The new American Football League has passed midseason in its first year of operation. The Houston Oilers, bigger, faster and less liable to error than any other team in the league, now enjoy a small lead over their Eastern Division opponents despite a narrow loss last Sunday, 24-21, to the Los Angeles Chargers. The question is: how good are the Oilers (and, for that matter, how good is the rest of the league)? Unquestionably, the Oilers are better than Missouri or Minnesota or Mississippi. They are smarter and more versatile than these college teams; but they are not as good as the Dallas Cowboys, the newest and weakest team in the National Football League. The Cowboys, who are smarter and more versatile than the Oilers, would beat them, and easily.
You could never convince the people of Houston of this. They believe firmly that, against the last four teams in the NFL, the Oilers could do very well indeed. A few overly enthusiastic and underly informed partisans even think that Houston could give the Baltimore Colts or the Philadelphia Eagles a tussle.
This they could not do, for a variety of very good reasons, to wit:
1) It takes a minimum of some five years to assemble a professional football team which is thoroughly sound in every phase of the game. This is true even when you start with a nucleus of good pro football players, as the Baltimore Colts did in 1953.
2) Given a sound nucleus and the additional players, it takes at least one year, and more often two or three, to fashion a cohesive unit which reacts almost like a single organism rather than a confederacy of autonomous stars. It is this kind of cohesiveness which makes the defensive teams of Baltimore Colts and New York Giants the best in football. To be effective in professional football, a player must react instinctively and immediately, and he must do so from a sound background of previous, similar reactions with the same group of players. Sam Huff is a magnificent middle linebacker; this is true partly because Huff has played with Roosevelt Grier and Dick Modzelewski in front of him for four years; he knows without thinking what they will do and he reacts instantly with perfect faith in them. The middle backer for the Houston Oilers may have all the physical equipment of Sam Huff (which, in point of fact, he does not), and the Oiler defensive tackles may be as big and as wise as Grier and Modzelewski (which, in point of fact, they certainly are not) and the combination would be something like 50% as effective as the Giant combination simply because they are not used to working together.
3) No player on the Houston Oilers could break into the starting lineup of any one of the top four teams in either division of the NFL, and only one or two could break into the starting lineups of any team in the NFL.
This will, doubtless, provoke a storm of protest from the entire AFL. However, the Oilers themselves recognize this, and it is not, at this point in the life of the Oilers, a criticism. The Oilers are an exciting and interesting team in the context of the AFL. They are not required to play the Colts or even the Dallas Cowboys. Against the other teams in this league, made up of the same kind of personnel, they are a very good team and fun to see play. It matters little to a person watching the Oilers that the big plays in the AFL are most often generated by errors of commission or omission by the defense; a 70-yard pass which goes for a touchdown because the secondary defense blew two assignments is still exciting. You have to be a purist to insist that the play is worth watching only if it develops out of superb faking by a quarterback, magnificent pattern running by an end and perfect execution.
The Oilers are a well-coached and enthusiastic team and probably will win the AFL championship. The personnel is, of course, fluid. Fifteen of the players came from late cuts by the NFL teams, either in 1960 or 1959. John Breen, the ex-Cardinal talent scout who did a wonderful job in assembling this team from scratch, started his search by getting a list of the late cuts from NFL training camps in 1959 and, with a deep and sound knowledge of players in the NFL, supplemented this by a wise choice of the 1960 late cuts.
"We do not have the bodies you see in NFL camps," he says frankly. "The league as a whole is lacking in top-flight linemen. It will take several years to develop them. That's true in the NFL. Roosevelt Grier was cut by the Los Angeles Rams; it took two or three years for him to mature."
Watching his team work out the other day, Houston Coach Lou Rymkus was nervous, almost irritable. The Oilers had won six and lost two as they got ready to face the Western Division leaders, the Los Angeles Chargers. Rymkus, trying to fit two new offensive guards and a defensive halfback into his units, said, "Every day's like training camp. These are good, willing kids. They came to me this year all from different systems with different backgrounds, and I have to make them a part of an entirely new system. I've purposely kept everything as simple as possible but it still takes time. Lots of time."
One of the pluses which has kept the Oilers ahead of the competition is a big and capable taxi squad—a squad of players on the payroll who taxi out to practice but are not carried on the active list. Owner Bud Adams has never quibbled about the extra expense of the taxi squad and it has paid off in a continuous flow of AFL-caliber players to replace the inevitably injured.
Another plus is George Blanda, the old Bear quarterback, who guides the destinies of his young teammates surely and with unruffled calm in the face of the wild, unpredictable swings of fortune which characterize AFL games. Blanda was a barely adequate passer in the NFL, where his targets were usually covered so tightly that an error of a yard or two meant an interception; here he is tied for first in the league, throwing to relatively lonely targets. Fred Wallner, the old Cardinal guard, is a playing coach for this team and stabilizes the Oiler line much as Blanda does the backfield. The other day, after the long practice under the bright Houston sun, the balding Wallner was asked the big difference in line play in the new league and the old.
"Experience," he said quickly. "You don't see any big, cute ones in this league."
COACH LOU RYMKUS EXPLAINS, EXPLAINS
GEORGE BLANDA TEACHES OILER ATTACK