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TGS SUPER BOWL LIV PREVIEW... BACK TO THE BEGINNING!

by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

One neat byproduct of having published since 1957 is that TGS predates the Super Bowl era by almost a decade. Which also means that we remember what it was like from the start when the game overtones were far more compelling than the modern-day, homogenous NFL. Remember, the Super Bowl was born from the merger of the AFL and NFL in 1966, when the rivalry between the two leagues was hot and heavy. As the leagues wouldn’t officially “merge” until the 1970 season, the 1966 thru ‘69 campaigns would still be conducted independently. Those early Super Bowls in particular were full of hostility between the warring leagues, as not even the pending merger cooled the competitive fire. In fact, it enhanced the animosity.

Which also recalls for us perhaps the most-exciting period of pro football in the TGS era. Would you believe it came in preseason?

THE “LITTLE” SUPER BOWLS

We know, no one under the age of 60 might believe that preseason football could have ever been such a big deal. But trust us, once upon a time, it really was!

Indeed, it would surprise a lot of current-day pro football fans that the old rivalry between the AFL and NFL did not rage as much in the early, pre-merger editions of the Super Bowl as it did during the preseasons of 1967, 1968, and 1969, when there were 72 total games between entries from the upstart AFL and miserly NFL. The contests were byproducts of the aforementioned merger between the two leagues that was announced in 1966 and resulted in the first-ever Super Bowl between the Chiefs and Packers, champs of the respective leagues during the ‘66 campaign, on January 15, 1967 at the L.A. Coliseum. (We were there and will recall that one in more detail on our website within the next week.) From the outset, there was disdain on the NFL’s part toward the upstarts from the “other” league, and those NFL supremacists were further emboldened by Vince Lombardi’s Packers whipping the Chiefs in a 35-10 romp in that initial clash between the two leagues in January '67. That set the stage for sixteen highly-charged inter-league clashes which were part of the preseason schedule for the following 1967 campaign. And the teams, and fans, took the results of those games very seriously.

The importance of those ‘67 preseason affairs was reflected in a piece by Larry Felser of the Buffalo News, a story that would also run in ‘67 summer edition of The Sporting News as well. “Exhibition is hardly the word,” said Felser. “From the talk around both leagues, at least some of those games, if not all of them, will take on the characteristics of a vendetta.” Meanwhile, Cleveland Browns star lineman Dick Schafrath echoed the sentiments of most in the established NFL. “Our pride is at stake,” said Schafrath before the preseason games of summer ‘67. “No NFL team wants to be the first to lose to the AFL.”

Detroit’s All-Pro DT Alex Karras went one step further. Before the Lions’ preseason opener on August 5 at Denver (played at the old DU Stadium, with its crescent moon-shaped grandstand), which was to be the first interleague exhibition game of the 1967 summer, Karras announced that he would “walk back to Detroit” if his Lions were to lose to the lowly Broncos. Staying in character, Karras refused to shake hands with Denver team captains during the traditional coin-toss ceremony before the kickoff of that game.

Although the sports media was not nearly as over-saturated in the late ‘60s as it is today, these preseason games nonetheless generated a lot of national interest. Felser’s aforementioned story in The Sporting News was just one of many featuring the upcoming inter-league preseason slate. Sports Illustrated, then the defining element of sports journalism and validator of big sports stories of the era, devoted space that summer to the AFL-NFL exhibition phenomenon. Indeed, the ‘67 preseason was unofficially dubbed by some as the “Summer of the Little Super Bowls” as chronicled online several years ago by author Mark Bolding.

The Lions-Broncos game kicked things off for interleague play that summer of ‘67, and though the game was not televised, it generated a lot of curiosity nonetheless, especially when the final scoreline hit the wires: Denver 13, Detroit 7! The Broncos were in their first season under new HC Lou Saban, and were outfitted in a rare combination of their old and new uniforms, sporting their 1966 outfits (as they waited for their newly-designed unis to arrive) while donning their new helmets for ‘67, which were blue in color but logo-less on their sides (which would be the case for the entirety of the ‘67 campaign as the new logo, ordered by Saban, wouldn’t be ready to be added to Bronco helmets until 1968). Karras and company were indeed a bit embarrassed, allowing Denver to churn out 227 rushing yards, including 89 by veteran Cookie Gilchrist, who also scored the only Bronco TD from close range. A key play was a fake punt from Denver's  Bob Scarpitto (when was the last fake punt you’ve seen in a preseason game?), which set up Gilchrist’s TD. In a strange twist, Denver’s deciding points were actually tallied by PK Errol Mann, who ironically would surface as the Lions’ PK later in his career.

As for Karras, he was the target of good-natured ribbing from the Denver media in the week following the game, as local outlets would jokingly report on his “progress” back to the Motor City. “Today, Alex Karras reached Omaha,” or “Alex Karras is scheduled to arrive in Des Moines later tonight.”

That first preseason featured another upset win by the Broncos over an NFL team, with the Vikings falling, also at DU Stadium, by a 14-9 count. Denver’s win featured a TD by then-rookie RB Floyd Little, whose long-overdue enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame had to wait until 2010. Although the most memorable encounter in that ‘67 exhibition slate came in Kansas City, where the Chiefs, still seething from their Super Bowl loss to the Packers, decided to take out their frustrations on the older league and one of its flagship entries, the Chicago Bears of George Halas. “Remember, this is not just another exhibition,” said K.C. coach Hank Stram before the game, as reported in Sports Illustrated. “They (the Chiefs) know it’s the Bears they’re playing.”

Although Chicago moved easily downfield in its first drive behind QB Rudy Bukich, resulting in a 35-yard FG by rookie PK Bruce Alford (who, also ironically, would end up employed in the AFL), and the Chiefs were temporarily stalled by Dick Butkus & Co., Stram’s offense, however, quickly made adjustments. By snapping on quicker counts, QB Len Dawson was able to constantly catch the Chicago D in the middle of its shifts, and soon the night became child’s play for Kansas City.

“I figured,” said Dawson, “that once we got them playing our type of game, we could do anything we wanted. They were covering Otis (Taylor) too close. I don’t think they knew our personnel, because otherwise they would have known that you can’t cover Otis too close or he’ll be gone all of the time.”

Sure enough, Taylor burned the Bears. Badly. In the first quarter, operating out of the variation of the I formation that Stram called the “Cock-I” featuring Taylor in motion, Dawson hit Taylor along the sidelines, and he soon broke clear from the fast-approaching Bennie McRae and high-stepped his way for a 70-yard TD that began the onslaught. (For those who recall Taylor’s 46-yard TD catch-rand-run in Super Bowl IV vs. the Vikings, this would look similar.) Kansas City then scored TDs on its next four possessions, including another Dawson-to-Taylor 29-yard TD pass, and by halftime the score had ballooned to 39-10, with Chicago’s only TD courtesy a 103-yard kick return by WR/KR Dick Gordon. As the score mounted, veteran Bears DB Richie Petitbon asked Kansas City WR Chris Burford if the Chiefs planned to ease up. “Not tonight, Richie,” said Burford, as the carnage continued.

Adding insult to injury, Kansas City backup QB Pete Beathard (who would be traded to the Oilers later that season) called a timeout rather than allowing the clock to run out in the final seconds and the ball on Bears’ 2-yard line with the Chiefs up 60-24. A perfectly executed bootleg followed, with Beathard disdainly walking into the end zone with the Chiefs’ 66th point. About the only merciful element of the evening came on the final conversion try, which was bobbled. Nonetheless, the 66-24 final marked the most points ever allowed by a Halas team, and the Papa Bear, in his last season on the Bears sidelines, was reportedly in tears at the end of the slaughter. “Man alive, look down there at the Papa Bear,” said Chiefs All-Pro LB Bobby Bell, before Beathard’s final, exclamation-point TD. “I believe I see him cryin’!,” said Bell. “He can’t believe all this stuff. Man, but it’s time for another touchdown!”

Those two wins by Denver and the one by Kansas City were the only ones by AFL sides in the sixteen exhibitions that summer, but many of the games were extremely competitive affairs. Philadelphia, down 30-24 in the final minute against Buffalo, highlighted the must-win theme of those games when it still had starting QB Norm Snead in the game at the end, and he fired a 40-yard TD pass in the final seconds to get the Eagles over the hump. Elsewhere, the Redskins were narrow 13-7 winners over the Patriots, and the Lions only a 19-17 winner over the Bills. Expansion New Orleans squeezed by second-year Miami by a 20-17 count in a game played at Charleston, South Carolina (preseason games were often contested at neutral sites in those days). The 49ers topped the Raiders by a narrow 13-10 margin. Meanwhile, the Chiefs, just a week after their massacre of the Bears, played George Allen’s emerging Rams in what was dubbed the “Summer Bowl” at the L.A. Coliseum. In front of 73,990 fans, Kansas City jumped to a 24-13 halftime lead, but the Rams, playing their first-stringers almost the entire way, scored four second-half TDs on a pair of Roman Gabriel-to-Jack Snow bombs, a Les Josephson short TD plunge, and a late interception return by starting CB Clancy Williams to eventually prevail, 44-24. Although Allen was notorious for going all-out to win exhibitions, in those days of inter-league battles, almost all of the teams took the same approach.

All, that is, except Lombardi’s Packers, who arrogantly refused to schedule AFL teams in the exhibition season. Another old-line NFL fixture, the Giants, also mostly resisted, although pressure to meet the crosstown Jets was eventually too much to avoid. That matchup didn’t take place until the summer of 1969, however, and wasn’t even played in New York, instead 74 miles north at New Haven, CT, whose exact distance from the Big Apple was significant because Pete Rozelle’s TV blackout rule of the day (which stated no game could be televised within 75 miles of its origin) guaranteed a sellout at the Yale Bowl. While history would more record August 17, 1969 as the last full day of Woodstock, taking place not far away, the New York media, at least, featured the Jets’ 37-14 romp as the main story the next day.

And after that Chiefs win over the Bears in ‘67, there might have been no more satisfying preseason triumph for the AFL over the more-established league than that Jets bombardment of the establishment Giants at Yale. To say the win was satisfying for the Jets would be an understatement. Even after the previous January’s Super Bowl III shocker vs. over the Colts, destroying the crosstown NFL Giants was a comparable, or greater, thrill. It sure meant something to many Jets, like star RB Matt Snell. “Did we prove anything?,” said Snell afterward. “I mean to the fans, the old NFL fans, they will cop out, they’ll find a way to rationalize not how we won, but how the Giants lost. But to me, it was a good victory. I remember how the Giants never called us by name. They used to refer to us as ‘What’s Your Name’ and ‘Whatchamacall-its.

“They know our names now.”

Indeed the Giants did, after being shredded by Joe Namath, who completed 14 of 16 passes and was still in the game in the 4th quarter when he threw his third TD pass of the game to TE Pete Lammons. Earlier in the clash, the Yale Bowl crowd was thrilled by Jets rookie Mike Battle, from Southern Cal, taking back a punt 86 yards for a score.

As for Namath, he was brash as ever, especially after being asked when he thought the Jets assumed command of the game. “The first time we had the ball,” said Broadway Joe. It was also the Giants’ only game vs. an AFL entry in those three preseasons in the late ‘60s.

Throughout the summers of 1967, ‘68, and ‘69, the interleague battles raged. After dropping 13 of 16 in the ‘67 preseason, the AFL took the upper hand in 1968, winning the exhibition battle by a 13-10 count that summer. Included in that tally was an emphatic 35-13 win by Sid Gillman’s Chargers over George Allen’s Rams, a delicious bit of revenge for San Diego and its delirious fans after being routed 50-7 by L.A. the previous preseason. The expansion Cincinnati Bengals scored their first-ever win that preseason at the expense of the NFL Steelers, by a 19-3 count. Another “Summer Bowl” version in 1968 was played in Oakland, where the defending AFL champ Raiders hosted Johnny Unitas and the powerful Baltimore Colts, who survived by a 14-12 count at the Oakland Coliseum.

How big was that Colts-Raiders game that August? Big enough to draw the top sports page headline...in the Los Angeles Times... the following morning, even in an early edition that went to press before the game was complete!

That Colts-Raiders battle, like all interleague games in 1968, featured teams being forced to run or pass for one-point conversions after touchdowns. Believe it or not, there were no PAT place-kicks during the 1968 interleague preseason slate!

The interleague preseason games were so popular that by 1969, an additional ten AFL-NFL games were added to the exhibition slate, bringing the total to a whopping 33. And the teams continued to contest the games in a win-or-else fashion. In a particularly pulsating encounter that preseason, the Oilers and Colts waged in a back-and-forth donnybrook at the Astrodome, a game in which Baltimore jumped to a 21-0 lead, only to see Houston eventually move ahead in the 2nd half, helped by a bang-bang sequence in the 3rd Q when scoring a pair of TDs in 12 seconds, the second of those on a pick-six by DB Ken Houston. When Houston rookie PK Roy Gerela’s 23-yard field goal put the Oilers up 29-27 with 37 seconds left, the capacity crowd of better than 47,000 almost blew the top off the dome. But Baltimore was not finished; the previous season’s NFL MVP, QB Earl Morrall, was in the contest at the end, and on the game’s final play heaved a 58-yard TD bomb to first-string WR Willie Richardson, who raced the last 20 yards down the sideline for an unbelievable 33-29 Colts win. No PAT was even attempted after that final tally.

Elsewhere in 1969, President Richard Nixon even took time out to catch a pair of preseason games. Nixon, at the San Clemente “Western White House” that month, took in the Chiefs’ 42-14 rout of the Rams at the L.A. Coliseum on August 23 (a forewarning to the NFL that Kansas City would mean business a few months later in the Super Bowl vs. the Vikings), then was on hand a week later at San Diego Stadium when the Chargers fell to the same Rams by a 24-14 count.

When the dust finally cleared after all of the pre-merger preseason action of those three summers, the tally stood at 42 wins for the NFL, 29 for the AFL, and one tie. The star team of the preseason in that period was Baltimore, which to its credit scheduled eight games over those three preseasons vs. AFL teams and won them all, with not a one contested at home in Memorial Stadium. Meanwhile, the Packers didn’t engage in a single exhibition vs. the “other” league (though, by ‘69, Lombardi was coaching the Redskins). But the rest of the teams didn’t miss Green Bay one bit, creating memories that hardcore football fans of the day can never forget.

Preseason football was never quite the same thereafter, as the merger between the AFL and NFL implemented in 1970. As the league blended into one, the old battle lines between the AFL and NFL began to blur, then disappear altogether. But for a few years, the rivalry raged in the summers of the late ‘60s, featuring preseason games in which results really mattered.

And for those of us who recall those exciting times, some of the best pro football memories of our lives!

                                         SUPER BOWL LIV...HISTORICAL LOOK

As you can sense from the first portion of this piece, we are getting quite a kick out of the fact that this Sunday’s Chiefs-49ers battle features AFL and NFL entries from when the Super Bowl era began 53 years ago. Beyond the preceding review of the preseason games from 1967 thru ‘69, we’ve written in the past about how the rivalry between the leagues was still palpable in the first couple of post-merger years, including 1971, when the Chiefs and 49ers met for the initial time in what was the penultimate Monday Night Football telecast of that season on December 6.

It was San Francisco’s first campaign at Candlestick Park, which more resembled a construction zone as the stadium was being enclosed from its prior baseball-centric configuration. The massive new grandstand area that would encircle the baseball outfield was only partially complete in the fall of ‘71, with limited seating available on the east sideline (right field stands for the MLB Giants). Nonetheless, it was a more comfy arrangement for the 49ers than their former home, Golden Gate Park’s spartan-like Kezar Stadium, with no amenities and wooden planks that made up much of the seating area. Candlestick, which always had a legion of detractors, was in fact a nice upgrade, even as construction continued, for the Niners from their Kezar days.

More than a few people were thinking that Monday night game might prove a Super Bowl preview as each would be leading their respective West Divisions in the AFC (Chiefs) and NFC (Niners) into that showdown. Though both were still involved in hammer-and-tongs battles with their blood rivals the Raiders and Rams; indeed, on deck for KC was division showdown with Oakland the next week at old Municipal Stadium. The Chiefs entered that Monday night with a chance to move a half-game ahead of the Raiders, who had been upset at Atlanta the day before. Meanwhile, the Niners risked relinquishing the lead in the NFC West to the Rams, who had just thumped New Orleans the previous day when L.A. RB Willie Ellison stunned the league with a then NFL single-game record 247 yards rushing. After the Monday nighter at Candlestick, only two weeks would remain in the regular season.

The Chiefs would be in control much of the night, thanks mostly to their ground game that pounded out 172 YR, paced by RBs Ed Podolak (75 YR) and Wendell Hayes (66 YR). A 46-yard TD pass from Len Dawson to Otis Taylor in the 2nd Q, plus a 54-yard FG by Jan Stenerud, had staked the Chiefs to a 13-3 lead midway thru the 2nd Q. By halftime, the lead was 16-10 as San Francisco cut the gap on a 35-yard TD pass from QB John Brodie to TE Ted Kwalick. Dawson, however, was especially effective before intermission, passing for 198 of his eventual 263 yards before Podolak and Hayes were featured after the break. In the end the Chiefs were 26-17 winners, having amassed a 427-331 yardage edge, taking a lead in the AFC West that would be secured in a tense 16-14 win over the Raiders the next week. At the time, Kansas City was considered the “King of Monday Night Football” with its third win in as many tries in front of Howard Cosell and the ABC cameras. Dawson, in particular, seemed to love the Monday spotlight, having tossed 4 TDP the previous year in a 44-24 rout of the Colts, and another 3 TDP in a 38-16 midseason cruise in October of '71 past the Steelers at Municipal Stadium when Taylor, in the midst of a fabulous campaign, snared another pair of scoring tosses.

As for the 1971 Niners, though losing that game to Kansas City, they would still end atop the NFC West, leapfrogging LA the following week when the Rams would go down on the final Monday night game of the season in a memorable encounter vs. the Redskins and George Allen, making a triumphant return to L.A. after being fired by the Rams the previous year. Though San Francisco had to pull out a tense 31-27 win over the Lions in the final week at Candlestick to ultimately secure the West, eventually advancing to the NFC title game where Dallas would prevail at Irving, 14-3. The Chiefs? They’d lose a historic Chistmas Day playoff thriller vs. the Dolphins in double OT, 27-24 (reviewed on these TGS pages before), still the longest game in NFL history, in what was the last football game at Municipal Stadium and also the last game for the Chiefs as a serious contender for HC Hank Stram, whose once-powerhouse team began to age and regress by the following term in 1972.

Since that Monday-nighter back in December of 1971, the Chiefs and 49ers have met 12 more times, with the Niners winning seven of those. Total scoring in the 13 games is San Francisco 274, Kansas City 245. Most recently, in Week Three last season, the Chiefs (6-point favorites) would win and cover 38-27 at Arrowhead, a game more remembered for Niner QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s serious knee injury on a flukish play without a hit, causing him to miss the remainder of 2018.

With a couple of exceptions in recent years (Seattle’s 43-8 romp past Denver six years ago at MetLife Stadium in particular), most recent Super Bowls have been competitive and exciting. Until last year, when the 2½-point favorite Patriots won an extremely tedious 13-3 decision over the Rams, underdogs had covered 7 of the previous 10 “Supes” (and it would have been 8 of 10 had the three-point dog Falcons not conspired to blow a 25-point lead in spectacular fashion three years ago). All of this after an extended run of chalk-dominated and often-blowout results for much of the ‘80s and early-to-mid ‘90s; since then, underdogs have closed the gap on favorites, whose all-time Super Bowl edge now stands at only 26-24-2. There has been one pick ’em clash, when the 49ers and Bengals met for the first of their two title meetings in Super Bowl XVI at the old Pontiac Silverdome in January of '82 (though some outlets also called the Patriots-Seahawks Super Bowl XLIX at Glendale as a pick’em; TGS has recorded that Supe as New England -1 instead).

Yet even with many recent competitive Super Bowls, almost half of them (24 of 53) have still been decided by 14 points or more, which relates to many historical results that include pre-Super Bowl days when lopsided scorelines in title games were commonplace. Championship-game blowouts didn’t begin with the Super Bowl Shuffle ‘85 Bears; they’ve happened since the earliest days of the league, with several eras featuring more of them than others (such as the mid ‘50s, when a succession of NFL title games featured scorelines of 56-10, 38-14, 47-7, and 59-14). And, as we have mentioned in past conference championship and Super Bowl previews, the all-time NFL blowout occurred in the 1940 title game, when George Halas and his Bears overwhelmed the Washington Redskins, 73-0!

Which team do we like, Chiefs or 49ers, at Miami this Sunday? Check out our detailed forecast to find out. And don’t forget, for more interesting TGS Super Bowl history (including our aforementioned all-time rankings, plus recollections of the first Super Bowl, which we attended–-really!--as well as the still-discussed Jets-Colts Super Bowl III), please check out features this week and next on our website homepage!

SB PERFORMANCE BREAKDOWN

Favorites/Underdogs... 26-24-2 (1 pick)
Favorites straight up... 34-18 (1 pick)
Favored by 0-3... 8-6
Favored by 3 ½-6 ½... 7-8
Favored by 7-9 ½ ...4-4-1
Favored by 10-13 ½... 5-4
Favored by 14 or more... 2-2-1
Overs/Unders... 26-25-1

MARGINS OF VICTORY

MARGIN... NO. OF GAMES

1-3... 8
4-6... 8
7-10... 9
11-13... 4
14 or more... 24


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