by Guest Blogger, and author of Remember the AFL, Dave Steidel
MYTH: “AFL players were a bunch of ‘NFL Rejects’”.
In the NFL they were known as “the Phoenix” players. Rising from the ashes of one team only to be recreated and hit the highest of highs with another; players who had been put out to pasture or given up on because their time had passed.
One of those names could have been George Blanda, who after becoming the forgotten man in Chicago retired from pro football until he found new life and fame in the AFL by leading the Houston Oilers to three straight championship games including two AFL titles. Then when Houston changed quarterbacks with a youth movement in 1967 he help defeat his former team in yet another AFL championship game as an Oakland Raider as the league’s leading scorer. To the NFL media he was just a washed up quarterback trying to catch in a senseless new league.
Another name could have been Jack Kemp of Los Angeles/San Diego Chargers and Buffalo Bills. All Kemp did after he could not find playing time in the NFL was to become the field leader and league leading passer. He lead the Chargers to two Western Division titles and the Bills to two straight AFL crowns and three consecutive championship games. The NFL and its writers would like you to believe that Kemp, who could make it with the 1957 Pittsburgh Steelers was left go, succeeded because the AFL played no defense. Ditto Len Dawson. Dawson won AFL titles with the Dallas Texans in 1962, with the Chiefs in 1966 and was the MVP of Super Bowl IV in 1970. HOF coach Paul Brown, then with Cleveland saw little reason to use him in the early sixties and granted him a release early in 1962. Cleveland gave Brown his release a few years later.
New York Titan and Jet Don Maynard was little more than a kick returner and spare receiver with the Giants in the fifties. While the New Yorkers were dominating the league as the media darlings of the NFL they lost title games in 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962 and 1963. After his release in 1959, Maynard created a HOF career by showing fans in the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium how to catch passes over, under and around defenses designed to stop him. Maynard’s name was never considered for the “Phoenix” list of stars who rose from the dead. No doubt because… yeah, he played in the AFL!
Ron McDole and John Tracey (Bills), Art Powell (Titans), and Lionel Taylor (Broncos) were not considered either. It is not a stretch to say that many of the teams in the NFL would have been better had they found uses for the services of these men and had they realized their true talent and worth they exposed in the AFL.
And yet, the following NFL players, also considered rejects at one point in their career and were released or traded, are seen as some of the football’s best leaders and stars who reinvented their careers as winners with other NFL clubs. They, according the self-admiring curmudgeons of the NFL were the “the Phoenix” players. Talented and strong-willed enough to prove time and again that could still play in the better league. As they demonstrated their worth to the masses by finding work with new NFL teams who were certain they could still make their teams winners, high praise was given to these “Phoenix” stars as they continued to shine among the brightest. “So”, asks the AFL fan, “were these NFL players any better than any of the AFL stars mentioned previously? Or were they just not as daring enough to take the risk of moving beyond the patriarchal fortress like the mavericks who decided to join the new AFL to do essentially the same thing the “Phoenix” players did? Which was to find success beyond those teams who couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize their talent?
When quarterback Earl Morrall’s career began in 1956 he was not able to crack the starting lineup consistently with the 49ers, Steelers and Lions. In fact he did not become the #1 man behind center until his tenth season when he was relegated to his fourth team, the New York Giants. Unable to satisfy the leadership in Gotham he lost his starting job in 1967 when the Giants brought in another man whose former team as seen enough of: Fran Tarkenton. Morrall then moved to Baltimore where in 1968 he led the Colts to the NFL championship and Super Bowl III. That year he started all 14 games in the absence of Johnny Unitas. Five years later he found himself filling in for another injured quarterback (Bob Griese) in Miami (an AFL/AFC team) where he led the Dolphins to an undefeated season. During Morrall’s last eight years after leaving the Giants he was 33-4-1 as a starter. Had Morrall signed on and accomplished what he did later in his career with Boston, Buffalo or any other AFL team in the sixties who needed a quarterback would he have been afforded the hero accolades he earned in his twilight years?
Y.A. Tittle did not fit the mold of a shotgun-style quarterback in San Francisco for coach Red Hickey. And in 1961 when Hickey’s innovative 49er’s offensive set became all the rage in the NFL, John Brodie, Bobby Waters and rookie Billy Kilmer were all ahead of him on the depth chart. After starting only four games in 1960, he was traded to the Giants to begin the 1961 season. Tittle led the Giants to the Eastern Division championships in 1961, ’62 and ’63. Y.A. was obviously not over the hill as some had suggested on the west coast. He simply did not fit into the 49ers system. But he was a perfect fit with the New York Giants. Had he jumped to the New York Titans during that same time and accomplished what he did in the Polo Grounds instead of Yankee Stadium – would Tittle have been considered the superstar he became after leaving San Francisco? Doubtful, but then again, would Harry Wismer been able to surround Y.A. with the talent he walked into with the Giants?
Then there is Dr. Frank Ryan. Ryan was a part time quarterback for the Rams from 1958 through 1961, unable to unseat both Bill Wade and Zeke Bratkowski. In 1962 Ryan was traded to the Cleveland Browns where he shared the starting role with unheralded Jim Ninowski who was 9-8-1 with the Lions in ’60 and ’61. Then from 1963 to 1967 Dr. Ryan led the Browns to a 48-17-1 record and two championship games. However ineffective or underachieving he may have been in Los Angeles, Ryan proved his ability in Cleveland with his leadership, cerebral play calling and his accuracy as a passer. Had he done those same things in Oakland or Denver would his legacy be the same?
Similarly Bill Wade was deemed expendable by the Rams after 1960 and shared the quarterback duties in Chicago with Ed Brown in 1961. Wade became the starter in 1962 and the following season led the Bears to the league championship. From 1961 through 1965 Tittle, Wade and Ryan, all unwanted by their original teams, led their new teams to division titles and NFL championship games. Morrall did the same in 1968. Had they reinvented themselves with an AFL team instead of being recycled in the NFL would they have been considered castoffs that only gained success because they were no longer in the NFL?
AFL quarterbacks George Blanda, Len Dawson, Jack Kemp, Babe Parilli, and Tobin Rote were all considered washed up, cast off or incapable of leading teams by the NFL. And from 1960 through 1966 they all had similar successes as those of Tittle, Wade and Ryan, leading their AFL teams to division titles, championship games and league championships after being under-utilized or unwanted by the Bears, Steelers, Browns, Giants and Lions. But in contrast to Messrs. Tittle, Ryan, Wade and Morrall, it was said (by NFL personnel and journalists) that they only happened onto any semblance of success because they left the NFL for that weaker, other league. The NFL teams and writers never forgave them for the remainder of their playing days for their feats of revival. And while Blanda and Dawson have entered shrine of greatness, many other AFL players who dared to move beyond NFL to taste the forbidden fruit of success in the American Football League have been exiled from any Canton inclusion for their sin of not bowing before the false god that calls itself the National Football League.
FACT: “Rejects” are not necessarily flawed personnel. The flaws instead, in the cases of many AFL players, was in the assessment or prejudice of NFL teams. Mistakes in evaluation, like those listed above, happened all the time. And within the caste system under which the NFL operated those who had the fortitude and belief in themself to move beyond the tight-fisted grip of the NFL were able to find success elsewhere rather than be defined by the whims, wishes and misguided thinking of their NFL teams.