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A History of the San Diego Chargers, Part 6: Jack Kemp's Revenge

The Chargers try to defend their 1963 "World Championship" and then return to the Championship Game in 1965. The Buffalo Bills, with a familiar face playing quarterback, stand in the way both times.

Malcom Emmons, USA TODAY Sports

The 1964 Season

Entering into 1964, the "World Champion" San Diego Chargers were at the top of the AFL. They had suffered only one losing season of the four they had played. It was easy to imagine that their success would be as constant and wonderful as the Southern California weather. I imagine that if somebody would have told Sid Gilman on January 6, 1964 that the Chargers would go at least another 49 seasons without winning a league championship, the Chargers' Head Coach would have laughed in their face.

The Chargers were dealing with the problems of success, such as Assistant Coach Al Davis leaving before the 1963 season to become Head Coach of the Oakland Raiders, but all challenges looked manageable in 1964. The coaching staff, starting with Gilman and Chuck Noll, was still excellent. The team was loaded with stars in the prime of their careers. Let the good times keep rolling…

The Chargers selected LBs (Ted Davis and John Kirby) for the first choices of the 1964 draft, but the 4th round yielded Dave Parks, a WR that remained with the team through 1973. Parks would finish his career with 360 catches, 44 TD’s, and 5,619 total receiving yards. Not a bad 9 year career, but not spectacular.

Drafts like this would characterize the Charger’s efforts for the next few years; unlike the spectacular 1961 and 1962 drafts, the team would get a solid player or two but few standouts. One free agent addition would make the Charger’s 50th Anniversary team as a Kick Returner, right next to Darren Sproles. That was Leslie "Speedy" Duncan.

A Man They Called Speedy (via nexlev818)

Tobin Rote started the first five games in 1964, but yielded to John Hadl for the remainder of the season. (Gilman, for reasons not fully articulated at the time or later, started Rote in the AFL Championship Game.) The Chargers promptly ran off a 5 game winning streak, going 7-2-1 through their first 10 games of the season. During the 10th game, a 28-14 victory against the Kansas City Chiefs, disaster struck in the form of Lance Alworth suffering a season ending knee injury. The Chargers went 1-3 in the last four games, finishing with an 8-5-1 record, barely beating out the Oakland team, which finished at 7-7.

The 1964 AFL Championship Game was played in Buffalo, which had held off the Boston Patriots (finishing with a 10-3-1 record) for the East Division crown by posting a fine 12-2 record. Already without Alworth, Keith Lincoln left the game in the 1st quarter with a broken rib resulting from a hit by LB Mike Stratton that has reached almost legendary status in Buffalo. Without two major weapons on offense, playing in the cold weather of Buffalo, the resulting final score was predictable; 20-7, Bills. The Chargers had fallen short in a championship game again.

The 1965 Season

The draft ushering in the 1965 season leaned heavily on San Diego State players; 3 Aztecs graduated from the Bowl on Montezuma Mesa to Balboa Stadium. The best of the group was Gary Garrison, a receiver that turned out to be a good complement to Lance Alworth in the late 60’s. Four other players turned out to be journeyman level players; Steve DeLong, Gene Foster, Bob Evans and Steve Tensi were solid players that stayed with the team for years, but were not difference makers.

The real splash in the 1965 draft produced quite a stir on the other coast, with the selection of Joe Namath by the New York Jets. Namath’s decision to sign with the Jets (and not the St. Louis Cardinals), plus the incredible boon of the "outrageous" TV contract that NBC signed with the AFL, for the (at the time) incredible sum of $36 Million a year, convinced a majority of the NFL owners that the AFL was here to stay and needed to be dealt with in a different way. During 1965, the term "merger" was starting to be openly discussed.

With Hadl firmly entrenched at QB (Rote had retired after the 1964 Championship Game), plus Alworth and Lincoln back on the field, the Chargers blew through the first part of their schedule in 1965, not losing a game until Halloween that year; although there were two ties. Statistically, the 1965 team was as dominant as the 1963 squad, finishing 1st in the AFL in offensive yards and scoring; 1st in defensive yards allowed and 2nd in defensive scoring.

The unquestioned leader of the team was Lance Alworth. In a spectacular 14 game performance during that season, he accounted for 1,602 receiving yards and 14 TD’s on 69 receptions. At the time, that was good for #2 on the single season receiving yards record list (Charlie Hennigan, a receiver for the Houston Oilers posted 1,746 receiving yards in 1961). Alworth’s place on that single season record list would remain unchanged until 1995. Paul Lowe added in 1,121 rushing yards and 6 TD’s. Keith Lincoln and Gene Foster, splitting time at Fullback, combined for another 5 TD’s and 1,346 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving).

Big Cat Ladd and Earl Faison, both named to the "All-AFL Team" (think 1st team Pro-Bowl) continued to dominate the line of scrimmage on defense. Chuck Allen was a stalwart at Mike LB. The secondary was superb, with two being named as "AFL All-Stars" (think named to the Pro-Bowl), Kenny Graham and Speedy Duncan. Duncan was also a special team weapon, contributing 1,026 all-purpose yards in kickoff and punt returns.

All-in-all, the 1965 Chargers were a team loaded with talented football players and they were superbly coached. Winding up the 1965 regular season, the team even looked like it was peaking at the right time of the year, winning the last three games of the season by a combined score of 99-47. The stage was set for a rematch with Buffalo in the AFL Championship Game. The Chargers were the hosts this time and went into the December 26, 1965 contest favored by 7 points.

As much as the 1963 Championship Game illustrated the best of Sid Gilman the Head Coach, the 1965 contest illustrated the worst. The Monday before the game, Coach Gilman gave an interview to a reporter from the Buffalo News. In that interview, Gilman offered up his opinion on the game and Jack Kemp: "You know, there is no way we can lose this game on Sunday…We’re going to win this game because Kemp has the maturity of a 10-year-old girl." Going into the game, Gilman did not put any winkles into the offense or defense. On the other hand, Lou Saban (no relation to Nick), Buffalo’s head coach did.

Defensively, the Bills double teamed Alworth (which was a rare defensive tactic in those days) on nearly every play. Saban also blitzed one or more of his linebackers on any pass play. As a result, Hadl’s primary read was usually covered and he had insufficient time to make proper progression reads. Hadl hurried many of his throws, forced others, was sacked 5 times, and finished the game with a poor 11 completions on 23 attempts and two INT’s. The Chargers got close enough to try two field goals in the first half; one was blocked and the other missed.

Offensively, the Bills used a two TE formation frequently in the game, another rarity at the time, which permitted them to run, use play action passes, and bootlegs to keep Ladd and Faison off of Kemp. Kemp did not have a spectacular day either, but he did throw one TD pass and had one interception. The biggest play of the game was a 74 yard punt return by Butch Byrd. The game ended with Buffalo winning 23-0 in a game where the stat lines were not spectacular for either team. It was a game where Buffalo gave max effort, got a couple of big plays, and executed a well-conceived game plan. For the Chargers, the missed field goals, lack of in-game adjustments, and failures to execute added up to a bad day at the worst possible time.

The highlights of the 1964 and 1965 Championship games start around the 5:00 mark in this video and the hit on Lincoln in the ’64 game is at 6:10: (Warning: Bills-centric video.)

buffalo Bills 2 (via padmasterdude)

For the Chargers, the bad days at the worst possible times were just getting started.