Regulars know that I am in the middle of a series in the history of NFL offenses.1 Over the long course of the league’s history, only two rivals have ever seriously challenged the NFL – both enough to force an eventual merger. As I did with the All American Football Conference, I am giving the American Football League its own article, separate from the NFL.
Much like the AAFC before it, the AFL was known as a far more offensively oriented league than the contemporary NFL. This legacy is based primarily on the fact that the upstart league’s pass to run mix was significantly greater.2 There is no doubt that the AFL featured significantly more offense, but I think it will be instructive to examine whether or not the AFL actually featured better offense. To do so, I’ll use my standard offensive measurement, Total Adjusted Yards:
TAY = Yds + 20*TD + 9*(1d – TD) – 45*Int – 25*Fmb
The TAY metric takes into account both quantity and quality at once, while dividing by number of plays gives us a look at offensive efficiency. When looking at overall offensive production, you may notice that, with a few notable exceptions, a handful of teams dominates the top of the list. As was true with the AAFC and the early NFL, parity was but a pipe dream in the AFL.
The following table shows all AFL offenses and is sorted by marginal adjusted yards. Read it thus: The 1961 Houston Oilers scored 513 points and gained 6288 yards on 964 plays. They had 39 turnovers and 293 first downs. They produced 8094 total adjusted yards at 8.40 per play. They were 2.93 TAY/P above average, giving them 2826 marginal adjusted yards. On a per game basis, the Oilers gained 578 TAY.
The 1961 Oilers, led by dubious Hall of Famer George Blanda, are an outlier in the best way. There were 86 team seasons in the AFL, and no other Houston season ranked in the top 25. However, their 1961 season completely dwarfed every other offensive season in the AFL’s ten year run.3
The Oilers scored a then-record 513 points and lapped the field in both yards and touchdowns. Blanda threw 36 touchdowns passes, and backup Jackie Lee chipped in with another 12. Their 48 combined scoring passes still ranks sixth all time. Houston also blew past 4,000 yards, picking up 4568 between Blanda, Lee, and one completion by Dave Smith. All Pro receivers Charley Hennigan and Bill Groman each went over a thousand, picking up 12 and 18 touchdowns, respectively.4 The offense also featured a well-rounded performance from Billy Cannon, who contributed over 1500 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns.5
The offense would carry them to the AFL championship game, where the defense would Outside of 1961, Houston offenses were mostly unremarkable. They have three other seasons (1960, 62, and 64) that rate positively, while their six remaining seasons rate below average. In fact, were it not for 1961, the Oilers’ cumulative decade output would be in the red.
After losing the 1961 AFL title game, the Chargers descended into ineptitude. Fortunately, the team hired strength coach Alvin Roy prior to the 1963 season, and they immediately righted the ship and won a championship. Roy brought an effective weightlifting regimen to the squad (as well as some not-yet-illegal-steroids), which gave them a physical edge over most of their opponents. Although they remained competitive throughout the decade, 1963 was the team’s finest season.
The Chargers had a pair of gifted running backs in Paul Lowe and Keith Lincoln. In 1963, the two each gained over 1150 yards from scrimmage. However it was the passing game that really hurt defenses. All Pro quarterback Tobin Rote hit the jackpot with legendary receiver Lance Alworth. Rote had plenty of time to air it out to Bambi behind the watchful protection of Ron Mix, one of the top tackles in pro football history, and Walt Sweeney, a nine-time Pro Bowl selection who has somehow never been a Hall of Fame semifinalist. The star-studded offense produced 8.50 TAY/P, the top mark of any AFL team (and second highest when adjusted for era). Amazingly, this Chargers squad put up the fifth most total adjust yards of an AFL team, despite running the fourth fewest plays.
The following year, John Hadl took over for Rote and continued the dominant aerial assault with Alworth. While the team never reached the heights of its 1963 season, they continued to have great offensive success; 1962 was actually the only season they fielded a sub par offense. Overall, the combined Los Angeles and San Diego Chargers were the second most successful offense of the AFL, with a cumulative 7980 marginal adjusted yards at 0.92 MAY/P.
The Kansas City Chiefs/Dallas Texans didn’t field the top offensive season of the AFL era, but they did field two of the top four, and their worst season ranks 39th among the 86 AFL team seasons. They are the only team that didn’t have a below average seasons the entire decade the AFL existed. They lead all AFL squads with a cumulative 9182 marginal adjusted yards on offense at 1.06 MAY/P.
Quarterback Len Dawson didn’t go down in history the way that contemporary Joe Namath did, but he was a far more efficient passer.6 He didn’t have a serious threat at receiver, but he spread the ball around and relied heavily on dual-threat halfback Abner Haynes, the AFL’s career all-purpose yards leader, and Fred Arbanas, one of the first great tight ends. By the time Haynes was out of the picture, the Chiefs had picked up Otis Taylor, who provided the true receiving threat they once lacked. The offense wouldn’t have functioned without possibly the best left side in AFL history, with massive Jim Tyrer and Ed Budde dominating the line of scrimmage.
Coach Hank Stram‘s Texans/Chiefs had the most consistently good offense of the AFL, a fact that help lead them two three AFL championships.7 Their 1969 offense was their second worst of the decade, but they improved dramatically in the postseason. Their use of motion and trap plays from two tight end sets, in concert with their equally innovative and effective defense, helped the Chiefs beat the Vikings (who, at the time, was considered one of the strongest NFL teams of all time) in Super Bowl IV. This not only avenged their Super Bowl I loss to the Packers, but also – along with the Jets’upset of the Colts the previous season – helped cement the AFL’s status as true peers to the NFL.
From 1960-62, the Oakland Raiders were the worst team in the league. In 1963, they made Al Davis the head coach and general manager, and they immediately became a contender.8 I said earlier that the Chiefs were the only team without a below average season; the Al Davis Raiders didn’t either, despite having three terrible ones before his arrival. With their new found consistency production, the Raiders won the AFL championship in 1967 (they ultimately lost Super Bowl II to the dynasty Packers).
Oakland’s offense was especially strong in the last three years of the AFL (1967-69).9 The Mad Bomber, quarterback Daryle Lamonica was the leader on offense, and his arrival coincided with the team’s best AFL years.10 Despite the presence of future Hall of Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff, Lamonica’s top target was undoubtedly Warren Wells. Wells was an incredible deep threat who averaged over twenty yards per reception in each of his four seasons as a Raider, peaking at an absurd 26.8 in 1969. Legal troubles ended his career early and robbed us of seeing possibly the greatest receiving trio in history (Wells, Biletnikoff, and Cliff Branch).
With all the talent at the skill positions, Oakland’s best offensive player was still center Jim Otto. Coming out of Miami, Otto was reportedly 210 pounds and considered too small to play professional football. The Raiders took a chance on him, and it paid off. Despite not working his way up to 250 pounds for several years, Otto nonetheless earned first team All Pro honors in ten of his first eleven seasons. He paired with Hall of Fame guard Gene Upshaw to form the best interior line in the league.11
The only other team to post a top ten season is the New York Jets. In 1967, superstar Joe Namath became the first quarterback to throw for 4000 yards in a season. Although he also led the AFL in interceptions, his other rate stats were more than good enough to help elevate his offense to the top ten of the decade. Although he thrived in a deep passing offense (leading the league in yards per attempt and yards per completion), he managed to take very few sacks and maintain a decent completion rate.
As is often the case, the quarterback’s best year was also the top wideout’s best year. Don Maynard, already a star before Namath joined the team, gained 1434 yards and 10 touchdowns in 1967. Seven years earlier, Maynard and teammate Art Powell became the first wide receiver pair to top one thousand receiving yards apiece.12
Cumulatively, the Boston Patriots finished as the fourth worst offensive team of the AFL era. However, their 1961-62 seasons were quite good. Former NFL journeyman Babe Parilli headlined the offensive roster, while the AFL’s all time leading scorer, Gino Cappelletti, chipped in at receiver and kicker. Unfortunately, even at their best the Patriots weren’t good enough. They and the Broncos are the only original AFL teams that didn’t win an AFL championship.
The Bad and the Ugly
The Bills had worst single season and the second worst cumulative offensive output of the decade. They were actually AFL champions in 1964-65, despite their general offensive malaise. Their 1968 performance rates as the worst by any squad. That season, Buffalo won one game, featured four starting quarterbacks, and fielded no players with more than 665 yards from scrimmage. The Bills rostered versatile running back Cookie Gilchrist, dominant guard Bill Shaw, and respected passer Jack Kemp, but they were rarely able to generate consistently good offense.
The Denver Broncos produced the worst offense over the course of the entire decade, and two of the three worst (and four of the seven worst) seasons of any team. 1969 was their only above average season, and it ranked only 32nd overall. Surprisingly, their best offensive season as a team featured no standout performances from star players. Lionel Taylor was the first receiver to record 100 catches in a year, and he averaged 85 per year from 1960-65. However, Taylor was retired by the time the whole offense melded. Floyd Little became an NFL star and eventual Hall of Fame running back, but his best seasons came after the merger.
Despite only existing for four seasons in the AFL, Miami built enough enough negative value to rank as the third worst cumulative team, offensively. Although championship winning coach George Wilson patrolled the sidelines, the Dolphins were terrible for three seasons and barely above average in another. The early Miami offenses featured a revolving door of past-their-prime stars, such as Gilchrist and Haynes, before finding Jim Kiick and Larry Csonka in the 1968 draft. The running back duo proved to be moderately successful,13 but they wouldn’t reach their full potential until the Dolphins hired Don Shula to take over as head coach. But that’s a story for a later time.
The Cincinnati Bengals are the only team we haven’t discusses yet. Paul Brown founded the team in 1968, so they didn’t have much time to form an identity in the AFL. They won just three games their first year and had a substandard offense. However, talented quarterback Greg Cook fell to them in the draft and immediately helped turn around the offense (with the help of Bill Walsh and coach Brown, of course). As a rookie, Cook led the league in completion rate, yards per attempt, passer rating, and the less popular AY/A and ANY/A. The Bengals only picked up four wins, but they seemed primed to take the NFL by storm. Lamentably, Cook suffered a rotator cuff injury that turned his promising career into a mythical tragedy. I won’t belabor the point, but I encourage you to read Chris Wesseling’s masterful article on Cook’s injury and the consequences thereof.
AFL Offenses on Average
To provide some context for the first table, this table displays the performances of average AFL teams each season. Read it thus: In 1960, the average AFL team scored 338.3 points and gained 4527.6 yards on 919.5 plays. They had 45.3 turnovers and 253.8 first downs. This comes to 5178 total adjusted yards at 5.63 per play and 370 per game.
The table above lays out AFL averages, in order to provide context to the first table. However, it doesn’t demonstrate how AFL offenses compared with their NFL counterparts. The chart below does just that (bubble size indicates plays per game).
As you can see, although AFL teams averaged more plays per game than did their NFL contemporaries, they rarely produced greater value. During the sixties, AFL teams had more points, yards, and plays per game than did NFL teams. The difference is most noticeable in the passing game. The average NFL team season saw 382 attempts for 197 completions and 2475 yards; the average AFL team season saw 440 attempts with 210 completions for 2690 yards.
However, despite the legends of AFL offensive fireworks, pro football’s younger brothers were simply not as good offensively as were the established league’s offenses. While they did run more plays – especially pass plays – they were significantly inferior on a per-play basis. For example:
- In the NFL, the completion rate never dropped below 50.2% (in 1960), but the AFL never had a league-wide completion rate above 49.8%.
- The “high flying” AFL offenses posted greater passing yards per attempt only once (1966). Overall, the average NFL season had a YPA of 6.48, whereas the average AFL season’s YPA was 6.12.
- 1966 was also the only year in which AFL teams produced a higher passing touchdown rate than NFL teams did. Over the course of the decade, the average NFL season had touchdowns on 5.26% of passes, compared to just 4.95% for AFL seasons.
- One area in which AFL teams succeeded was throwing interceptions. The only season that saw the AFL produce a lower interception rate than the NFL was the league’s inaugural season (1960). Overall, NFL team seasons saw picks on 5.58% of passes, compared with 6.0% for the AFL.
- One of the most important passing stats (which is overlooked by nigh everyone) is first downs per attempt. In this area, the NFL significantly outplayed the AFL, posting better numbers every season.
- However, when we change the metric to look at first downs per completion, we can see statistical evidence of the downfield passing for which the AFL was known. NFL teams posted higher rates in the early part of the decade, but the AFL closed out the decade with much higher 1D/c rates. On the whole, the average AFL season bested the average NFL season 6.20% to 6.17%.14
When you account for just how much better the NFL’s rate stats were, as well as the higher caliber of defenses they faced, it’s pretty clear that the elder league was the superior passing league.
The inverse relationship between volume and efficiency can be seen in the running game too. The NFL had more carries per game in every season except 1968; in 1963-64, the difference was over three carries per game. However, the AFL led in yards per carry in six out of a possible ten seasons. The younger league also led in touchdowns per rush in nine out of ten years. The NFL was more efficient in picking up first downs on the ground, besting the AFL in eight seasons. When all these rate stats are taken into account, the two leagues had almost equal rushing success.15
Rules and Innovations
The AFL played with a rulebook that was not materially different from the NFL’s. There were some differences, such as the adoption of the two-point conversion, the move to a 14-game schedule, and the addition of player names to jerseys, but the governance of on-field play was not so different that it would have confused an NFL fan attending an AFL game. The real influence of the AFL came from the attitude and style of the owners and coaches.
Part of the attitude or culture of the AFL is demonstrated by the look of the players on the field. While the NFL featured relatively uninspiring jerseys, AFL teams took the field in bright, colorful uniforms. It may seem trivial, but this was an exciting development for fans and, along with the league’s increased use of the forward pass, helped increase the AFL’s popularity. The farrago of colors artfully streaking across the AFL fields was a projection of the colorful personalities that pioneered the league itself.
Perhaps the most influential of all AFL personalities is Sid Gillman, head coach of the Los Angeles and San Diego Chargers. He is best-remembered for his lasting contributions to offensive football, particularly the passing game. He found success with the Rams in the fifties, but he was able to really unleash his passing philosophy in the more liberal AFL. His disciples include Al Davis and Don Coryell (and indirectly Bill Walsh and Joe Gibbs), who continued his legacy of rewriting the way teams played offense.16
However, Gillman wasn’t just a passing guru; he was a talented organization strategist. Similar to the way Paul Brown changed football, Gillman’s attention to detail at the training, scouting, practicing, and gameplanning levels forced both his AFL contemporaries and the established NFL to adapt.17
One of Gillman’s disciples was the maverick young coach and eventual titan of professional football, Al Davis. Davis parlayed his assistant coaching stint with the Chargers into a head coaching job with the dismal Raiders. After immediately turning around Oakland, he became the AFL commissioner and was instrumental in fast tracking the merger.18
Texans and Chiefs coach Hank Stram was more than just a soundbyte: he was an innovative and influential coach whose strategies impacted both sides of the ball. He is generally credited with conceiving the two tight end set, which provided additional blocking power while maintaining the threat of a pass. He also made use of a moving pocket to allow Dawson to have clearer vision of passing lanes while simultaneously taking advantage of the quarterback’s mobility. Because this is a series on offense, I won’t get into his innovations on defense (but they are important). The Chiefs’ victory over a strong Vikings team helped further legitimize AFL in the minds of the public. One of the primary reasons for the victory was the sheer size of the players Stram chose to roster on his lines. That would become the blueprint for subsequent team builders.
The early AFL boasted many stars who lent credibility to the young league, but the players filling out the bottoms of AFL rosters generally were not in the same class as those filling out NFL rosters. Thus, while the early AFL featured some of the greatest players in football history, the overall quality of the teams was significantly inferior to that of NFL teams.19
However, the institution of the Common Draft in 1967 provided the AFL with a mechanism to build entire rosters comparable to established NFL teams. Prior to this, the two leagues competed for college talent, which often put the AFL at a disadvantage. However, the Common Draft put the two leagues on level ground when it came to selecting college players, as the two leagues utilized the same draft (just like the name implies) to pick new players. This gave AFL teams three seasons to build better teams before the official merger took place.20 It was successful, helping former AFL teams appear in five Super Bowls in the decade after the merger.21
One area in which the AFL significantly outperformed the NFL is racial integration. The NFL didn’t feature a black player on every roster until renowned bigot George Marshall finally conceded to the Secretary of the Interior’s demands and signed Bobby Mitchell to Washington in 1962. The AFL, on the other hand, took the mantle of racial integration from the AAFC and featured several African American players and staff members.22 The AFL took it a step further by devoting significant scouting resources to small colleges and HBCUs, giving them access to a previously untapped talent well.23
Once again, it was up to a younger league to force the establishment to change for the better. The NFL, realizing the rival league hit the jackpot with small school scouting, eventually adopted the practice itself. Today, thanks in large part to the AFL (and the AAFC before it), over two thirds of NFL players are African American. This includes potentially eight starting quarterbacks, a number that would have seemed unfathomable even a generation ago.
- Check out the 30s, 40s, AAFC, 50s, and 60s. ↩
- In the sixties, the most pass-happy season saw NFL teams drop back on 50.7% of offensive plays. The AFL, on the other hand, peaked in 1964 with passes on 56.5% of called plays. The average NFL season featured 49.3% passes, compared with 53.6% for the AFL. ↩
- In fact, the difference in output between the ’61 Oilers and the second place 1963 Chargers is about the same as the difference between those Chargers and the fourteenth ranked 1962 Patriots. ↩
- Hennigan’s 1746 receiving yards stood as the record until Jerry Rice and Isaac Bruce both topped the mark…in 1995. ↩
- Cannon is also the only player in NFL history to be named to an All Pro team at both running back and tight end. ↩
- That’s not to say he was necessarily the better quarterback. Dawson played a full, healthy career in a system that highlighted his strengths. Namath was often injured, and his offenses relied more heavily on him to make big plays. A modern analog might be Joe Montana versus Dan Marino, if Marino was also injured half of the time. ↩
- Their defense may have been even better, with Stram’s multiple front squad stifling opponents with the help of two HOF linemen, two HOF linebackers, a HOF cornerback, and at least two more defensive backs who merit HOF consideration. ↩
- In fact, between 1963 and 1986, the Raiders only had two losing seasons. That’s right, they had more championships than losing seasons over the first 24 years of Davis’ involvement with the team. ↩
- Although he was near the end of his career by this time, no mention of the AFL Raiders is complete without Clem Daniels. He didn’t get to see Oakland’s best years, but he was a great dual threat halfback who had four straight seasons with 1450+ yards from scrimmage. ↩
- In addition to having great offenses, the Raiders went 36-4-1 in Lamonica’s first three years. ↩
- Art Shell was on the roster, but he didn’t become a full time starter until after the merger. Since this is an AFL post, it doesn’t make much sense to include him. ↩
- They did it again in 1962. In 1963, Powell went to Oakland and had even greater success as a Raider. ↩
- Drafting Larry Little the following year certainly didn’t hurt. ↩
- It is worth mentioning, however, that the highest first down per completion season was the 1961 NFL season, which saw first downs on 64.4% of completed passes. ↩
- Using adjusted rushing yards per attempt (Yards + 20*TD + 9*first downs)/attempts. The NFL average was 6.67, and the AFL’s was 6.61. ↩
- Gillman’s descendant coaches have won 25 Super Bowls. That’s includes five for direct proteges, and ten more for second-degree disciples. Walsh and Gibbs were incredibly influential, but their contributions in the actual AFL aren’t especially noteworthy. I’ll talk more about them in later articles. ↩
- One of his contributions is the hire of the aforementioned Alvin Roy to increase his team’s ability to compete physically through training and steroid use. For better and worse, this had an indelible impact on professional football. ↩
- Texans/Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt was also actively involved in helping the AFL achieve equal status to the NFL. However, Hunt deserves most applause for being the catalyst for the AFL’s inception. He may not have had the impact that Davis did in forcing a merger, but there would have been no league to merge had Hunt not helped found the AFL. ↩
- AFL teams weren’t exactly starting Mark Wahlberg, but it was close. ↩
- The actual merger agreement came in 1966, which is why the Common Draft began the following year. ↩
- I purposely left off the Jets and Chiefs, who won the third and fourth Super Bowl, because their rosters were largely built before the Common Draft. The merger required some NFL teams to move to the newly formed AFC. When you include those teams, former AFL or new AFC squads won eleven of the first fifteen Super Bowls. ↩
- Notably, Lloyd “The Judge” Wells became professional football’s first full time African American scout when the Chiefs promoted him in 1965. ↩
- The AFL actually featured 17% more African Americans per team than the NFL. While the AFL is known for featuring the first soccer style kicker, Pete Gogolak, the league also featured the first black professional kicker, Gene Mingo. ↩