We have discussed the possibilities of “Pre-Super Bowl Games” in the past. In fact, very soon we will be featuring a special series of articles on such a match up by noted AFL author and historian, Dave Steidel. In this piece, Buzz Ponce, author of Finding Frank, explores a potential match-up between the ’63 Bears and Chargers, always a favorite subject!!
When the San Diego Chargers belatedly honored the team’s only championship on December 1 in half-time ceremonies at Qualcomm Stadium, it marked not only an anniversary date, but also raised a bold and brash question: Could the champions of the upstart American Football League in 1963, the Chargers, beat the champs of the venerated National Football League—the storied Monsters of the Midway—the Chicago Bears?
As recounted in the recent book, Finding Frank: Full Circle in a Life Cut Short, the 1963 San Diego Chargers—resplendent in their classic powder blue jerseys and luminously helmeted gold bolts—were the toast of the town. After spending their summer training camp at an outpost 60 miles east of San Diego called Rough Acres—complete with rattlesnakes and barren sod for a field—the team breezed through the regular season with an 11-3 record. The Chargers then soundly thumped the Boston Patriots 51-10 in the American Football League’s championship game in Balboa Stadium.
Those Chargers were a swaggering outfit that thrilled fans with high scoring, explosive games years prior to when quarterback Dan Fouts and head coach Don Coryell led the Chargers in the more heralded, so-called Air Coryell era.
In this pre-ESPN era that lacked the professorial investigative scrutiny given today’s game, many thought the ‘63 Chargers were indeed the superior team in all of football and would have bested the Bears if given the opportunity.
At the time, there were many football experts that chimed in with opinions including Otto Graham, the Hall of Famer and former Cleveland Browns quarterback. In the aftermath of San Diego’s win over the Patriots, Graham believed the Chargers were the preeminent team in football that year. As he said in an article entitled The AFL’s First Super Team by sports journalist Ed Gruver, “If the Chargers could play the best in the NFL, I’d have to pick the Chargers.”
In the same article, no less an authority than the late filmmaker Steve Sabol, then president of NFL Films who had viewed extensive footage of every great professional football team, offered this opinion: “I think Sid Gillman’s Chargers would’ve done very well against the NFL champion Bears,” Sabol said. “I think that (Chargers) team could’ve won. It would’ve been a very interesting matchup between a space-age offense and a stone-age defense.”
Gruver also quotes the late veteran football writer Larry Felser. “The ’63 Chargers were a rousing offensive team that included two future pro football Hall of Famers, wide receiver Lance Alworth and tackle Ron Mix, plus a pair of superb running backs in Keith Lincoln and Paul Lowe, and a skilled quarterback in Tobin Rote.
“The Bears were strictly a defensive team. It was a good defense, but it didn’t have Dick Butkus yet. The offense was far from top-quality, and the quarterback was journeyman Bill Wade. Gale Sayers hadn’t arrived yet, either.”
So it would have been an epic battle indeed, one that the Chargers could have actually won. If so, imagine the ramifications: In a classic David vs Goliath battle, small, provincial San Diego in the looked-down-upon American Football League, whipping the Chicago Bears of George Halas lore.
Instead, San Diegans are left with a team from 50 years ago that holds the keys to the city’s only championship. A team that was so audacious for its day, that the coach and general manager—Gillman—insisted that their championship rings have inscribed on them not AFL Champions, but World Champions. A nice, in-your-face jab at the NFL.
Let’s hope by adding the 1963 Chargers to the team’s Ring of Honor at Qualcomm in December, the shine returns to San Diego.
I’ve always felt the AFL Champions of 1960-1965 had as much ‘right’ claim title ‘World Champions’ as did NFL Champions same. Shy the two leagues playing games, Houston Oilers were ‘World Champions’ in 1960 & 1961, the Dallas Texans ‘World Champions’ in 1962, the Chargers ‘World Champions’ in 1963 & the Buffalo Bills ‘World Champions’ in 1964 & 1965; the NFL arbitrarily claiming sole possession said as theirs was quite subjective.
As we’ve previously commented TFTAFL about AFL vs NFL outcomes title matchups 1960-1965, will not revisit said now. But that NFL types say the AFL couldn’t beat the NFL until January 1969 & January 1970 (NYJ & KC disposing the NFL’s best BALT & MINN) is only partly true… fact is the AFL could not beat Green Bay – no different than NFL teams same in their own league.
Green Bay remains the best ‘team(s)’ ever, record affirming (5 Championships in 8 years, a sixth lost by a mere 3 points in their first post season foray under Lombardi, 1960.) That said, all years/teams aforementioned considered & subject how the ball bounced that Championship day, the AFL Champions could have beaten the NFL early as 1963, if the majority of educated opinions matters, appears… mine concurs: Chargers were the best, ’63.
I’ve also been saying for years that the top 2-4 AFL teams had most likely gained parity with the nfl by 1962 or 1963.
That said (again), pro football AS A WHOLE hadn’t come up with an answer to Lombardi’s ability to impose his will upon his team…. Even as such it can be debated that 2 of the first 3 Super Bowls hinged on one play being made (or not made)—
I- The interception of the Dawson to Arbanas pass & run back setting up the TD that basically blew a close game open.
III- Wide open Jimmy Orr not being seen by Earl Morrall on a potential game tying play.
SBs II & IV are the only ones that actually were, start to finish, dominating performances by the winning team,,, one by each league.
Paul, will have to disagree on Superbowl II…. near the end of the first half, GB leading OAK only 13-7 & punting from deep in their own end (a punt almost blocked by OAK), Raider return man Roger Bird fumbled near midfield, GB recovered and added a late field goal for a 16-7 lead.
Conjecture to be sure, but, had OAK not fumbled, was enough time left to add either a touchdown or an field goal as proven by GB, so a 14-13 Raider ‘lead’ or but a 13-10 GB lead might well have been the case… ‘momentum’ change in play, anybody’s ball game, the second half. As it was, the young Raiders team disheartened posed no further threat the second half, hindsight.
Game of ‘what if’s’ like Superbowl I (which was not a rout), had KC not missed a first half field goal Chiefs would have actually ‘led’ GB 10-7. Momentum on their side second half (and they were driving past midfield & already into GB territory when the Wood INT occurred), might’ve made all the difference in the world, no one can say.
My thought is the big, bad NFL – believed by some be 50-60 points better than the AFL, actually losing to the upstart Mickey Mousers? We shall never know what might have been…
We do know Lombardi/GB were ‘(censored)figurative bricks’ not only before the game but at halftime… that’s pretty telling.
I stand corrected on SB II… I didn’t actually see very much of it. I remember seeing a good deal of SBs I & III and all of SB IV.
On Lombardi, he didn’t really seem so willing to make the statements he made after SB I, I’m of the opinion he was “goaded” into it as his “that’s what you wanted me to say, I said it” quote would indicate.
I also don’t buy the “Colts would win 9 of 10” mentality either as I feel that SB III was actually the most evenly matched of the 1st four.
The pre Super Bowl quest for superiority can be debated for ages….
I feel absolutely certain about this: For the last 2 seasons of the AFL, 1968-69 the 3 best teams in football were the Chiefs, Jets & Raiders
Those 3 teams could have beaten any team in pro football…
Lenny Dawson is reported to have said that Oakland and New York would’ve beaten Minnesota as easily as they did and I’ve also “heard” over the years that Joe Namath also felt that Oakland & Kansas City would’ve beaten Baltimore (Chiefs DID rout Baltimore on Monday night in 1970).
That is true. However, on a “given Sunday” Dallas, Los Angeles, Detoit, Minnesota, and Baltimore from 1967-1969 could beat the Chiefs, Jets, and Raiders.
1970 Chiefs lost to Minnesota and Dallas.
1970 Raiders lost to Detroit and San Francisco.
My point is that the yahoos who thought the AFL was a joke had to eat their words by the mid-late 1960’s. But, conversely, some folks here who think the NFL was Woody Hayes football have it all wrong. That is propaganda that AFL cheer leaders mythologize. Any reasonable analysis of 1960’s pro football shows that offensive statistics in both leagues were similar.
The leagues converged by the late 1960’s. And the merger was good for some AFL teams (and NFL teams, i.e Pittsburgh). For instance; Denver and Boston never signed a legitimate first round pick until the 1967 Common Draft.
Sure the Chiefs signed players. But, they were unique among AFL teams in the 1960-1963 period. To be continued…
All these teams being compared is well and good,but one thing I know for sure,the AFL showcased the passing game as it is known today. The three yards and a cloud of dust is fine,but footballs in flight put people in the seats.
The contributors to this site have routinely underestimated the 1963 Bears. Yes the Chargers had two Hall of Fame members; Alworth and Mix. The Bears had Atkins, George, Ditka, and Jones. That seems to be four!
Any reasonable analysis of the 1963 Bears defense has them in the top 10 of all time. Up their with the 1960’s Packer, 1970’s Pittsburgh, 1985 Bears and 2000 Ravens. Sure their offense was very pedestrian, but, they had some good players.
Could the Chargers have won? Sure they could. They had a great team. But, the Chargers faced defenses not as strong as the 1963 Bears. This would have been a fun game to watch!
The Bears did have a very good defense but a very average offense. The Charger defense faced stronger offenses in the AFL. Your mentioning the Bears having four members of the HOF highlights how screwed up and biased the HOF selection process is. The 1963 Chargers should also have four members. Paul Lowe and Walt Sweeney should be in the HOF.
The AFL played such a vital part in pro football history, Without it, the game would not at all be the same today. However, IMO, they didn’t truly ‘catch’ – make that surpass – the NFL until ’68 & ’69 itself. I’m in the minority thinking that the Bears win lopsided. A classic case of defense beating offense. The Miami/SF Super Bowl in ’84 everyone thought it’d be a good game and look what happened. Same with when Denver, with their record-breaking high-octane offense led by Peyton, ran into the Legion of Boom a few years back.
One must remember that the 11-3 Chargers were SWEPT by the only other double-digit-win team they faced, the 10-4 division-rival Raiders led by head coach Al Davis, The next-best teams after that were Patriots & Bills each at a paltry 7-6-1. The 1963 AFL campaign is like the ’99 AFC if wildcards teams would not have been allowed in the playoffs. In such an event, the 14-2 Jaguars getting to ‘avoid’ the 13-3 Titans who swept them as well. SD did indeed get to avoid that very Oakland team that finished 6-0 down-the-stretch although, yes, that Raiders’ defense did crumble those final two games – first allowing 21 in the second half against a bad Denver team, and then 49 total vs Houston.
Maybe that would have played into SD’s hands in a hypothetical playoff game between both, but either way IMO the AFL simply was still not ready yet though clearly getting better. I think that the Bills of the following year were an even-better team than the ’63 Chargers and would have had a better chance against the Browns in a ‘Super Bowl’. But still, we are talking about a Browns team that annihilated regular season powerhouse, Baltimore, in the NFL title game. The Bills team that would repeat as AFL champs in ’65 was a lesser version thus making it heavily unlikely they beat…Lombardi’s Packers.
In my mind, the only champs from another league whom should be seen as at least ‘co-champs’ along with their NFL champ counterparts, are those four-consecutive Paul Brown-led Cleveland teams from ’46-thru-’49. Those very AAFC champion teams were already ‘ready’.
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