It is time for you diehard fans of the Packer sweep, Papa Bear Halas and the Violent World of Sam Huff to face reality. The American Football Conference, not the NFC, is now the major league of professional football. Jonah has swallowed the whale. The National Conference may be as rich in tradition as the Ivy League but nowadays it is also about as awesome. Forget that nonsense about any given Sunday. On just about every given Sunday in the National Football League the AFC is humiliating the NFC.
NFC teams have faced AFC teams 14 times this season and the NFC has won a grand total of three games. One was an upset, the clawless Detroit Lions, who last won a division title when Bobby Layne was their quarterback, catching the improving young San Diego Chargers napping two weeks ago and stunning them 20-0. This past weekend the NFC saved some face by winning two interconference games, Chicago beating Kansas City 28-27 on the very last play, and Minnesota whipping Cincinnati 42-10.
The AFC runaway also has enabled the newcomers to pull ahead of the NFC for the first time in the series' eight-year history—139 to 137. In postseason games, the AFC has been dominant for a long time. The American Conference has won the last five Super Bowls and six of the past seven. Actually, eight of the last nine if you count the Super Bowl victories by the AFL Jets and Chiefs in 1969 and 1970, before the merger. Some haughty old-line NFC advocates like to snipe that three of these Super Bowl games were won by NFC defectors—two by Pittsburgh, one by Baltimore. Nevertheless, Vince Lombardi must be turning over in his grave.
Perhaps the present state of the two conferences is best symbolized by their respective presidents, the AFC's Lamar Hunt and the NFC's George Halas. Hunt, 45, was a driving force when the AFL merged with the NFL. Halas, 82, was a driving force when the 19th century merged with the 20th.
The irony of the NFC's decline is that the nine ex-AFL clubs are still making payments—and will be until 1987—on the $18 million that the NFL charged the AFL for what has become the privilege of showing its elders how to play the game. At the time of the merger the three clubs that moved from the old NFL to the AFC—Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cleveland—each received $3 million from their former NFL partners for agreeing to associate with those comically inept AFLers. When some NFL owners recently suggested, perhaps only half in jest, that it was time to break up the AFC, Cleveland owner Art Modell laughed. "Sure, just give me X million more and I'll be glad to move back to the NFC," he said.
The Houston Oilers probably would love to switch from the AFC to the NFC. Through the last three seasons the Oilers have a 7-0 record against NFC teams but only a 3-14 record in their own AFC Central Division.
Next year the NFL's expanded postseason format will produce two new playoff teams, upping the number from eight to 10. Regrettably, the rules say that five of the 10 will have to come from the NFC. The plain fact is that right now eight of the 11 strongest teams in the NFL belong to the AFC, and if the present trend continues that number will increase. Only Dallas, Los Angeles and Minnesota of the NFC—none of which, incidentally, played an AFC opponent this season until the Vikings met the Bengals last Sunday—are in a league with Oakland, New England, Miami, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Denver, Baltimore and Cleveland of the AFC. The NFC is sinking fast. And getting winless-forever Tampa Bay instead of developing Seattle in the expansion realignment hardly served as a life jacket.
To make matters worse, not only is the NFC less efficient and less successful than the AFC, it is also less entertaining. The AFC has outscored the NFC in each of the past three years, last season by 30 points per team. "The AFC's offenses are much more wide open," says Tight End Jean Fugett of the NFC Washington Redskins. "They're go-for-broke offenses as compared to the staid, conservative, third-and-one-let's-run-it type of play in the NFC. The AFC teams will put it up, they'll go deep."
To Jim Finks, the general manager of the NFC Chicago Bears, the AFC's exciting play is a logical outgrowth of its winning ways. "I don't buy the philosophy that the AFC has more imagination," he says. "Imagination is nothing but good execution. In our game against Houston [the Oilers humbled the Bears 47-0] the Oilers ran an end around and White Shoes Johnson went 61 yards for a touchdown. We could run the same play and lose 18 yards. Is that imagination? You're limited to what your people can do."
Most observers, Coach Don Shula of AFC Miami and General Manager Joe Thomas of NFC San Francisco among them, feel that the AFC's dominance is best explained by superiority at quarterback. The AFC seems to have exclusive rights to the game's top young passers, a list that includes Oakland's Kenny Stabler, Baltimore's Bert Jones, Buffalo's Joe Ferguson, Miami's Bob Griese, New England's Steve Grogan, the New York Jets' Richard Todd, Cincinnati's Ken Anderson, Houston's Dan Pastorini, Pittsburgh's Terry Bradshaw and Seattle's Jim Zorn. Of these, the oldest is Griese at 32, and Stabler is the only other who has reached 30. Of the National Conference's name quarterbacks, including Dallas' Roger Staubach, Minnesota's Fran Tarkenton, Washington's Billy Kilmer and St. Louis' Jim Hart. Hart is the youngest at 33. "Most of the AFC teams have been built since 1967, the first year of the common draft," says Denver Personnel Director Carroll Hardy. "They're built on young players. The NFC teams, the old-line powers of the NFL, have gone along with their good players too long."
Of course, the NFC doesn't play such stodgy and unimaginative football that it thinks it can do without quarterbacks. Between 1967 and 1974 the NFC used 14 first- or second-round draft choices to select signal callers. However, only two of the 14 are starters with their original teams—New Orleans' Archie Manning and Detroit's Greg Landry. One is a transplanted starter—Philadelphia's Ron Jaworski. The other 11? Have you somehow forgotten Bobby Douglass, Steve Spurrier, Jerry Tagge, John Reaves, Don Horn, James Burris, Pat Sullivan, Gary Keithley, Bill Cappleman, Gary Beban and Gary Huff?
The AFC has not acquired its young quarterbacks simply because of better drafting position. Griese was taken by Miami after Spurrier had been picked by San Francisco. Bert Jones went to Baltimore on a draft choice that New Orleans had traded to the Colts for Billy Newsome, a defensive end who lasted only two seasons with the Saints. Stabler was picked after the Rams drafted Beban, and Ferguson was selected after Keithley (St. Louis), Huff (Chicago) and Jaworski (L.A.). Ken Anderson was a third-round selection in 1971, the same year that the New York Giants chose Bermudian cliff diver Rocky Thompson, San Francisco picked Tim Anderson and Minnesota named Leo Hayden in the first round. Thompson. Tim Anderson and Hayden all are out of football. Grogan went to the Patriots in the fifth round, right after the 49ers had snapped up Notre Dame Running Back Wayne Bullock. Bullock is now a city employee in Hampton, Va.
Not only has the AFC drafted more intelligently than the NFC, but it has also put more faith in the draft. Thanks to trades for "future draft considerations," AFC teams have had 55% of the first-round picks since 1973. In 1973, the best draft year ever in terms of quality personnel, the AFC had 17 of the 26 first-round choices. That was the year the Colts got Jones by means of a draft choice acquired from an NFC team. The Colts, thanks to the wheeling and dealing of Joe Thomas when he was their general manager, have built the nucleus of their team with players obtained from NFC teams; indeed, nine of Baltimore's 22 starters have ties to the NFC. Also in '73, New England drafted Guard John Hannah with its own pick, added Running Back Sam Cunningham and Wide Receiver Darryl Stingley with choices from NFC teams, and promptly went from a loser to a contender. NFC teams, meanwhile, used first-round picks to obtain the likes of Dave Butz, Ernest Price, Mike Holmes and Barty Smith.
A recent Dallas Times Herald survey of the draft since 1970, the year the AFC and NFC began interconference play, is revealing. It reported that the AFC still has 74 of its post-1969 first-round choices, the NFC just 58. That means more than one extra first-round player for each AFC team, and first-rounders are supposed to be of Pro Bowl caliber. From the top five rounds, the best measure of scouting skill, the AFC still has 236 players, 138 of them starters. The NFC has 194 players left, 116 of them starters.
"The AFC has more superstars," says General Manager Peter Hadhazy of AFC Cleveland, which drafted star Running Back Greg Pruitt with a choice acquired from an NFC team. "A good tight end is the key to a solid offense. I'll play you a game. You name an NFC tight end and I'll counter with an AFC tight end." Hadhazy wins this game easily, because he is playing with a loaded deck: Oakland's Dave Casper, New England's Russ Francis, Denver's Riley Odoms, Baltimore's Raymond Chester, Pittsburgh's Bennie Cunningham, Kansas City's Walter White. Hadhazy would also win a match game with the AFC running backs and wide receivers, not to mention the AFC quarterbacks as well as all those people who make life miserable for quarterbacks, such as Pittsburgh Linebacker Jack Lambert, Oakland Safety Jack Tatum and Miami rookie Lineman A. J. Duhe.
Last year AFC players won seven of the NFL's eight individual statistical titles—including rushing, passing and receiving. The Rams' Monte Jackson was the only NFC player to win an individual title outright—interceptions. And as AFC followers like to joke, that should come as no surprise considering the skill with which those NFC quarterbacks throw the ball.
The secret to the AFC's rise to superiority, however, is not so much having the good players as being wise enough to get them in the first place. "The thing that wins for you is a solid organization," says Oakland's Al Davis. "In the early days of the AFL our organizations were much more aggressive than all but one or two of the NFL's." Dallas General Manager Tex Schramm agrees. "When we merged, those young and vigorous organizations in the AFC had a goal and an incentive, where I think some of our older clubs might have been prone to be satisfied with the status quo in their operations. They got complacent." Hunt thinks his conference's aggressiveness was most evident in the search for talent. "Our clubs were willing to spend more money scouting," he says.
Dollar figures are not available, but indications are that the AFC has placed a far greater priority—and spent much more money—on personnel and scouting than the NFC. With few exceptions, notably the Cowboys and the Rams, personnel men have not played prominent roles in NFC organizations. Inbreeding—which is common among NFC head coaches, most of whom have been chosen from the ranks of retired star players or pro assistants—has also been prevalent in NFC front offices. The Giants are a case in point. Their last major administrative move came in 1974 when they gave control of their football operations to former Giant Defensive End Andy Robustelli, who was a travel agent. Robustelli has booked the Giants on a trip to oblivion. As one Giant player grumbles, "We have a rebuilding year every year."
On the other hand, personnel men have dominated AFC front offices, and the AFC has not hesitated to raid the NFC for key executives. The Dolphins and later the Colts brought in superscout Joe Thomas to lead their talent hunts. New England made Baltimore Personnel Director Upton Bell its general manager, and Bell, in turn, raided the Cowboys for the Patriots' current personnel director, Bucko Kilroy. When the Bengals brought Paul Brown out of retirement, Brown's first appointment was a personnel director, Al LoCasale. Kansas City, Buffalo, Denver, New England and San Diego hired former college coaches—Hank Stram, Lou Saban, John Ralston, Chuck Fairbanks and Tommy Prothro, respectively—who had reputations as good judges of talent. More recently the Chargers made a former Los Angeles personnel director, Johnny Sanders, their general manager.
On the other hand, when the Atlanta Falcons were born in 1965, owner Rankin Smith asked NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to recommend someone to head up his organization. Rozelle suggested a former NFL public-relations man. Bud Erickson. The Falcons got off on the right foot with their public, selling all the season tickets they had to offer that year. So who can question the wisdom of Rozelle's nomination? After all, the Falcons have been in business just 12 years, and already they have had two winning seasons. By contrast, Al Davis doesn't even have a public-relations man in his Oakland front office. The man who handles those duties is LoCasale, the personnel man whom Davis imported from Cincinnati.
Does all this mean that the AFC will become even more dominant? Not necessarily. Already there are signs that NFC clubs are beginning to learn their lesson. Halas brought in Finks, an organizational whiz at Minnesota, to upgrade the Bears. Stram has taken his red vest to New Orleans. Thomas is prospecting for college gold for the 49ers. There are even rumors that Wellington Mara may look outside his Giant family for a new general manager.
A word to the wise, Wellington. If you want the Giants to challenge for the Vince Lombardi Trophy instead of the Lambert Cup, this time get someone from the AFC.
THE ONES WHO GOT AWAY
These players came to the AFC as the result of draft picks acquired in trades with the NFC, which usually got little in return
WIDE RECEIVER—Darryl Stingley, Roger Carr, Glenn Doughty, Johnny Rodgers, Billy Brooks, Steve Largent, Freddie Solomon, John Stallworth, Morris Owens
OFFENSIVE TACKLE—John Vella, Doug Dieken, Larry Brown, Ray Pinney, Joe Devlin
GUARD—Ken Huff, Glenn Bujnoch, Robert Pratt, Paul Howard
CENTER—Pete Brock, Bob Rush
TIGHT END—Andre Tillman
RUNNING BACK—Greg Pruitt, Sam Cunningham, Bennie Malone, Ron Lee
DEFENSIVE END—Gary Burley
DEFENSIVE TACKLE—Wilson Whitley, Phil Dokes
LINEBACKER—Derrel Luce, Larry Gordon
CORNERBACK—Mike Williams, Raymond Clayborn
Thanks to a stream of successful draft choices, the AFC's winning percentage in interconference games has risen from 30% in 1970, the year when the merger took effect, to a lopsided 79% in 1977.