Here is a very interesting piece written by guest blogger, Dave Steidel, on the fine line between being a success or failure in 1960s prefessional football.
In the early days of the AFL there was enough finger pointing and name calling to feed a Presidential race for years. With the NFL refusing to give an inch in battle for fans and notoriety they usually resorted to claims that anyone playing in the new league was either unwanted, over-the-hill, not good enough or just plain rejects from the boastful, patriarchal NFL! Players labeled thusly included the likes of George Blanda (Oilers and Raiders), Jack Kemp (Chargers/Bills), Len Dawson (Texans/Chiefs), Tobin Rote (Chargers), Don Maynard (Titans), Ron McDole and John Tracey (Bills), Art Powell (Titans), and Lionel Taylor (Broncos) to only name a few, all having played and then left go by teams in the NFL. And it would not be a stretch of the imagination to say that many of the teams in the older league could have used the services of these “rejects” had they been able to recognize and realize their true talent and worth that came to light once given a chance in the AFL. But in the fifties and sixties NFL, you paid your dues as long as your team saw fit, you played the positions coaches told you to play and were expected to do with smile and a “thank you” as long as you were under their iron fists. Like in “Thank you sir, may I have another?” as you are being whipped and wasted.
So, what then do the names George Blanda, Jack Kemp, Len Dawson, Tobin Rote, Maynard, Powell, Taylor et.al. have in common with those of NFLers Earl Morrall, Y.A. Tittle, Bill Wade, Frank Ryan, Norm Van Brocklin and Bill Nelson? These NFL players were also considered either over-the-hill, unwanted or rejects, and who, after being traded or released, reinvented their careers with other NFL teams to continue their journey toward stardom. Were they any better than any of those who decided to purge the NFL hierarchy and move toAFL? If you read any of the newspaper and magazine articles of these times, the answer was a resounding, “YES!”
But when you look behind the curtain, those AFL luminaries mentioned earlier were in the same boat and no different than the many NFLers who, at one point in their careers, were also wasted and rejected. The only difference was Morrall, Ryan and the others hung around waiting for another turn rather than seek their fortune elsewhere (the AFL). But as the AFL readied to merge after the 1969 season, these NFL “rejects” were painted by the NFL fed media as claiming their renewed good fortune as a much better caliber “reject” than those who packed their bags and journeyed to the new horizon of the AFL to claim their fame.
Of the nine quarterbacks to play in NFL championship game in the sixties, only Bart Starr and Don Meredith quarterbacked for their first team. Van Brocklin, Tittle, Wade, Ryan, Morrall, Unitas and Joe Kapp were all in their second or third venue. When 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 inGothamhe lost his starting job in 1967 when the Giants brought in Fran Tarkenton. Morrall then moved to Baltimore where in 1968 he led the Colts to the NFL championship and Super BowlIII. That year he started all 14 games in the absence of the injured Johnny Unitas. Five years later he found himself filling in for another injured quarterback (Bob Griese) inMiami(anAFL/AFCteam) 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 otherAFLteam in need of a quarterback my guess is that he would he not have been afforded the accolades he earned in his twilight years for but one reason – it wasn’t the NFL?
After become disenchanted with his diminishing playing time in Chicago, George Blanda decided to call it a career after 1958 and left George Halas and the Bears. From 1960 through 1962 and again in 1967, ’68 and ’69, Blanda played in AFL championship games, winning titles in ’60, ’61 and ’67 while also appearing in Super Bowl II. The over-the-hill, reject, Blanda has a bust in the pro-football Hall of Fame. Morrall does not!
Similarly, Y.A. Tittle did not fit into the mold of the shotgun-style quarterback coach Red Hickey invented in San Francisco. And in 1961 when Hickey’s innovative 49er offense became all the rage in the NFL, John Brodie, Bobby Waters and rookie Billy Kilmer were all ahead of Tittle on the depth chart. After starting only four games in 1960, he was traded to the Giants to begin the 1961 campaign. Tittle then led the Giants to the championship game in ’61, ’62 and ’63. Y.A. was obviously not over the hill as some had suggested. He just simply did not fit into the 49ers system but was a perfect fit for New York’s offense. Had he jumped to the New York Titans during that same time and accomplished only a fraction of what he did in the Polo Grounds instead of Yankee Stadium with the Giants – would Tittle have been considered the superstar he became after leaving San Francisco or would he have been just one of those “rejects” who made it in the AFL because he couldn’t in the NFL?
Len Dawson wore uniforms in Pittsburgh and Cleveland while mostly manning the clip board on the sidelines waited for his autocratic coach Paul Brown to give him more than a handful of plays under center. After seeking his release to join his college coach, Hank Stram in Dallas, Dawson won three AFL championship games, played in Super Bowl I and was on the winning side in Super Bowl IV. Not good enough for the NFL and Paul Brown, Dawson, along with Tittle is enshrined in Canton! But in the mid-sixties, any conversation comparing Dawson with Tittle would have been considered a sacrilege! Fueled by a bias media the NFL was having its way – but as time marched on, was quietly realizing that the new league was and had been for some time, their equal.
Bill Wade was deemed expendable by the Los Angeles 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. Frank Ryan was also a part time quarterback for the Rams from 1958 through 1961. Unable to unseat both Bill Wade and Zeke Bratkowski for playing time, in 1962 he 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. From 1963 to 1967 Dr. Ryan led the Browns to a 48-17-1 record and two championship games, winning the crown in 1964. However ineffective or underachieving he may have been inLos Angeles, Ryan proved his ability inClevelandthrough 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?
Jack Kemp was the property of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1957, playing in four games and completing 8 of 18 passes with 2 interceptions. He did not appear in another professional football again until he quarterbacked the Los Angeles Chargers in 1960. Rejected by the NFL, Kemp played quarterbacked in more AFL championship games than any other AFL player, missing only the 1962 and 1963 games over the league’s first seven years. Considered one of most cerebral players the league had ever known, Kemp went on to a distinguished career in politics as a U.S. Senator and even made a run as a presidential candidate. A talent that was waiting to be discovered, one really has to wonder who the real rejects were in Pittsburgh as the leadership surrounding Pittsburgh over these years left Johnny Unitas, Kemp, Dawson and Morrall all slip away.
From 1961 through 1965, Tittle, Wade and Ryan, all unwanted by their original teams, led their new teams to division titles and the NFL championship games. Morrall did the same in 1968. Had they signed with anAFLteam instead of being recycled in the senior league my guess is that they would have been considered castoffs that only gained success because they were in a weaker league. And so it went, year-by-year, the media kept singing the praises of those who feed the bulldog, while the new breed was kept in the back room for fear of taking over.
AFLquarterbacks 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, Morrall and Ryan, leading theirAFLteams 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; presumably for a weaker league. The NFL teams and beat writers never forgave them for the remainder of their playing days. But as we all know, after Super Bowl IV – the score sat at NFL 2 – AFL 2. Funny how some things just have a way of working themselves out despite the odds and lack of notoriety that was against them.
Mistakes and over sites like those listed above happened time and again within the caste system under which the NFL operated before the AFL forced them to change. Those who had the fortitude to move beyond the tight-fisted grip of the NFL were able to find success elsewhere rather than be victimized by the whims, wishes and misguided assessments of their former teams. So isn’t it long passed the time for the Pro-Football Hall-of-Fame to realize how great players like Lionel Taylor, Clem Daniels, Johnny Robinson, Jim Tyrer, Ed Budde and some other former AFL players were and that they deserve to be on the induction list?