We all love to speculate what would have been in the AFL. Here is a fun guest post by author and historian, Dave Steidel, wondering how the Raiders would have fared if Daryle Lamonica had never worn the silver & black.
The “what ifs” of the sports world are usually an exercise in speculation, and although there are theories a plenty, can never be proven beyond the articulation and long winded debates. “What if the Yankees really did trade Joe DiMaggio to the Red Sox for Ted Williams?” “What if Mickey Mantle had not stepped into that drain in Yankee Stadium during his rookie year?” “What if Lance Alworth had not been traded from the Raiders to the Chargers?” Even more paramount “What if the Bidwell’s did sell the Chicago Cardinals to Lamar Hunt, or the NFL expansion committee had allowed Hunt and Bud Adams a franchise when they could not purchase those Cardinals?” On and on we could go with the “what ifs” of the sports might have beens. But here’s one that I found that could have set off some interesting and speculative conversations that could have altered the fortunes of more than one AFL franchise and at least two college football powerhouses.
Back in 1967 the Oakland Raiders were struggling to keep pace with the two AFL West icons (the Chargers and Chiefs) that had taken turns winning the seven division crowns (LA/San Diego in ’60, ’61, ’63, ’64, ’65 and Dallas/KC in ’62 and ’66. Upon his return to the Raiders after a short stint in the commissioner’s seat, Al Davis, now sitting in the managing partner’s chair instead of the head coach/GM spot he left to replace Joe Foss, was searching for a way to push his ‘commitment to excellence’ to the top of the league. After back-to-back second place 8-5-1 seasons the Raiders targeted its leadership behind center as an area that was in need of an upgrade. Incumbent quarterback Tom Flores had been its leader since 1960 and played every Raiders game except for his year off in 1962 to recover from a lung ailment. He had his best season in 1966 but Davis felt that his arm was not strong enough to extend the defenses and felt he needed to search for a more long term and long range answer.
In Buffalo, the Bills were coming off of their third straight championship game appearance, due in large part to its outstanding quarterback leadership of Jack Kemp and his back up Daryle Lamonica. To be sure, the Bills had won nothing until Kemp arrived and led them to AFL titles in ’64 and ’65 and near misses in ’63 and ‘66. While Kemp was the nonpareil field general of War Memorial Stadium, Lamonica had a knack for sparking the occasional lackluster performance by Kemp into a resurgent rally towards victory. His arm was strong and he could throw deep with accuracy. The one thing Buffalo could use was an end who could take the pressure off of Elbert Dubenion and in Art Powell, the Raiders seemed to have that answer. As the two teams began talking trade the names Glenn Bass, Lamonica, Powell and Flores became more and more prominent. But Davis felt that he would be giving up too much star quality for the untested Lamonica and the slightly damaged Bass and the discussions were put on hold.
The Raiders now turned their focus on the AFL/NFL draft and their first round pick which was not going to appear until sixteen other players had already been selected in the combined draft. Davis doubted if the two biggest quarterback names, Florida’s Steve Spurrier and Purdue’s Bob Griese would be around at #17. One way or another, if the Raiders were going to come up with a quarterback it desired it would require Davis to either trade up to get one of the two college stars, or continue to negotiate with Buffalo and others to make a trade. Davis also had committed to selecting guard Gene Upshaw with his first draft pick, so he had to somehow figure out a way move up, or out, to bring in a new quarterback. So it was back to the phones to find a deal. The San Francisco 49ers, who had the third pick, were hot on Spurrier, the latest Heisman Trophy winner. Quarterback John Brodie had 10 years of NFL experience under his belt and SF was looking for a leader for its next generation, and current backup George Mira was not going to be it. Selecting at #4 was the AFL’s newest franchise, the Miami Dolphins. In 1966 the Dolphins used Dick Wood, Rick Norton, George Wilson Jr. and John Stofa under center. And while Stofa showed signs of encouragement by throwing 4 touchdown passes in his only start, the other three failed to complete more than 41% of their passes. Miami was looking for Griese to be available when their turn came about. Making a deal with an NFL team was out of the question for the former commissioner who nearly submarined the 49ers by encouraging Brodie to sign a future contract with the AFL once his current one expired. The merger in June put an end to that, but the San Francisco brass had it locked in its memory bank. The Dolphins on the other hand might be interested but the cost would be Flores and that would leave the Raiders with an untried rookie as their starter and would discount their desire to move up in the standings now. So it was back to his short list of Lamonica, Kansas City’s Pete Beathard and Broadway Joe Namath.
Fast forward to draft day. Michigan State’s Bubba Smith was the first selection by Baltimore. The second went to Minnesota who chose Clint Jones. As expected the 49ers snatched up Spurrier with the third pick and Miami countered by picking Griese. The next best quarterbacks in the draft were Don Horn and Bob Davis and Al Davis saw them as non-essentials. Former USC star Pete Beathard was still on Davis’ radar but there was little chance that Kansas City was going to help their division rival get better. And Broadway Joe was little more than a pipe dream. So again it was back to Buffalo. George Webster, Floyd Little, Mel Farr, Gene Washington were chosen with the 5, 6, 7 and 8th picks as the Raiders were still in negotiations for a quarterback. Then, as the name Alan Page was announced as the 15th pick of the draft by the Vikings, the Raiders were ready to make their move. It would be as the Bills wanted. All-Star split end Art Powell and starting quarterback Tom Flores would move from Oakland to Buffalo for back-up quarterback Daryle Lamonica and receiver Glenn Bass, who caught only 10 passes in 14 games in 1966 after being moved to the bench in favor of rookie Bobby Crockett. In order to get what he thought he needed, Davis had to give up two starters for two back-ups.
AFL owners were astounded at how the Bills had been able to make such a one sided steal from the cagey Davis and felt that Buffalo had just solidified their hold on the Eastern Division for the next few years. But through the first seven games of 1967, it was the cagey Davis who was having the last laugh. Flores was riding the bench behind Kemp while Powell was nursing an injured knee that would limit him to 6 games and only 20 catches for the now 2-5 Bills. In Oakland, while Glenn Bass was now in Houston after being cut, the Raiders at the mid-way point were on top of the West with a 6-1 record and Daryle Lamonica was at the top of the AFL in passing, while being referred to as “The Mad Bomber” for his aerial heroics. What followed is now etched into the Raiders and AFL history; an AFL all-time best 13-1 season, the AFL championship and a trip to Super Bowl II with visits to the AFL championship again in 1968 and 1969. All with Lamonica at the helm.
So, “what if” the Raiders had been able to trade up with either San Francisco or Miami. “What if” Steve Spurrier became The Mad Bomber instead of Lamonica? Would the Raiders have won in 1967? Or ’68 and ’69? Would Spurrier have fared better on the other side of the Bay and emerge into a starter, then play longer and putting off his coaching career that lifted both Florida and now South Carolina into college football’s elite. “What if” the Raiders were had brokered a trade with Miami and selected Bob Griese? Would Tom Flores have been around in 1972 to lead the undefeated Dolphins to the Super Bowl? Would Griese have been able to lead the Raiders vertical attack or would they have become a ball control team using Hewitt Dixon and Clem Daniels the way the Dolphins used Csonka and Kiick? And what about Lamonica if Davis HAD been able to move up in the draft to get either Spurrier or Griese? “What if” he would have stayed in Buffalo? Would the Bills have such awful 1-12-1 season in 1968 when Kemp was injured and all-purpose back Ed Rutkowski became their four quarterback of the year? That awful season brought them O.J. Simpson with the #1 pick in the draft! Agh the “what ifs” of the sporting world. They make for great conversations, create intriguing ideas to ponder, offer sweet speculation for the dreamers and for sure beats the winter blahhs better than watching reruns of The Battle of the Network Stars. Remember the AFL!