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Still a long, rough road ahead for the AFL

The Super Bowl proved that the NFL is that much better, says the author, who maintains that the AFL did not progress as fast as it could have in seven years while foolishly believing its own rosy propaganda

After watching its best team suffer through that football game that might someday deserve to be called the Super Bowl, the American Football League should at least benefit from a hard but presumably valuable lesson: the AFL is as far behind the NFL as the Chiefs were behind the Packers. The way to figure it is not in points but in players.

There is nothing embarrassing about losing to Green Bay by 25 points. If there were, most teams in the NFL would have, at one time or another, given up the game in shame. But the Chiefs were not just another Packer opponent. They were to the AFL this season what the Packers were to the NFL—the champions. The AFL has claimed for two or three years that it has arrived at a position of equal strength. Were that the case, the Chiefs—regardless of the score, which in championship games can be as unlikely as Cleveland's 27-0 over Baltimore in 1964 or Green Bay's 37-0 over the Giants in 1961—should have played without showing any major weaknesses.

The fact is, the Chiefs showed several obvious ones. The Kansas City players knew before the game what their soft spots were. In conversation they kept using phrases like "with our personnel," the way you would say you were going to do the best you could under the circumstances. What the Chiefs did not know was how much those soft spots would hurt. Against Denver they might get away with a weakness that Buffalo would use to beat them. Against Buffalo they might conceal a weakness that the Packers would leap on with yelps of pleasure.

By studying three films, the Packers saw they could strike to their left. Most pro football offenses are right-handed, lining up strong to the right, but the easy place to hit the Chiefs was to the Packer left. Kansas City's defensive right end, Chuck Hurston, is listed as 6'6" and 240 pounds. Hurston, who has ulcers, was down to 208 pounds for the championship game against Buffalo and weighed less than 220 against Green Bay. Kansas City's right corner back, Willie Mitchell, looked like a lamb to the Packers. Mitchell is no star, but he is not really as bad as the Packers made him appear by throwing post patterns to the weak side for first downs and scores. With Free Safety Johnny Robinson rolling mostly to the strong side to help Corner Back Fred Williamson and with Strong-side Safety Bobby Hunt tied up by Packer Tight End Marv Fleming, Mitchell was left alone with the weak-side receiver. It takes an exceptional cornerback to stay in single coverage throughout theafternoon and not get blistered. Mitchell is not exceptional. Neither is Williamson.

By the fourth quarter the Chiefs' soft spots were pitilessly exposed. Green Bay moved as it wished, and Kansas City seemed to lose its spirit. Even the fine defensive end and captain, Jerry Mays, who is assuredly no soft spot, was discouraged. As the Packers came up to scrimmage for one of the last plays of the game, Right Guard Jerry Kramer looked across at Mays and then turned to Tackle Forrest Gregg. "You block my man this time," Kramer said, "and let me have Old Idle over there."

The Packers were scornful of the Chiefs' physical condition, calling them "a lot of big, fat guys." It is startling that after seven years of operation Kansas City went into the Super Bowl game with such glaring flaws. It is a good thing it took seven years for the NFL to consent to the game. If it had been played the first time the AFL wanted it, the farcical result might have caused the game to be abandoned forever.

Green Bay Coach Vince Lombardi said after the game that, in his opinion, the Chiefs are not in a class with the top teams in the NFL. As usual, Lombardi is right. Other than not being as good as the Packers, which was made quite clear, the Chiefs are not as good as Dallas, Baltimore, St. Louis or Cleveland, either, and are no better than Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia or Chicago, to mention a few. Bob Hayes, the Dallas split end, thinks the Atlanta Falcons could beat the Chiefs. That may be too harsh a statement, but the Falcons would have shorter odds against the Chiefs than the Chiefs would in a rematch against the Packers.

Ram Defensive Tackle Merlin Olsen recognized the Kansas City—and AFL—problem, which is depth. "The Chiefs," said Olsen, "have about 17 good players." Olsen was being generous; 15 might be more accurate. With 15 or 17 players capable of playing in the first division in the NFL, the Chiefs could not be champions but would win some games in steady competition with the older league. So would Buffalo, Oakland and San Diego. The Jets could certainly beat the Giants, perhaps more often than not. Boston has the ability to win an occasional exhibition game from the NFL. The two leagues start playing each other in exhibition games this summer, and the results may be surprising. A good NFL club could lose to a mediocre one from the AFL, but it must be considered that the AFL clubs are likely to be going for a win, whereas the NFL clubs are likely to be using rookies and preparing for the season.

Back when some people still believed the AFL and NFL might be equal, or close to it, one of the arguments was that the Dallas Cowboys, who began playing at the same time as the AFL, advanced rapidly enough to win the NFL's Eastern Conference this season and come within a yard of forcing Green Bay into an overtime in the championship. "We've been around as long as the Cowboys," said Kansas City Linebacker E. J. Holub, who was a first pick of the Cowboys. "We're bound to be as good as they are." Not so.

The big reason for the AFL's too-slow progress is that most AFL teams started in business in 1960 with amateurs in the front offices. With a few exceptions they had to learn how to organize a professional football club, how to construct a good scouting system, how to handle players. Denver's quarterback once drew the plays on the ground with his finger in the huddle, and the Broncos have never recovered from that beginning. Another club had one scout to cover the entire country. Most teams far underestimated the operating costs and almost fled in panic when they saw the arithmetic. Lamar Hunt saved the league in those years.

In the early 1960s, the country was full of rumors the AFL would fold, rumors that sent hundreds of players flocking to sign with the NFL. What remained for the AFL were players who got paid so well they didn't mind the risk, or players who wished to avoid the competition in the stronger league. The AFL made a lot of noise about the stars it won, but there was nothing said about the stars being surrounded by journeymen, rejects and erstwhile second-stringers. To a much lesser extent, that is the trouble with the AFL today. Each team has its stars. Some teams have a lot of them. But each team still has weaknesses that would be disastrous under the pressure applied by a good NFL club.

The AFL has had time to remedy those weaknesses, but not even the better teams have done so. To be sure, it is a difficult job, and one that some NFL teams have never accomplished. However, the better AFL teams have deluded themselves. Without quality competition week after week, as the NFL has, the soft spots on the better AFL teams could be dismissed as minor flaws. The AFL leaders thus committed" one of the deadliest of errors. They have believed their own propaganda. The Packers performed what should be a valuable service for the AFL by proving exactly what the gap between the leagues is.

It will be 1970 before AFL and NFL teams start playing each other in regular season games and the AFL needs those three years, for the common draft will slow the AFL's chance to improve. If red shirts are included in the common draft, as Lombardi wants, the AFL will be slowed further. But the top teams in the AFL do have a chance to catch up. They can do it with expanded scouting systems to find the free agents and low draft choices who will be vital in the common-draft era. It is a safe bet the NFL will be searching, too.