How the AFL Evolved the Game
After a 10 season existence, the impact of the AFL on professional football was unmistakable. AFL football opened up the passing game to create an exciting style of offensive football, redefined positions, and looked for talent in places the NFL had overlooked, creating opportunities for players that may not have had any before.
The video story of the AFL is on this Youtube Channel.
The Passing Game
In 1960, only two teams in the 13 team NFL averaged more than 200 passing yards in a game, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Both teams had future Hall of Fame QB’s; Norm Van Brocklin (the Eagles) and Johnny Unitas (the Colts). The NFL also had four teams that had more rushing yards than passing yards on offense and another two teams that had less than 100 yards more total passing offense than rushing offense.
In the 8 team AFL though, 4 of the 8 teams averaged more than 200 yards passing. Every team in the league posted most of their total offense via the pass with several hundred if not over a thousand yard difference between the two. However, the offensive statistics for last year of the separate leagues reveal an interesting story: Average passing yards per game and average rushing yards per game in both leagues was nearly identical. The AFL averaged 179.5 average passing yards per game and the NFL 177.5. The average rushing yards per game, were 122.4 for the AFL and 122.0 in the NFL.
This was a stark contrast to the offensive averages in 1960. The NFL averaged 170.6 yards passing and 133.1 yards rushing during the 1960 season; the AFL 198.5 yard s passing and 125 yards rushing per game in 1960.
These statistics show that the AFL had learned how to control the vertical passing game. They also show that the NFL had figured out that the rewards from throwing the ball more frequently were worth the risks. Both leagues were running offenses that featured the pass by the time the merger happened.
In 1960, the best RB in the NFL, Jim Brown, caught 19 passes for 204 yards (a 10.7 yard average); the Charger’s Paul Lowe caught 23 passes for 377 yards (a 16.4 YPC average). By the time 1970 came around, RB’s were asked to act as receivers or blockers in the passing game on a regular basis, not just special situations or when their team was behind by two scores or more.
Receptions from the TE position were also up; the "leading" tight ends in the NFL in 1960 were men with 450 and 360 receiving yards in a season. By the end of the decade, the better TE’s in both leagues were putting up 800+ receiving yards in a season.
Gilman’s Field Balance offense demanded that all 5 eligible players be available to receive. While the Backs and TE’s were being asked to do more, the biggest position changes were in the primary receivers and the quarterbacks.
Prior to Gilman’s offense, the reception eligible players were still referred to as "Ends". The receiving position was still referred to as a "flanker" in some offenses; this was usually the receiver that lined up behind the line of scrimmage, but outside the tackles. Gilman wanted the defense stretched horizontally as well as vertically, so his formations featured two "Wide Receivers"; players lined up 7-10 yards away from the nearest tackle. Gilman wanted his receivers to have space to run their routes and avoid traffic in the middle of the field close to the line of scrimmage.
Gilman believed (correctly) that this would lead to a greater variety of possible plays in both the passing game AND the running game. Forcing a defense to play all 6,400 square yards of a field spelled an end to the "3 yards and a cloud of dust" offenses that had been the NFL’s staple for 40 years.
Runners like Tobin Rote in the 50’s were being replaced by drop back throwers that could get a tight spiral 70 yards downfield. QB’s that had rare skill sets in 1963, like Hadl, Blanda, and Kemp were joined by Namath, Lamonica, and Griese by 1968. While the few running QB’s in the NFL during the 60’s (Fran Tarkenton for example) were crowd favorites, they were increasingly rare. A QB was now supposed to pass, running only if nobody was open, even Tarkenton. They were also being told to not run QB draws or triple options, which was a part of the NFL offense in the ‘50’s.
Opening Doors for African American Players
Admittedly, most of the best football talent in 1960 was still under contract with NFL teams. The AFL did go after NFL players that had been waived, cut, or were otherwise free agents to get good players. The AFL also drafted from the same colleges as the NFL, but to get the same players that were drafted by an NFL team, an AFL team had to pay more. (Early examples of this were Billy Cannon and Lance Alworth.)
For the cash starved (at least in the early years) AFL teams, what they needed was a source of young talent to draft that had been overlooked by the NFL. They found it at colleges reserved for African-Americans in a still racially segregated south. Most AFL teams by 1965 had a large number of players, some teams nearly half the roster, of young men that had played college ball at schools like Grambling, Alcorn State, Prairie View, Georgia Southern, and Bowling Green.
While the NFL was desegregated early (and re-segregated in 1933), the league was effectively integrated in the late ‘40’s and by 1952, every team except for the Washington Redskins, owned by a notorious bigot (George Preston Marshall), had at least one African-American player. Black players did perceive that there was an informal quota system in the NFL, with most teams having 2-4 players (never an odd number, as hotel rooms for road games and dorms during training camp were never integrated).
There was no such informal quota in the AFL. The Chargers even took the next step and assigned roommates in training camp and for road games by position groups, which meant that white players roomed with black players for the first time in professional football. Not surprising, considering that Sid Gillman, who was Jewish, had been dealing with bigotry his entire life and had no time or patience for that type of attitude concerning race.
The best example of the AFL’s attitude towards race relations was seen in the 1965 AFL "All-Star Game". Originally scheduled to be played in New Orleans, several of the African-American Players (including Ladd and Faison), objected to the way they were being treated in that city. When the players (including all of the white players) told they league they did not want to play the game in New Orleans, the AFL moved the game to Houston in one day. Black players in AFL cities never had a problem with lodging, meals, and cabs; visiting teams stayed at Hilton Hotels which had been fully desegregated since the early 50’s.
The story of the boycott is told here:
The Mark That Sid Gillman Left on Football
The change in the way that the league was playing football by the time the 1969 season was played would not have happened without the success that Coach Gillman had with the Chargers from 1960 – 1965, plus the success that Al Davis had with the rivals in the late ‘60’s. In both the style of play and the players in the game, Gillman, plus his disciples changed professional football and those changes are still part of the game today.
Just a crazy assertion by an
old middle aged guy? Maybe it is. But before you dismiss the assertion, take a look at the NFL's coaching tree, which is slightly out of date: Under the Bill Walsh branch, locate the Jim Fassel line. Also note that under the Paul Brown section, John Fox is solidly under the Chuck Noll branch, even though Noll coached under Gilman. Fox also coached under Jim Fassel. The Chargers current Coach, Mike McCoy can be accurately placed under the John Fox AND Jim Fassel branches.
The Gillman Coaching Tree is one of the great coaching trees in the modern era of the NFL; the other is the Paul Brown Tree. According to a recent ESPN article, there are 26 Super Bowls that have been won by coaches from the Gillman tree. There are a few coaches that can be thought of as products of both the NFL's great coaching trees. The two men that come to mind are Chuck Noll and Bill Walsh, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame, with 7 Super Bowl wins between them.
Of course, 3 generations of football down the road, the influences have combined and blended. And like fashion, even the running QB is once again coming back into style, as long as the QB can also throw a tight spiral 70 yards downfield.