Super Bowls That Were Never Played
In this fascinating article that appeared in a Newsday special section which previewed Super Bowl XV, author John Jeansonne theorized what would have happened if the Super Bowl would have commenced with the formation of the AFL in 1960. These games, of course, never happened, but are interesting to consider. Jeansonne speculates that, instead of the Jets upset of the Colts in 1968 being the AFL’s watershed moment, the San Diego Chargers would have stunned the Chicago Bears following the 1963 season. Also included here are two other articles from Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated regarding the possible 1964 season matchup between the Bills and Colts and another fine article by Ted Gruver of the Pro Football Researchers Association that again discusses the possibilities of the 1963 Bears, Chargers game. Keep in mind that Lamar Hunt coined the name “Super Bowl” later in the decade (he named it after his child’s toy, a Super Ball) and the game would probably have been referred to as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game in the early years.
Chargers vs. Bears: A Makeup Game
In 1963, Chicago won the NFL title and San Diego took the AFL. Imagine if there had been a Super Bowl.......
By John Jeansonne
In 1963 the Chicago Bears were forbidding. Dressed in black, breathing smoke, waiting in the snow and ice on their all-fours, daring anybody- even the Packers, that one year- to try them. Their defense broke opponents into pieces. They shattered Y. A. Tittle before halftime in the championship game; they froze up Del Shofner so badly that he dropped a first-period pass in the end zone. The Giants that year had a magnificent offense, but the Bears’ defense prevailed, 14-10, in eight-degree weather. As National Football League titlists, according to the custom of the time, they declared themselves World Champions.
The NFL was plenty secure about its status then. President Kennedy was assassinated that fall, on a Friday, but the NFL determined its business important enough to play its regularly scheduled games two days later. So the Bears traveled to Pittsburgh and tied the Steelers, 17-17. Meanwhile, the San Diego Chargers would have played the Jets in San Diego, except the AFL decided to cancel all games that weekend. The Bears would tie one and win two more after that, then defeat the Giants in the title game to finish 11-2. The Chargers would win four of five, including their 51-10 victory over the Boston Patriots for the AFL championship, to finish 11-3.
In 1963 the Chargers were startling. They wore sky blue and lightning bolts, and they loved to be dared. Stick your finger into their offense, as the Patriots tried to do with various blitzes in the championship game, and they’d shock you. Badly. Charger runs of 56, 67 and 58 yards broke the game open in the first period. They were the passingest, runningest, blockingest (even tacklingest) thing the AFL had seen in its
first four years of mostly passing. They were fearless enough that head coach Sid Giliman publicly challenged the Bears.
And the Chargers that year became the first AFL team to win the Super Bowl. They constantly used men in motion to fuzzy the assignments of Bears’ blitzers. They sent Lance Alworth over the middle, sprinting and diving and veering and leaping. They slipped Keith Lincoln behind trap blocks through the middle, and sprung Paul Lowe wide on occasional sweeps. They got ahead early and, urging the Bears’ five-yards-and-a-headache passing attack into a rare attempt to be wide-open, they picked off panicky Bears’ passes despite having ordinary defensive backs. The Chargers won, 35-10.
The game itself is fancy, of course. There were six Super Bowls back first half of the 60s, which never became fact: The Philadelphia Eagles against the Houston Oilers after the 1960 season. The Green Bay Packers against the Oilers in ‘61. The Packers against the Dallas Texans in ‘62. The Bears against the Chargers in ‘63. The Cleveland Browns against the Buffalo Bills in ‘64. The Packers against the Bills in ‘65. The NFL, a bit haughty and a bit too busy with itself, paid “not too much attention to the AFL then,” says flanker Johnny Morris, a prominent member of the 1963 Bears. “The AFL really seemed like the minor leagues at that time.” To be convinced that the NFL was intrinsically superior to the AFL was a reliable, patriotic sentiment even well after the actual playing of the first NFL-AFL championship game (after the 1966 season, Green Bay against Kansas City). It was a widely acceptable feeling, as a matter of fact, right past the Jets’ historic 1969 victory; the NFL Vikings were heavy favorites to beat the AFL Chiefs the following year, so that it took the Chiefs’ almost-easy win and the finalization of-the merger for the football public to recognize equity.
In 1963 the NFL champion was pro football’s champion. Linemen and linebackers were stouter, less mobile then. Defensive backs played man-to-man. There was less extravagance, fewer intricacies. More of push coming to shove. That was the style, that was the way it was. A player who chose to play in the AFL was, by definition, inferior, either because he couldn’t get an NFL job or- worse- didn’t want to compete with the very best. Dismissing the pretty AFL offensive statistics, therefore, was no task whatsoever.
But we missed something. It is only through hindsight that we realize how special a player Lance Alworth was, for instance. Some still don’t realize. Dave Whitsell, a good enough cornerback for the 1963 Bears but hardly Hall of Fame timber, shrugs off the possibility that he probably would have been assigned to cover Alworth, man-to-man, in that year’s Super Bowl. “I had Del Shofner in the [NFL] championship game,” Whitsell offers by way of comparison. Del Shofner! A fine receiver, no doubt. But Del Shofner the same breath with Lance Alworth? It is only through hindsight that we note how quickly the two leagues were becoming equal, how the AFL had won two Super Bowls by the time four had been played. Had the whole process of Super Bowl matches been set in motion immediately, with the first AFL season in 1960, might there not have been forerunners to Fred Williamson, threatening to wipe out the Packers singlehandedly; to Joe Namath, guaranteeing an AFL upset and then engineering it; to Hank Stram, devising an Offense of the Seventies, complete with a snappy vest and moving pockets?
Straining these imaginary Super Bowls through knowledgeable football minds allows two insoluble elements to come through: (1) the expected hesitancy to challenge conventional public opinion; that is, that the NFL teams would have prevailed in at least five of the six games and that the NFL teams would have covered rather sizeable betting spreads in at least four of the six. But (2) the ‘63 Chargers were the most likely AFL team to catch the NFL unawares, to actually win.
“I would’ve given anything to play in that one,” says Alworth. “In ‘63, I was saying, ‘Line ‘em up.”
Historically, a Super Bowl game thrives as much on its buildup as on what happens once you line ‘em up. This is partly by design; two weeks separate the final conference championship games and the Super Bowl, and the more cacophonous pre-game discussion, the better. In the early years of the Super Bowl, the buildup was enlivened by the unknown; the Jets and the Colts hadn’t come anywhere near playing each other in late November of that season, as today’s opponents did. Rematches are fine. But from 1960 through 1965, the NFL and AFL champions, brought together less as antagonists from different football worlds, would have been playing around with some real mysteries. Physical, emotional, strategical, psychological.
What would have happened . . . well, merely to consider what would have happened is perfect Super Bowl form.
The ‘60 Eagles would have wasted just a little time NFL- establishment-macho demonstrations of strength, trying to muscle the Oilers with an early running game featuring a mediocre offensive line (Jim McCusker, Jerry Huth, Stan Campbell) and non-descript backs (Billy Barnes, rookie Ted Dean filling in for injured Clarence Peaks). Then insolent old quarterback and NFL hardliner Norm Van Brocklin- in 1969, having become an NFL head coach at Atlanta, he said during Super Bowl week that he would “tell you what I think of Namath after Sunday, after he’s played his first pro game"- would have strutted his passing stuff. To Tommy McDonald. To Pete Retzlaff. To Bobby Walston. McDonald was a marvel, everyone knows. But what many people thought they knew- that the Eagles were good but not great- the Eagles never seemed to pick up on. “Those jerks,” says longtime NFL observer Jim Campbell with some affection, “didn’t know they were bad. They would’ve beaten anybody they had to, because they didn’t know any better. And Alex Karras once said that nobody ever played quarterback like Van Brocklin did that year. He just wouldn’t let them lose.” Most of the Eagles were aging veterans. One of them, Chuck Bednarik, was aging even faster than the rest by playing both offense and defense.
But, the Oilers had no more than a smattering of real pro talent. Billy Cannon, for instance, and Charlie Hennigan. George Blanda, though his resurrection after being discarded by the Chicago Bears at age 32 was noteworthy, is difficult to picture in the no-sweat-sure-of-himself-and-his-team Namath role. Could he have convinced Orville Trask and Dennis Morris that they belonged on the same field with Maxie Baughan, Don Burroughs, Tommy Brookshier? Van Brocklin, dealing from a position of power, would have belittled the Oilers during weeklong press conferences, belittled them on the field, then swaggered off to belittle them more in post-game discussions. Las Vegas odds maker Bob Martin figures the Eagles would have been 13-point favorites, and veteran betting writer and observer Larry Merchant- who followed that Eagles’ team as a Philadelphia newspaper columnist- says the Eagles would have covered without difficulty.
The ‘61 Packers couldn’t have helped but add to the NFL’s eminence. Starr, Taylor, Hornung, McGee, Dowler, Gregg, Thurston, Davis, Nitschke, Adderley......that’s the end of the first quarter, with the Packers leading the Oilers, 14-0. In a three-part Sports IIlustrated series published 10 years later, Blanda wrote that "I've had a front-row seat from Game One [of the AFL] right up to last season’s Super Bowl, and I only regret that we didn’t have a Super Bowl from the very first. But the NFL guys ducked us. And they were wise. We’d have held our own, more than held our own.” He said that from the safe distance of a decade, though, and even now he would have trouble finding many to agree. “If you weren’t good,” Merchant says, “you’d just never get the ball away from those Packers.” Martin figures, “Packers by 14½.” Merchant says it might have been 17, and “I might have given the 17.”
With the ‘62 Packers- more of the same- Lombardi wouldn’t have had to wait until 1967 to say that the Chiefs “were a good team but they don’t compare with the top teams in our league.” he could’ve said it after soundly defeating the Dallas Texans (who would become the Kansas City Chiefs the next season and who had the beginnings of the Chiefs’ team which won the 1970 Super Bowl). The Texans played 2:54 into the sixth quarter to take the AFL title from Houston in ‘62, and they had Abner Haynes, Len Dawson, Curtis McClinton, Fred Arbanas, Jim Tyrer, E.J. Holub, Sherrill Hedrick. But, against the Pack? The Pack won 14 of 15 games that season. The spiral of NFL dominance climbed merrily out of sight. “The Packers by 16½, 17 points,” offers Martin. The NFL wasn’t everything; it was the only thing.
When the Chargers beat the Bears in ‘63, it overturned the whole NFL psyche. The Chargers’ defensive backs bewildered Bears’ receivers with the’AFL bump-and-run ploy, with the mere size of defansive linemen like Ernie Ladd(6-9, 321) and Earl Faison (6-5, 266), with the Bears’ own inability to discourage these guys. Chargers quarterback Tobin Rote didn’t mind scrambling occasionally. Keith Lincoln didn’t mind at all swinging out of the backfield to draw one-on-one pass coverage from the nasty but hardly speedy linebackers- Joe Fortunato, Bill George, Larry Morris. The Bears were used to slowly, methodically, hammering opponents into the ground, preferably frozen ground. But on the warm-weather Super Bowl stage, the Chargers hippety-hopped around. The Chargers were sneaky and they were fast. And while George Halas appealed desperately to the Bears’ manhood at halftime, Sid Gillman delighted in his tools of cunning and running.
The ‘64 Browns would have cooly and fastidiously defeated the Bills. Jim Brown would have saddled up and run all day. Paul Warfield and Gary Collins would have caught a lot of Frank Ryan passes. This is the team which disposed of the Colts, 27-0, in the NFL championship game. The Bills, meanwhile, won the AFL title in a frenzied, rough defensive game against the Chargers at Buffalo- a game most remembered for linebacker Mike Stratton’s frightening tackle of Keith Lincoln, less famous but of the same mood as Chuck Bednarik’s leveling of Frank Gifford in 1960; “The Browns by more than 14,” says oddsmaker Martin.
Although, the Bills were getting there. So while Martin favors the ‘65 Packers by 17 points over the Bills, Larry Merchant says he’d take that bet. “There wasn’t much speed on either side,” Merchant says, “but Buffalo had a good chance of covering, say, a two- touchdown spread.”
We’d be up to Super Bowl XXI by now.
We wouldn’t find Joe Namath so mystic to merely have repeated what was first done in 1963.
Chronicles from The Land of If:
They played in Miami’s Orange Bowl, after the usual week of press conferences and practices. The Chargers stayed at the Miami Lakes Country Club, northwest of the city, and trained at nearby Biscayne College, far from the lights and sunbathing of Miami Beach but surrounded by cameras, notebooks and microphones. The Chargers were thrilled by the attention, especially Ernie Ladd. “Aw, yeah, we just trash,” Ladd mimicked. “We don’t amount to nothin’ like the Bears, high-toned and pretty. Naw. We just kind of stand around and cuss and spit, wishin’ we could wear real uniforms with those nice, rrrrrround numbers. Real frilly, don’t you think? Dainty, almost. Dainty. Lord, to be among the elite!”
Chargers defensive coach Chuck Noll wasn’t enamored of Ladd’s dissipation of so much energy, talking, preaching, shouting, all week. Nor of linebacker Paul Maguire slumping in his chair, chin in hand, enduring a long strategy discussion. When an assistant at last wanted to know if there were any questions, Maguire raised his hand and called: “Can you give me directions to the dog tracks?”
To a great extent, the Chargers studied themselves under the building pressure. Earl Faison and Chuck Allen, perhaps the most robust members of the defense, were mostly quiet, a little fidgety. Tackle Ron Mix promised victory, but was misquoted and it came out “guaranteed.” Mix wasn’t upset over semantics; if anything, a former USC football player always feels he is allowed certain leeway of confidence, of certainty. Also, a former USC player likes to see his name in print. Ladd was unrestrained in his evaluation of various inconveniences. His too-small bed. His too-small locker. His too-small reputation in the minds of NFL types. No Charger was quoted more, and none listened to less by teammates. Maguire played the jester, taking nothing seriously- certainly not the fire drill he instigated after curfew one evening. His little absurdities were shots of muscle relaxant to some teammates, though probably not to the extent that Keith Lincoln’s innate calmness was. And Tobin Rote’s every mannerism- some casual, some fairly assertive- was taken
Indeed, only Rote was spared the editorial sneers. At 35, he was the only one above minor-league suspicion, really, for his tales of the 1957 NFL championship game- when he quarterbacked the Lions to a 59-14 victory over Cleveland- filled columns of newsprint, especially in San Diego and Detroit.
Lincoln had just one gripe. He forever thought he should be playing halfback instead of fullback; he leaped at the chance to circulate his concern widely through the assembled media. “Six-two, two-twelve,” he would say. “Do I look like a damn fullback to you?”
The Bears lounged around their Fort Lauderdale Hotel, hours by the pool overlooking the ocean, and trained without a care at the Yankees spring training headquarters. Defensive end Doug Atkins cursed head coach George Hales whenever Halas suggested Atkins partake in the workouts- a regular event throughout Atkins’ career. Offensive tackle Herm Lee just smiled. Mickey Mouse’s name came up often in discussions of the Chargers and the AFL. Ed O’Bradovich tossed around the noun “pipsqueak” a bit. And after each of the formal interview hours in the hotel ballroom, there could be found various scribblings on the tablecloths where the Bears had sat to talk. Little stickmen. Stars. Drawings of Popeye.
Herm Lee just smiled. A couple of the rookies told of how Atkins, during training camp, would invite them to his room, present them with huge quantities of beer, and then would station his pet bulldog at the door, so that when they felt the urge to go to the bathroom, the dog wouldn’t let them out. Halfback Willie Galimore talked, wistfully, about his series of knee operations, which kept him constantly hobbled. Mike Ditka kidded about the heat. He wore short sleeves all through the Chicago winters; he surely would sweat great pools on the Orange Bowl turf (not yet replaced by an artificial surface), playing havoc with the footing. Defensive tackle Fred Williams (“Fat Fred Williams, the Fabulous Fat Man From Arkansas,” Ditka calls him) talked in similes: “Be like playin’ A&M on Sunday. Be like when the Aggies were playing us down in Arkansaw, and some damned old bus backfired late in the second half out in the parking lot and, hell, we thought it was the gun for halftime, so we all run off to the lockerroom.
“And four plays later A & M scored.”
Herm Lee just smiled. He smiled all season, amused by his own world.
George Allen, the Bears eager young defensive coach, dispatched an assistant trainer to the Orange Bowl, to chart the sun’s patterns during the day. Apparently he wanted to know when it might be in the eyes of Charger receivers. It was later that Allen began using five defensive backs against dangerous passing teams; the Bears still worked, meticulously, on man-to-man coverage and blitzing patterns. Head coach George Halas began to swear a little more each day in team meetings. Johnny Morris, struck by Halas’ sudden passion, described to reporters (“You can’t print this, but Halas’ improper pronunciation of certain obscenities: There would be Halas, all fired up and calling on the various gods of football and the NFL, and Morris and his mates would be in the back of the room smirking at each other over the way Halas would say . . . Well, modesty prevents detail. But they were the Chicago Blooming Bears! Of the National Bleeding Football League! The Flipping Monsters of the Midway! And they had a blessed mission!
Bobby Darin sang the National Anthem. He snapped his fingers.
In the Chargers offensive huddle, Lincoln spat when immediately called upon to run up the middle. But the trap blocking of Mix, Wright, DeLuca and Rodgers had him in open prairie, pioneering downfield. Alworth kept calling for the ball, on any route. “I don’t care where. I’ll get there. Just gimme the ball, man. Throw it.” He often had the feeling nobody was listening to him, but they listened often enough. Sweeps to Lowe, sweeps and inside traps to Lincoln. Curls, outs, ups, go-out-for-a-touchdowns to Alworth. And, more devastating to the Bears, dump passes to Lincoln slipping into the linebackers’ area, quick shots to tight end Dave Kocourek. Peeved, the Bears defenders overreacted, overran cutbacks and counter plays, destroying their own strength.
In the Bears offensive huddle, Johnny Morris called for the ball, too, from his favored spot right next to Billy Wade. Others were calling for it, too. And linemen were insisting they could control various areas of the Chargers defense. “Our huddle sounds like a tribe of Indians,” Morris offered to Wade at one point. But Wade was no insecure about his control of things. He liked suggestions. It’s just that, against the Chargers, he found help only with quick, short passes to Ditka and Morris. The Chargers hurried him. Ronnie Bull and Joe Marconi weren’t quick enough to establish a running threat.
Chargers offensive tackle Sam DeLuca reviews the whole nonexistent thing in retrospect: “I remember that Sid Gillman was making statements then that we’d love to have a shot at the Bears. I certainly had no expectations that it would happen. I had no thought of it whatsoever. But I enjoyed Sid saying it nevertheless. That Chargers offense certainly was exceptional. Our weakness would have been the defensive secondary; those were not exceptional players back there. But we could do a lot of things, and certainly Sid was innovative, and if we had played the Bears the way we played the day of the Patriots [AFL championship] game, we would’ve destroyed them. On that day, we could do nothing wrong. Against the Bears? You’ll never know. But, well, yeah, I think we would’ve really beaten hell out of them.”
Bears defensive end Doug Atkins, who didn’t lose that day but somehow sounds a little like he did, says: "Football, you know, well, I liked to win. But I didn’t think it was such a great thrill winning the championship. I was excited about getting to
the championship game, but it might’ve been luck or something that got you there, you didn’t know. Of course there was a certain amount of satisfaction in winning But it was a game, after all”
No, it wasn’t, really
We missed something.