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A History of the San Diego Chargers, Part 7: Not Quite Good Enough

After the 1965 loss to Buffalo in the AFL Championship, it would be another 15 years before the Chargers returned to post-season play. So what happened? This installment of the team's history covers the last four years of the team's AFL run that featured 5 trips to the League Championship game and only one losing season.

The Chargers went through the remaining four seasons of the 60’s with Gilman as the Head Coach, John Hadl as the QB, a future Hall of Fame Receiver (Alworth), and a future Hall of Fame RT (Mix). Although the Chargers did not return to the AFL Championship Game before the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, they also did not have a losing season in that timespan. Why did the team fall short of another shot at an AFL Championship? As is the usual case in these sorts of things, there were many contributing factors.

Catch up on previous installments: Part 6 | 5 | 4 | 3 | 2 | 1

Poor Drafts and Lack of Acquiring Quality Veteran FA’s

A review of the team’s drafts from 1966 through 1969 shows that there was exactly ONE impact player taken in those drafts that actually signed with the team: Russ Washington in 1968. Washington was an excellent Tackle that played with the team through 1982. Many of the other players drafted in that time remained with the team through the early–or–mid-Seventies, so you could hardly term the picks "busts", but they were journeyman–level players. Good enough to make the team, but not good enough to be standouts at their positions.

Prior to the announcement of the common draft — due to start in 1967 — word was starting to get out that the Charger’s management was difficult to deal with in getting paid well unless you were a marquee player at a marquee position (sound familiar?).

In 1966, the team drafted a fine LB in Doug Buffone, who signed with the Bears and played until 1979. Baron Hilton was having financial issues — his "Diner’s Club" credit cards were a dismal failure — and he was putting pressure on Sid Gilman to keep salaries down, except for those few stars that would put people in the seats.

The financial issues finally led to Hilton selling the team in 1967 — which was also the team’s first year in their new $27 Million state–of–the–art stadium in Mission Valley — for $10 Million dollars to a mostly–LA–based group of 21 investors, headed by a personal friend of Hilton’s: Beverly Hills developer Eugene V. Klein.

In his drafting, free agent acquisitions, and contract negotiations from 1964 through 1969, Sid Gilman the General Manager made life a lot more difficult for Sid Gilman the Head Coach. This was in contrast to the drafting and free agent signings that GM Gilman did in 1961 and 1962 that set up Head Coach Gilman’s division–winning runs that ended in 1965.

Departing and Declining Talent That Was Not Replaced

1966 hit the defense HARD. Before the month of January was done, both Earl Faison and Big Cat Ladd were gone. An attempt to trade the two to Houston was voided: the league determined that Bud Adams, the Houston owner, had tampered with the two players.

The trade was meant to "resolve" a contract dispute that had been simmering since 1963. The dispute concluded with the team trading Ladd to Houston later (the league approved that trade) and receiving little in return. Faison had a far worse outcome. Dealing with a worsening back problem, he eventually re-signed with the Chargers, but was cut on October 18, 1966 after ineffective play. Faison was out of football after 1966.

Perhaps an even bigger loss in January was the departure of Defensive Backfield Coach Chuck Noll to the Baltimore Colts.

Whatever the reason — the loss of key defensive linemen and linebackers, or the departure of Noll, or both — the Chargers defensive performance dropped to 4th in scoring and 7th in yards allowed in the 8–team league in 1966.

The offense also dropped off and much of it can be traced to the decline in Paul Lowe and the loss of Dave Koucerek, an original Charger and reliable TE to the Miami Dolphins in the expansion draft. Lowe only rushed for 643 yards during the 1966 season (he led the team in rushing yards), despite the offensive line returning intact. It was Lowe’s final year starting with the Chargers and his replacements in the late 60’s were just not as good as Lowe was in the early 60’s.

The team started the 1966 season 4-1, but finished with a 7-6-1 record and 3rd place in the AFL West. The meltdown over the last 9 games was pretty bad. I was able to find highlights for the first 5 games and maybe it was a blessing not being able to locate the next two parts.


The Rest of the AFL Figured It Out

Al Davis left the Chargers right before the 1963 Championship season. Faulkner had left for Denver the year before. Both men were Gilman disciples and knew the "Field Balance Theory" and vertical passing game well. As they began to implement the vertical passing game, the rest of the AFL began to figure out how to defend it or implemented the offense themselves (or both). In the case of the Oakland team and others (the Jets once they got Namath), some teams were even able to improve upon it.

The Kansas City Chiefs went another direction. Hank Stram’s innovations were in the run game and his formations are still seen in today’s offenses. The offset T, the offset I, the slant formations; all of them were developed and perfected by Stram.

The league’s defenses were being constructed to deal with the vertical passing game, too. Linemen that were capable of putting on a pass rush, fast defensive backs, linebackers that could either blitz or cover TE’s and RB’s, and safeties that terrorized any receiver over the middle were now featured on many AFL teams. This was a marked difference from the "stop the run first" defenses in 1960.

Zone coverage and double team coverage, especially on the deep threat receiver, were other innovations to answer the "Field Balance" type of offenses. Defenses had ideas on how to control the vertical passing game by 1964; assembling the talent was in progress, nearly done, or completed for many teams by 1966. The decline in Alworth’s receiving yardage in 1966 through 1970 illustrated the adjustments the league’s defenses were making. The final statement on this type of defense was seen in the early 70’s with Chuck Noll’s "Steel Curtain" defense in Pittsburgh.

The improvement in the rest of the AFL West was clearly seen in the 1967, 1968, and 1969 seasons. The Oakland team won the division in 1967 with a 13-1 record; the Chiefs went 9-5. The Chargers 8-5-1 record, which had gotten them a division title in 1964, was good for 3rd place. Kansas City and Oakland both went 12-2 in 1968. The Chargers went 9-5 and came in 3rd again. 3rd place was also the result of the 1969 season with the Chargers finishing 8-6, behind the Oakland team (12-1-1) and the Chiefs (11-3). The Charger teams of the late 60’s were still good teams, just not quite good enough.

The team had their chances through the late ‘60’s. Hot starts would be followed by late season meltdowns (’66 & ’67). The team would lose key games to divisional opponents after playing fairly well throughout the season (1968). Or a mid-year losing streak would put the team into 3rd place again (1969). The Chargers had some great performances, like Speedy Duncan putting up 203 return yards with two TD’s, while single handedly dismantling the Chiefs at home in 1967. Hadl to Alworth was still a deadly combination, it just was not happening as often during these years as it had during 1963 – 1965.

Charger Football could still be fun to watch, whether it was happening in a Buffalo mud bowl in 1968:

Chargers at Bills 1968 (via nitroradio99)

Or a blowout win against Buffalo in San Diego in 1969:

Bills at Chargers 1969 (via nitroradio99)

1969, the final AFL season, was significant for the Chargers. Right Tackle Ron Mix, the last of the original Chargers from 1960 and a 9–time Pro-Bowler, announced that he would retire at the end of the season. 1969 was also the first time the team played games under a head Coach not named Sid Gilman. On November 14, 1969, Gilman stepped down as Head Coach, for what was stated as "poor health". He retained the job of General Manager. Offensive Assistant Charlie Waller took over as head coach and went 4-1 over the last 5 games.

As the decade ended, both the team and professional football were radically changing. The merger of the AFL and NFL was completed after the fourth Super Bowl Game played in January of 1970. San Diego fans welcomed the new decade with optimism that a new Head Coach would breathe new life into a team that had experienced only one losing season in 10 years, but missed the playoffs with 3rd–place finishes in their division for 4 straight years.

Unfortunately, the optimism going into 1970 had become despair by 1972.