sports—but not necessarily for sitting on the concrete benches of Balboa Stadium. Although the stadium itself is a pretty place to watch a football game, the people of southern California are spoiled in their comforts. "You couldn't expect a sellout," said Frank Boggs of the San Diego Tribune. "It's been cold and rainy all week. It rained an eighth of an inch and the temperature got down to 53°. People aren't going to go out in weather like that."
Not only that. The Chargers were competing with themselves on television. Channel 4 in Los Angeles, which reaches most San Diego homes, carried the championship, and thousands stayed home to watch Baltimore and Green Bay in the NFL playoff, knowing they could switch over to their own league without having to hunt for a parking place.
After the first action, Kemp might have been open to an offer to return to the Chargers. Having to endure a championship game without Bass and Dubenion was not enough—the Bills also were without their starting center, Dave Behrman, back in Buffalo because of an injury, and then they lost their team captain, Guard Billy Shaw, on the opening kickoff. Shaw was knocked cold and sat out most of the first half while a knot the size of a demitasse cup raised on his skull. Last year San Diego had gone into the championship game without Lance Alworth and lost Fullback Keith Lincoln early, and so had an admissible excuse for failure. Wanting no excuse and needing none, the Bills put in George Flint for Shaw, shuffled their offensive line around, and buckled down.
It soon became evident that San Diego Quarterback Hadl was not having one of his better days. When he is good, he is fine. When he is bad, he is as he was Sunday. And the Buffalo defensive line, which got a break when San Diego offensive Tackle Ernie Wright turned up with a sprained ankle, hammered in on Hadl to hurry his passes. He tried three deep throws that did not work, Alworth found himself double-and triple-covered, Punter Jim Allison got off kicks of nine and 19 yards, and the first quarter ended without a score even though Lowe did rip loose for a 47-yard run.
Hadl took over the San Diego punting in the second period and kicked one out of his own end zone for 64 yards to the Buffalo 39. Carlton made two smashing runs, the rookie tight end Costa made an excellent catch, and the Bills moved to the San Diego 18. From there Buffalo Coach Lou Saban sent in a call to Kemp: Warlick on a post pattern. Warlick, a veteran, was not a starter most of this season and got in Sunday only because of the double-tight-end strategy. The Bills had used two tight ends in short-yardage situations before, but never for an entire game. When Warlick heard he would start he was so grateful that he prayed.
"This was my big chance," he said, "and I prayed I wouldn't muff it."
From left end, Warlick got past the linebacker and then cut inside Corner Back Leslie Duncan. As he ran behind the goalposts, Kemp threw him the ball. "I saw the ball coming," said Warlick, "and I told myself, 'That's your ball and nobody else is going to have it.' I caught it and then I threw the ball in the air and when I looked up at it I didn't know whether that was the ball up there or if it was me. Duncan came up to me and asked why I had to pick on him. I told him, 'Man, it's either you or me and I truly don't intend for it to be me.' "
That was the only touchdown the Buffalo offense could manage, but two minutes later the Bills were ahead 14-0. After a safety blitz by George Saimes, Hadl punted again. Buffalo Corner Back Butch Byrd waited calmly for the ball at his own 26, as if he had called for a fair catch. Taking the ball, Byrd started up the sideline so close to the stripe that at least one Charger merely lay and pointed, maintaining Byrd was out of bounds. As if in a dream sequence, the sideline lane opened for Byrd and he kept going. Maguire cleared him with a block at about the 10, and Byrd was in the end zone for a touchdown on a 74-yard return.
The Chargers were beginning to worry. Buffalo's defense, which would go into a three-man rush on one play and into a safety blitz on the next, had San Diego baffled. The Chargers had always done well at reading the moves of Buffalo's linebackers, but for this game the Bills switched their linebackers around and gave San Diego false keys. The rush kept Hadl in difficulty, and he got little help from one of the people he really expected it from—Alworth.
The Bills had at least two backs on Alworth on all save the safety blitzes. They banged him at the line of scrimmage and harried him downfield and appeared to discourage him. When he was not the primary receiver Alworth quit running out his patterns. Half a dozen times Hadl was forced to scramble and looked desperately downfield for Alworth, only to discover him standing nearby in a crowd of Buffalo defenders. The Charger offense simply vanished.
Early in the third quarter Kemp hit Bo Roberson with a 49-yard pass and Pete Gogolak kicked one of his three field goals to give Buffalo a 17-0 lead. The Chargers were not yet out of the game, but they soon put themselves out of it. With a fourth and one situation at the Buffalo 29, Hadl turned to shove the ball to one of his running backs and nobody was there. It was one of many instances when the Charger offense looked as if it were being directed by the Marx Brothers, and Hadl wound up falling five yards behind the line of scrimmage.
After another Gogolak field goal, the Chargers again had a fourth and one—this time at their own 29. Going for the first down, Lowe had a hole but stumbled and fell trying to cut, and Gogolak followed with a 32-yarder to make it 23-0.
"We just couldn't get together," Hadl said. "They stopped our running, they stopped our passing, and there was nothing left. We'd go 30 or 40 yards and something would happen. Buffalo was consistent. We weren't. They played great defense all day."
The Chargers filed silently into their dressing room, followed by Buffalo Center Al Bemiller, who wanted to offer solace of sorts but was barred at the door. "These guys are bad losers," Bemiller said, grinning and shrugging as he went to his own quarters.
But what the Chargers were doing was listening to Gillman telling them to forget it and to think about next year. "We had a fine season," Gillman said. "But in this game we got beat by a beautiful team, beautifully coached."
Although the Bills were six-point underdogs it was not so surprising that they won the championship again—they were picked to do so before the season started—and it was not so surprising that they scored 23 points. What was surprising was that San Diego was shut out for the first time in four years. "Our defensive team," said Collier, "was so high that I was talking to their kneecaps. They were ready to get taped at 8 o'clock in the morning."