The First Super Bowl?

By Michael Louis-Ingram, BASN Associate Editor
Updated: July 27, 2009

PHILADELPHIA (BASN) — It was 1965, and the American Football League was firmly carving its own niche in presenting a wide open style of play and gaining legions of fans.

With the National Football League no longer attempting to ignore the young upstart nipping at its heels, the concept of the AFL-NFL World Championship was born.

The winners of the two leagues would get it on to finally decide which team was the true undisputed champion of American football; and it seemed the stars were aligned for this ultimate showdown because the principals from each League epitomized its persona.

The Green Bay Packers were as establishment as you could get, with their most dynamic figure being their head coach, Vince Lombardi. The AFL Champion Kansas City Chiefs were a highly talented, bonafide team as cocky as the Packers were stoic.

If timing is truly everything, it could offer an intriguing explanation as to why the Big Game didn’t happen the year before…

In 1964, the final standings in the world of pro football manifested thusly:

NFL East

W

L

T

%

PF

PA

Cleveland

10

3

1

.769

415

293

St. Louis

9

3

2

.750

357

331

Philadelphia

6

8

0

.429

312

313

Washington

6

8

0

.429

307

305

Dallas

5

8

1

.385

250

289

Pittsburgh

5

9

0

.357

253

315

N.Y. Giants

2

10

2

.167

241

399

NFL West

W

L

T

%

PF

PA

Baltimore

12

2

0

.857

428

225

Green Bay

8

5

1

.615

342

245

Minnesota

8

5

1

.615

355

296

Detroit

7

5

2

.583

280

260

Los Angeles

5

7

2

.417

283

339

Chicago

5

9

0

.357

260

379

San Francisco

4

10

0

.286

236

330

AFL East

W

L

T

%

PF

PA

Buffalo

12

2

0

.857

400

242

Boston

10

3

1

.769

365

297

N.Y. Jets

5

8

1

.385

278

315

Houston

4

10

0

.286

310

355

AFL West

W

L

T

%

PF

PA

San Diego

8

5

1

.615

341

300

Kansas City

7

7

0

.500

366

306

Oakland

5

7

2

.417

303

350

Denver

2

11

1

.154

240

438

Ironically, the magic number for both league championship games would be 27. Buffalo would defeat San Diego, 20-7, while Cleveland shocked favored Baltimore, 27-0, on a muddy field.

So, the first Super Bowl would have been the Cleveland Browns versus the Buffalo Bills.

Now let’s go to the tale of the tape:

The 1964 AFL Champion Bills:

(*) - denotes Starter; bold denotes All-League

Head Coach: Lou Saban

QB: Jack Kemp*, Daryle Lamonica, Ed Rutkowski

RB: Cookie Gilchrist*, Joe Auer*, Wray Carlton, Bobby Smith, Willie Ross

WR/TE: Glenn Bass*, Elbert Dubenion*, Bill Groman, Ernie Warlick*

OL: Stew Barber*, Dave Behrman*, Al Bemiller*, Walt Cudzik, George Flint, Dick Hudson*, Joe O’Donnell, Billy Shaw*,

DL: Tom Day*, Jim Dunaway*, Tom Keating, Roland “Dancing Bear” McDole*, Dudley Meredith, Hatch Rosdahl, Tom Sestak*

LB: Harry Jacobs*, Paul Maguire*, Mike Stratton*, Jack Tracey

DB: Joe Abruzzese, Butch Byrd*, Hagood Clarke*, Ollie Dobbins, Booker Edgerson*, George Saimes*, Gene Sykes, Charley Warner

Specialists: Pete Gogolak (PK) Paul Maguire (P)

Overview: The Bills were the class of the league, leading the league in points scored and fewest points allowed. QB Jack Kemp had only a 44.2% completion rate (God only knows what the stat nerds would do with this if Kemp were Black) and a passer rating of 50.9.

Backup Daryle Lamonica played a significant enough part of that season to earn status as a “relief pitcher” of sorts who specialized in throwing deep to tight end Ernie “Big Hoss” Warlick, split end Glenn Bass and flanker Elbert “Golden Wheels” Dubenion; a precursor of Lamonica’s future as “The Mad Bomber.”

Cookie Gilchrist, 235 pounds of Canadian muscle, was the workhorse back, leading the league in rushing with 981 yards, six TDs and a 4.3 average per carry.

But as champions win with defense, the Bills were no reflection of an exception. The defensive front four of Sestak, Dunaway, Day & McDole was the League’s best with 50 quarterback sacks; still a team record to this day.

MLB Mike Stratton was All-AFL; and Byrd, Saimes, Sykes and Edgerson formed a secondary that was responsible for 19 interceptions. As a unit, the Bills gave up an average of only 65 yards rushing per game that year.

The 1964 NFL Champion Browns:

(*) – denotes Starter; bold denotes All-League

Head Coach: Blanton Collier

QB: Frank Ryan*, Jim Ninowski.

RB: Jim Brown*, Ernie Green*, Leroy Kelly, Charlie Scales.

WR/TE: Paul Warfield*, Gary Collins*, Walter Roberts, Clifton McNeil, Tom Hutchinson, Johnny Brewer.

OL: John Brown, Monte Clark*, Lou Groza*, Gene Hickerson*, Dale Memmelaar, John Morrow, Dick Schafrath*, Roger Shoals, John Wooten*.

DL: Mike Bundra, Bob Gain, Bill Glass, Jim Kanicki*, Dick Modzelewski*, Frank Parker*, Paul Wiggin*.

LB: Ed Bettridge, Vince Costello*, Galen Fiss, Jim Houston*, Mike Lucci*, Stan Sczurek, Sid Williams.

DB: Walter Beach*, Larry Benz*, Lowell Caylor, Ross Fichtner*, Bobby Franklin, Bernie Parrish*, Dave Raimey,

Specialists: Lou “the Toe” Groza (PK); Gary Collins (P)

Overview: The Browns didn’t sneak up on the League because they already had the pedigree of being a dangerous team. QB Frank Ryan was a nimble passer who threw for 25 touchdowns, 19 picks and a 52% completion rate; with the bulk of those going to the versatile Gary Collins (8) and Ohio State rookie sensation receiver Paul Warfield (9).

Cleveland’s special teams were exceptional. The tandem of Walter Roberts (27.5 yards average on kick returns) and Morgan State rookie tailback Leroy Kelly (19 yards per punt return) made field position a constant threat for the Browns’ opponents. Placekicker Lou Groza tied for the league lead in scoring (115 points) with St. Louis Cardinals PK Jim Bakken; and the Browns’ 415 points were second only to Baltimore’s 428.

On defense, the Browns were more of a bend-but-don’t-break kind of team. They were fifth in the league in points allowed (293) and the strength of the defense lay in their secondary. Walter Beach, Larry Benz, Ross Fichtner and Bernie Parrish were hard hitters and equally adept in coverage; their play in large part shut down the high powered Colts’ offense of Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry and John Mackey.

But the X factor for the Browns was the fact they had the best player in football in their starting lineup – Jim Brown.

Brown was merely the most dominant player of his generation; and in this writer’s opinion, of all time. He led the NFL in rushing with 1446 yards and a 5.2 rush per carry; an average of over 103 yards per game throughout the then 14 game regular season. 1964 would also be the seventh consecutive year Brown would rule over all as the best running back in the League.

Second on the club in receptions to Warfield (52) with 36 catches, Brown also threw for a touchdown – and accounted for 1800 yards of offense with only 317 touches; unreal production when you consider the era and the fact he is the principal offensive threat which opponents are preparing for throughout every game the Browns played over his entire career.

The AAFC Storm

Now on paper, this is looking more and more like a steel cage match: the unstoppable force, the immovable object – hell, somebody please print the tickets!

But the matchups had two great flaws…

For starters, the Cleveland Browns were relative newcomers to the League. While stomping on their competition as the best team in the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), the Browns have always been a nemesis to the NFL.

When they walked in the door in 1950 (along with the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts), Cleveland flexed major muscle, embarrassing the 1949 NFL Champion Philadelphia Eagles after some league purists implied the Browns would get smoked by the champs.

The Browns also brought Black players back into the game. Marion Motley was the bridge to Jim Brown and the league had a similar “gentleman’s agreement” as Major League Baseball did about allowing Black players on the field from 1933 until sometime after WWII.

Even after Black men were back on NFL rosters, there was a defined intent to limit where they played (position wise) and how many would start – if they made the roster.

Unlike the NFL, the AFL was more of a “get in where you fit in” at every position; except quarterback. But the fact Black talent got to play and excel left AFL teams to accept the premise that the best man plays…no matter what.

In the early days of pro football on television, the effort to push stars meant focusing on the quarterbacks. So if the NFL were looking to piece together a “dream matchup” in those early days, the likely candidates would have been Green Bay (with Bart Starr) improving Minnesota (Fran Tarkenton) and the acknowledged best of that era, Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts.

Thanks to the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” Unitas had a television pedigree, so this clearly would have been a sexy pick matched against the AFL champeen.

That the Browns’ win was labeled the “Upset of the Century” (for that era, anyway) was a clear indication there may have been a back-door desire to want the Colts as the first time representatives of the NFL, in spite of Ryan’s league-leading 25 TD passes.

But Brown’s star was so bright, the glare of his immense talent clearly messed with the NFL’s vision. Bluntly put, why would the League tout a Black man as a star player after keeping them out for so long?

Meanwhile, back in Buffalo, the Bills, who left no doubt as who was champion in their League, again got the fuzzy end of the stick. The same “small market” argument made about cities like Buffalo today was echoed back then as well.

By contrast, the Kemp/Lamonica QB tandem had a stat-poor combined 19 TD passes – and 34 interceptions. Babe Parilli (Boston/New England Patriots) John Hadl (San Diego) and league leading passer Len Dawson (Kansas City) were better choices in terms of match ups under center for the AFL representative.

Like their downstate cousins, the Giants, the Bills’ stars were on the defense; and although NBC did a decent job in presentation of the AFL, I feel both leagues missed out on a watershed moment.

In an ironic twist, when the AAFC agreed to assimilate into the NFL, there was constant bickering over the number of teams invited to join the party. The Browns and 49ers were definite, but the Colts were a compromise addition. The ideal scenario for the AAFC was to bring in four teams; and the fourth most stable team…was Buffalo.

Now, this is merely one man’s speculation as to why the Super Bowl didn’t get started a year earlier.

When we look back on the potential matchup, after seeing the great defenses like the Steel Curtain of the Steelers, the 11 Angry Men (Raiders), Dallas Cowboys’ Doomsday, and the No-Name Miami Dolphins, the Buffalo Bills’ Front Four would’ve been a worthy addition to that Honor Roll.

While the rest is history, what could have been leaves me with a nagging feeling that football fans everywhere missed out on one hell of a game.