January 5th, 1964. San Diego Chargers 51. Boston Patriots 10.
My team's last championship, in something called the American Football League (AFL) more than a decade before I was even born, and years before the Super Bowl was invented, celebrates an anniversary today. You learn the dates because of ceaseless taunts like: WHERE'S YOUR RINGS?
Sixty years ago the Chargers won a ring.
That's right. Six weeks separated the funeral proceedings of President John F. Kennedy and the last time the Chargers won anything. Not that anyone should let a small thing like national grief get in the way of drinking Budweisers, watching sports, and gloating over those obnoxious Bostonians.
Ancient history? Yes.
So ancient that the Chargers social media team made no mention of the anniversary at all this week. But the Yacht Club remembers.
With every new season comes new possibilities, an unblemished record, and one more opportunity to rise above the ignominy and shame of your calamitous past. In 2024 the Chargers will try to grant fans a new aspiration: relief.
As the 2023 season comes to a whimpering close with more uncertainty than ever regarding who will lead the team going forward, we offer you this glance backwards to times, and some people, long departed. The naysayers might call this a distraction. I choose to acknowledge it as a pleasant reminder.
The Chargers played in the first two AFL title games but had fallen short in losses to the Houston Oilers; 24-16 in 1960, and 10-3 in 1961.
In 1962 the team's starting quarterback Jack Kemp tried playing through a broken middle finger on his throwing hand but toughness does not generate productivity. When Gillman placed Kemp on waivers in Week 3 to fill out the roster with able-bodied players the Buffalo Bills claimed him for the $100 fee. Though both Gillman and Kemp were sickened by the idea of him leaving town they caved when Buffalo threatened to deactivate him and terminate his $1,200 weekly salary.
Kemp's finger healed, and he made the Pro Bowl five more times. He also led the Bills to two AFL titles; both times defeating the Chargers in the championship game. If you think Brandon Staley was loathed can you imagine the roasting Gillman would take now for such a gaff?
After losing Kemp the team cratered in 1962 losing six straight and finishing 4-10. Going into the next season Gillman took the team to a failed resort east of San Diego to eliminate distractions. The facilities, if you could call them that, were notoriously as barren as the desert landscape that surrounded them.
"In the bungalows there was some rats. Some of the rooms had bats hanging upside down. . . and there was even a donkey running around there, you know, messing up the place" said running back Paul Lowe.
Gillman decided that the team chemistry would be best served by isolating them away from the hustle and bustle of Southern California. If Gillman's rundown dude ranch was the Chargers Los Alamos, then you could argue that the 1963 AFL Championship was his Trinity Test.*
Just as Robert Oppenheimer collected the brightest nuclear physicists to the remote Army base in Los Alamos, New Mexico for the Manhattan Project, Gillman's first coaching staff looked more like a proto-Mount Rushmore in hindsight: Chuck Noll, Joe Madro, Jack Faulkner, and a young receivers coach named Al Davis. Three of the five members of the 1960 Chargers staff have busts in Canton, Ohio at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The staff would go on to write their own legacies, but in the early sixties they were mere moths drawn to the flame that was Gillman's innovation.
Not that long ago risk-averse coaches still quoted the axiom, "There are three things that can happen when you pass the ball, and two of them are bad." Football philosophy has only recently warmed to the idea of building around the forward pass, but you can hear Sid Gillman bragging about it back in the sixties.
"The field is 100 yards long, and it's 53 and two thirds yards wide. We decided that we were going to use every inch of it." -Sid Gillman
As both a pioneer of the forward pass and a standard-bearer for the upstart AFL, Sid Gillman's innovations gave the Chargers immediate credibility; the team played in five of the first six AFL Championship games. The coach's willingness to put the ball in the air was decades ahead of the curve.
"Sid was one of the first people to lengthen the field, and he worked hard at that." said Keith Lincoln, who played tailback for the Chargers. "You have to remember that back in the fifties it was black and blue football. You ran the ball. But Sid was a guy who really, really believed in covering the whole field. Against us, the defense couldn't have the damn safties three, or four yards off the line of scrimmage, like they could before, because we'd throw it over their butts."
The deep passing and the spread formations were not the only nod to modernism. Over the years the coach had assembled a library of film that enabled him to strategize against opponents and teach technique to his own players.
The Chargers, now quarterbacked by veteran Tobin Rote, thrashed opponents in the regular season going 11-3 with a scoring differential of plus 155. Though the offense made the splash plays, the defense was making some waves of their own.
As one of the bigger defensive lines in football, Ernie Ladd, Earl Faison, Bob Petrich, Hank Schmidt, Fred Moore, and George Gross dominated opponents and finished first is scoring allowed (18.2) while creating 45 turnovers (third in the AFL).
Before the title game the experts predicted a low-scoring tilt due to the Chargers opponent's stingy defense. The Boston Patriots defense which gave up only 265 yards per game (best in the AFL) had played the Chargers close, losing 7-6 earlier that season. So Gillman poured himself into the film and devised a new game plan to take advantage of the Boston's aggressive linebackers.
By putting a man in motion to slow-up the Patriot blitzers and running counters and wham blocks at the teeth of their defensive line the Chargers took the best defense in the league behind the woodshed.
Keith Lincoln exploded for 206 yards rushing, 123 yards receiving, and two touchdowns and established a postseason record for scrimmage yards in pro football history. Lincoln's record (329 all-purpose yards) was eclipsed seven years later by Ed Podolak of the Chiefs in the indelible Christmas Day game against the Dolphins, but that game went into double overtime. Lincoln out gained the entire Patriots offense which only had 261 yards.
The Chargers gained 610 yards; another postseason offensive record that stood for nearly 50 years. (The New Orleans Saints put up 626 yards against the Detroit Lions following a historic Drew Brees season in which he broke Dan Marino's passing record (5,476 yards) in January, 2012.)
The 1963 AFL title game further pushed the lesser-known league into the national consciousness. Though it was a runaway, it showcased Gilman's cutting-edge offense and some of the AFL's top stars in a nationally broadcast game in a season in which their competitors over in the NFL gave the fans a 14-10 game won by the Chicago Bears.
Gillman, who died in 2003, always boasted his Chargers would have beaten the NFL Champion Chicago Bears and even had "World Champion" engraved on the Chargers' championship rings. Less than a decade later the two leagues merged and the Super Bowl was created.
There wasn't a button Gillman pressed that day that didn't work. The team shredded the Patriots defense for 610 yards on route to a 51-10 victory and the only title that the Chargers, and the city of San Diego, have ever won.
*In another nod to being at the forefront of science and innovation, the 1963 Chargers are noted for introducing weight training and steroids (though most players probably did not know the word) into professional football. T.J. Quinn researched it thoroughly in 2009 in a story for ESPN.
"Did he turn a blind eye? Probably. He's (Gillman) so focused on winning and coming up with any edge a team could have. Who knows? I have no idea. . .There's no question that at some point in time Sid became aware of what it was. There's no question he did not mind if players took them, but he stopped making it mandatory. Is it a black mark on him? I don't think so." -Tackle Ron Mix from Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game. Josh Katzowitz. 2012.
**Lincoln’s rushing total ranks fourth all-time in NFL history. This team record nearly fell in 2009 when Darren Sproles rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns, caught nine passes for 45 yards, returned three punts for 72 yards, and four kickoffs for 106 yards. Sproles scored the winning touchdown in overtime from 22-yards away on an off-tackle run around the left end. Had the ball been spotted at the 24-yard-line Sproles would have the record.
Chiefs vs. Chargers Predictions
SEO: NFL Predictions LA Chargers Chiefs
Rivers Lake Yacht Club
Señor Snappy (Season Record 7-6)
As much as I want to see some Chargers beat some Chiefs, it may ultimatelh influence the Bolts draft position in unhelpful ways. Winning is pyrrhic.
We have no idea who will run the draft this year (besides, of course, John Spanos), so it’s hard to know if an extremely high draft position will lead to better results than a very high draft position.
All that in mind, it’s hard to see Spanos “want” a loss this Sunday—which would also be a net negative for their mission to win over Los Angeles. More on that subject to come in the next Rivers Lake podcast (look for us on YouTube Wednesday).
Chiefs 17 - Chargers 13
Bolt Bros Podcast
Kyle Sawyer (Season Record 8-7)
The "Broracle" reads the runes!
MANNAZ. Us Chargers fans are used to disappointing seasons, but I believe I can say this has been one of the worst ones in a very long time. We can look at our team and realize lost opportunities, but at least we have each other.
GEBO. We are all gifted this final opportunity to watch the Chargers play one last time before the season ends. Let's do our best to enjoy ourselves because it will be a long offseason as usual. Cheer for the players, cheer for each other.
NAUTHIZ. The offseason is filled with a lot of needs. We have a lot to make up for this year and as mentioned we had a ton of unrealized potential. But there is still hope. The new regime can change the course and maximize what we have and forge a new future for this team. 27-17 Chiefs Win.
Chiefs 27 - Chargers 17
Mark White (Season Record 11-4)
For anyone who had difficulty imagining that the crosstown Rams—in a rebuilding year!—would be resting their starters in Week 18 because they have already locked up a playoff berth while the Chargers are riding out a losing streak on their way to April's draft I have some attendance figures from the Coliseum in 1960 to show you.
The Chargers hopes of gaining traction in Los Angeles took a major hit this season as the Brandon Staley era went up in smoke. Even the fans the team left here in San Diego won't be seeing the team's finale against the Chiefs as the local CBS affiliate decided that no Patrick Mahomes meant no mas.
The AFC West is about to become a coaches division and both the Chargers and the Raiders are rumored to be circling Jim Harbaugh with bags, and bags of money. Whoever wins that sweepstakes may have a leg up on chasing Big Red in Kansas City. Whoever loses is going to have to sell scraps to their fanbase and tell them that it's grass-fed prime. Speaking of Big Red and red meat, I'll wager that the defending champs and perpetual division-winners have more talent at the tail end of their roster than these Bolts do.
Chiefs 13 - Chargers 10
The Greek Uncles in Chicago
Abram Sexson and Panos Mamalis (Season Record 9-7)
Our pappou used to quote the Ancient Greek saying: “We are what we repeatedly do." The Chargers have been failing to get out of their own way for a long time, the same way uncle Mitso's business ventures kept failing: he would let his inept sons run the day-to-day operations but not hold them responsible when things went south.
There is an opportunity now for the Bolts to change the culture at the top, above even the general manager and coach. Does ownership have the courage and insight to take a look in the mirror? The decision to run concurrent coaching and GM searches is a bad sign. The biggest strength on the team is the individual talent level, starting with Justin Herbert. The analytics nerds love him, but there was concern about his conservative play this season.
Theia Koula used to tell us to change women liked we changed shirts. She thought we were too conservative with the number of women we dated. In hindsight the problem with this approach is that some of the best ones got away: Margarita’s pastichio bechamel was divine, her spanakopita a sensory revelation and her tsifteteli mesmerizing, but I let her go, forever cursing future candidates who fell short.
Even though he is a former fan favorite, this may be the end of the road for Austin Ekeler. After that fools gold in Week 1 and the subsequent ankle sprain, this year’s model was not what it was last year. Even if all the surrounding pieces were to blame it seems he may be headed the way of Margarita—collateral damage in a season of unrest.
Hopefully the next GM manages to woo (harder than we think) the right talent, cobble together a squad and the new coach can unlock some big play potential. Otherwise we may be left daydreaming of Margarita and the opportunities we let get away.
Chiefs 23 - Chargers 13
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