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The Super Bowls That Never Were

First in a three-part series

By Glenn Guzzo

            With National Football League seers already trying to pick the winner of a Super Bowl yet to be played, perhaps it’s timely to use Strat-O-Matic’s powerful “what-if?” capability to consider the Super Bowls that were never played.

            I’m talking about the pre-1966 seasons when the NFL tried to ignore the upstart American Football League. For six seasons (1960-65) the AFL played on national network TV in big-city stadiums with talent coveted by the NFL, but without a shot at a world championship. The success of the young league first encouraged NFL-AFL championships (Super Bowls I-IV, though they weren’t called Super Bowl initially) after the 1966-69 seasons and, ultimately, a merger of the two leagues.

            Those first four Super Bowls are well-remembered. In the first two, Vince Lombardi’s 1966 and 1967 Green Bay Packers dominated the Kansas City Chiefs and Oakland Raiders. But then the 1968 New York Jets’ Joe Namath brashly guaranteed victory over the mighty Baltimore Colts and pulled it off. Finally, the 1969 Kansas City Chiefs team confirmed AFL parity by proving to be more gifted than 17-point favorite Minnesota. The Chiefs thrashed the Vikings, 23-7.

Is there reason to believe the American Football League was ready to compete on the field before Namath’s triumph? Did Lombardi’s Packers prove otherwise, or only that the Packers were stronger, not the whole NFL?

To find out, I set up Super Bowls between the AFL and NFL champs from the 1962-65 seasons. Eventually, Strat-O-Matic will create the teams from 1960 and 1961. But until then we can add four years to the real four-year history of NFL-AFL championships.

So we’ll be creating these match-ups:

1962: Green Bay vs. the Dallas Texans.

1963: Chicago Bears vs. the San Diego Chargers

1964: Cleveland Browns vs. the Buffalo Bills

1965: Green Bay vs. Buffalo

THE BACKSTORY

Less understood, the American Football League was a thorn in the National Football League’s bonnet even before the AFL debuted in 1960. From the very start, the AFL had the temerity to draft players the NFL teams were drafting highly – and sign their share of them. Until the leagues merged their drafts in 1967, the eight AFL teams signed a dozen players drafted No. 1 by the NFL and many more future stars the NFL had drafted highly.

In the process, the AFL stunned almost every established NFL team and certainly stunted the growth of the Detroit Lions, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Cardinals and likely delayed the rise to prominence of the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers, among others.

Players who would figure prominently on the 1962-65 AFL champions – players like Abner Haynes, Lance Alworth, Keith Lincoln, Ernie Ladd, Earl Faison, E.J. Holub, Johnny Robinson and Mel Branch – had been drafted highly by the NFL, too.

A league that had not yet played a game stole five No.-1 picks from the NFL’s 1960 draft:

n  The Los Angeles Rams lost RB Billy Cannon, who starred for the Houston Oilers, winners of the AFL crowns in 1960 and ’61, and runners-up in 1962.

n  Detroit lost safety Johnny Robinson, who starred for the Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs champs in 1962, 1966 and 1969.

n  Philadelphia lost RB Ron Burton, a starter for the Boston Patriots when they challenged the Buffalo Bills for the AFL East titles in 1963-65.

n  Baltimore lost both its No. 1 and No. 2 picks, future HOF OT Ron Mix and DT Don Floyd, who starred for champs in San Diego and Houston, respectively.

n  Pittsburgh also lost its top two picks to the Dallas Texans, FB-punter Jack Spikes and star RB Abner Haynes.

 

Detroit’s embarrassment, and front-office futility, continued annually in competition with the AFL.  In 1961, the Lions lost G Houston Antwine and DE Earl Faison, both AFL All-Pros.  In 1962, No. 1 pick QB John Hadl preferred San Diego to Detroit’s suggestion that he become a running back; No. 2 pick QB Eddie Wilson chose the Texans, No. 5 pick Dan Birdwell became a fine, seven-year starter on the defensive line in Oakland and No. 16 pick Tom Sestak did the same for Buffalo. A 1963 pick, DB Tom Janik, became a nine-year starter for three AFL teams.   In 1964, the AFL outbid Detroit for the Lions’ No. 1 (QB Pete Beathard), No. 2 (End Matt Snorton), No. 4 (DL Gerry Philbin) and No. 12 (WR Warren Wells) picks. And in 1965 the Lions suffered the ultimate indignity: Their No. 3 pick, WR Fred Biletnikoff, signed with Oakland’s Al Davis while Biletnikoff was still in his Florida State uniform, under the goal posts immediately after his final college game in the Gator Bowl. Apparently, Detroit never had a clue that it had no chance to sign Biletnikoff.

Detroit’s long futility on the field since the mid-‘60s – the Lions still haven’t played in a Super Bowl – can be traced to these days. Recalling the Lions’ long search for a top quarterback, imagine Hadl throwing to WRs Biletnikoff and Wells, who became a dynamic duo in Oakland. Imagine Antwine clearing holes for the runners. Imagine a defensive front four of ends Faison and Philbin and defensive tackles Birdwell and Sestak succeeding the likes of Alex Karras and Roger Brown. The Lions, constant contenders in the 1950s and early ‘60s, might never have lost a step.

The AFL’s draft-and-sign effectiveness reached its zenith in 1965, when the Jets paid then-outlandish sums to Alabama QB Joe Namath ($400,000) and Notre Dame QB John Huarte ($250,000), the Heisman Trophy winner. Namath had been drafted No. 1 by the NFL Cardinals and Huarte was a sixth-round pick of the Eagles, who also lost premier WRs Otis Taylor (Kansas City) and Garry Garrison (San Diego) to the AFL in that draft as well as solid MLB Rick Redman (San Diego).  In the same draft that made the Chicago Bears famous for drafting Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers in the first round, the Bears lost their fourth-round pick, bulwark FB Jim Nance, to the AFL Patriots. Put them together with the three stars the Bears lost to the AFL in 1963: RB Keith Lincoln, DT Ernie Ladd, and OT Jim Tyrer.

If not for the AFL, the Eagles also would have had dominant G Ed Budde and WRs Don Norton and Al Denson. The Cardinals would have had QB Namath, TE Fred Arbanas and All-AFL DE Ron McDole. Hall of Fame WR Lance Alworth would have been a 49er. E. J. Holub and HOF G Billy Shaw would have been Cowboys. QB Daryle Lamonica and HOF DT Buck Buchanan would have been Packers.  The RB-starved Steelers would have had Abner Haynes, Emerson Boozer and Hewritt Dixon.

The Rams would have had RBs Billy Cannon and Mike Garrett, FB Curtis McClinton, All-AFL FS George Saimes, HOF CB Willie Brown, strong DTs Ike Lassiter and Dave Costa, MLB Chuck Allen and ball-hawk DB/distance punter Jerrel Wilson. Minnesota would have had Hall of Fame LB Bobby Bell, star DLs Jerry Mays, Jim Dunaway and Tom Keating , and WR Bill Miller (who caught both of Oakland’s TD passes against the Packers in Super Bowl II). All those would-be Vikings earned AFL rings.

Next: The 1962 and 1963 Super Bowls.