If there were any lingering doubts about the superiority of the old National Football League over the old—but not as old—American Football League, they must have been quelled after the first Pro Bowl game matching All-Star squads from the two leagues—or, rather, the two conferences. Most of the old NFL now makes up the National Conference; the American Conference is the old AFL plus Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Last weekend the NFC beat the AFC 27-6 in Los Angeles, and although two fourth-quarter punt returns do not exactly add up to a shellacking, even the most rabid AFC rooter would be hard put to claim parity for his league—or conference—after this game.
The result underlined a superiority that has been evident all season as the two leagues met each other for the first time in games that count in the standings. If you regard Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh as NFL teams, which you should since they've been in the AFC only one year and were formed and matured in the NFL, the two leagues met in 62 games, including postseason playoffs. Of these 62, the NFL won 41, lost 19 and tied two. Seven NFL teams went undefeated against AFL rivals and no AFL team was better than even against NFL competition. Only four AFL clubs managed to bat .500—Denver, Miami, Oakland and Kansas City.
Ten of the NFL losses were accounted for by Pittsburgh, Atlanta and New Orleans. Pittsburgh is the only old club in the NFL that has never won so much as a division championship, and Atlanta and New Orleans are expansion teams and therefore even newer than most of the teams in the AFL. So AFL clubs actually won just nine games against the strength of the NFL.
Only the three above teams were under .500 against AFL competition, while 12 NFL teams won more than they lost and two were even. No AFL team shut out an NFL team, while the NFL shut out the AFL eight times and prevented AFL teams from scoring a touchdown in 15 games.
Al Davis, Oakland's managing general partner, expressed the feeling of most AFLers. "You can't judge the comparative quality of the leagues on the basis of only one season," he said before the Pro Bowl. "You'll have to watch them over a period of years."
Over the next few years the teams will even out, since they now take part in a common draft. The NFL built its superiority in head-on competition with the AFL when the leagues were at war. Only a few of the AFL clubs were serious competition for the NFL recruiters and they are the ones that now dominate the conference.
"You must consider one other factor," says an NFL coach. "The AFL teams played only two or three really tough games a season. Now they must play six or seven and they aren't geared mentally or physically for it. The NFL teams are used to playing tough opponents nearly every Sunday."
This is not to say that the better AFL teams aren't as good as any NFL club, as the New York Jets and Kansas City demonstrated in the 1969 and 1970 Super Bowls. Some idea of how the talent is concentrated in the AFC was shown in the distribution of the players on its Pro Bowl squad. Two teams—Kansas City with 10 and Oakland with eight—provided nearly half the 41-man squad. Two teams—Buffalo and Boston—had only one player each on the team. Six other teams provided two players apiece. In the NFC, only three teams had as few as two players. The Minnesota Vikings had the most—seven.
In previous years, when the Pro Bowl matched All-Star teams from the Eastern and Western Conferences of the NFL, the players approached the game with notable nonchalance. The week before the game was usually one of revelry, punctuated by undemanding practice sessions, and in the game itself the players let it all hang over, not out.
But this year both squads approached the game seriously. "In other years I would use up three big bottles of Alka-Seltzer," said George Menefee, the Los Angeles Rams' trainer who has worked with Pro Bowl teams for years. "I'd hand out about 500 aspirin tablets, too. They needed help before they could work out. This year I've used up only about a third of a bottle of Alka-Seltzer and 50 aspirin tablets."
"You can feel the excitement," said Fran Tarkenton, the New York Giant who shared NFC signal-calling duties with San Francisco's John Brodie. "It's a matter of pride and I think we're all aware that we represent the league this year."
"We've had exceptional concentration at practice," said John Madden, the head coach of the Oakland Raiders, who coached the AFC squad. "The players really worked hard."
The game itself confirmed the NFC's seasonal edge. Neither Dick Nolan, the San Francisco head coach, who had the NFC squad, nor Madden had time to put in any frills, so the offenses were simple and depended for their success on strength and execution.
The conferences agreed beforehand to use only man-to-man defenses, and for the first time they allowed blitzes. Consequently, the game was decided largely upon the outcome of individual matchups, and the NFL won most of those, especially in pass coverage.
The game started slowly, both clubs testing each other through an inconclusive first quarter, but even this early, with Brodie at quarterback, the NFC moved the ball more surely than did the AFC under Daryle Lamonica. The NFC's first drive carried 48 yards to a missed field goal, and the significant play was a 33-yard pass from Brodie to his 49er teammate, Gene Washington. Washington was being covered by Jim Marsalis of Kansas City, one of the best bump-and-run cornerbacks, but Washington shrugged off his bump, gained a step on him on the run and caught the perfectly thrown ball in full stride.
Brodie was given excellent protection on the play, which permitted him to wait for Washington to overcome Marsalis' bump. "The bump and run upsets your timing," Brodie said after the game, "but we were getting good blocking and we could wait for the receivers to break open most of the time."
Brodie completed only 10 of his 26 passes, but one was for 23 yards and a touchdown to Minnesota's Dave Osborn early in the second half. Knowing that the AFC had to stay in man-to-man coverage, he called a pattern that isolated Osborn on Andy Russell, the right linebacker who plays for the Steelers. Osborn beat Russell badly, putting the NFC ahead to stay, 10-3.
The touchdown was set up by another long pass to Washington and again the line held strongly, giving Washington time to beat Zeke Moore of Houston, who shared the right cornerback spot with Willie Brown of Oakland. When Moore was in the game the NFC quarterbacks threw into his territory often and successfully; when Brown played that corner they largely avoided him.
Lamonica, on the other hand, was under severe pressure, as was Bob Griese, the Dolphin quarterback, who played the second quarter and most of the fourth. Lamonica was frequently harried into forcing his passes and he completed but four of 21. Under pressure on the first series after the NFC touchdown, Lamonica threw behind Warren Wells, and Mel Renfro tipped the ball into the hands of teammate Fred Carr, the Green Bay linebacker. Carr returned the interception to the AFC 24, and four plays later Fred Cox of Minnesota kicked a 35-yard field goal to up the score to 13-3.
The AFC made only one more serious threat and that came after a fumble recovery on the NFC nine. From there Lamonica tried three passes. The first was almost intercepted. The second, to Fred Biletnikoff, was apparently a touchdown, but an official ruled that Biletnikoff had caught the ball out of bounds. After the game Biletnikoff said, "I know that I was in bounds. I think they missed my stutter step. My practice is to catch the ball, then look down at my feet and I was in bounds."
Those who watched the replay on TV saw that Biletnikoff was absolutely right. A touchdown at this juncture might have given the AFC hope, but Lamonica missed Wells on his third pass and the AFC had to settle for Jan Stenerud's second field goal.
Rich Jackson, Denver's defensive end, felt that the Biletnikoff call was largely responsible for the NFC win. "That took the heart out of us," he said sadly. He may have been right; the AFC never advanced beyond the NFC 45 after that.
The fourth period was by far the most exciting and this was wholly due to the heroics of Renfro, the Dallas cornerback who doubles as a punt returner. Jerrel Wilson, the AFC punter, had to hurry a kick after a bad pass from center and he got off a line drive that Renfro fielded on the bounce at the NFC 18. He sliced by the first wave of defenders, cut to the left sideline, slid behind a block by Dick Butkus on Zeke Moore and stumbled into the end zone to complete an 82-yard return.
Ten minutes later Renfro fielded another punt on the NFC 44, again fled past the first few tacklers, cut to his right and scored easily after angling across the field. On this run he got a key block from Cecil Turner of the Bears on Wilson, the last player with a chance to catch him. The two touchdowns made the score 27-6, which was the way it ended.
"I don't think this is a true test of the strengths of both conferences," Rich Jackson said after the game, and Coach Madden agreed. "There are no conclusions to be drawn from the game," he said.
Madden and Jackson are right. There are no conclusions to be drawn on the basis of one game, but when the one game is added to all the others played last season it looks as if the NFC is, and the NFL was, a stronger league than the AFL was, or the AFC is.