January 15, 2001
The Original Clutch City
by Ric Sweeney
vs. Los Angeles (January 1, 1961)
Site: Jeppesen Stadium
Records: Chargers (10-4); Oilers (10-4)
Billy Cannon, the Heisman winner from LSU, was the AFL’s most celebrated combatant. His signing, which followed a fierce bidding war that began when Oiler owner Bud Adams met Cannon in the end zone following LSU’s Sugar Bowl victory and ended in court with the AFL winning a ruling against the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, put the fledgling league on the football map.
But in his first season, Cannon had done little to justify all the fuss. He led the Oilers in rushing but with only 644 yards. Further, Houston had won the Eastern Division due in large part to the arm of George Blanda, not the legs of Billy Cannon. But all that was forgotten during the AFL’s first-ever championship game when Cannon reminded all why he was so highly sought. And his coming out party helped lift the Oilers to the AFL Championship, beating the Los Angeles Chargers, 24-16.
Not that Cannon was the game’s only hero. Blanda continued to roll, throwing for 301 yards against a stingy Charger pass defense. Eleven of Blanda’s 16 completions, and all three touchdowns, came on third down plays. And the Oilers’ defense, horrible against the pass all year, held in check the AFL’s top-rated quarterback, Jack Kemp and his top-ranked pass offense.
Los Angeles opened the game with consecutive scoring drives, both ending in field goals from Ben Agajanian. Halfback Paul Lowe helped set up the second one with a 30-yard run to the Oilers’ 18. Houston, one of football’s most prolific offensive teams, was held scoreless in the first quarter. But their drought would be short-lived.
Blanda led the Oilers on a 12-play, 50-yard drive (the final 8 of which were passes), to start the second quarter. He hit FB Dave Smith out of the backfield for a 17-yard scoring strike to end the series and put Houston in front, 7-6. Blanda would put three more points on the board after an 83-yard drive, increasing the Oilers’ lead, 10-6, just before the half.
But with nine seconds remaining, Charlie Milstead’s punt sailed out of bounds at his own 31-yard line, giving Los Angeles the ball with five seconds left in the quarter. Agajanian connected on his third field goal, this one from 27 yards out, cutting Houston’s halftime lead to 10-9, a surprisingly low score for a game that featured such high-powered attacks.
On the opening drive of the second half, Blanda once again increased Houston’s lead, finding Bill Groman on a 7-yard strike, 17-9, ending a 10-play drive that had started at Houston’s 45 yard line thanks to Cannon’s 42-yard kick return.
But back came the Chargers.
Kemp found Dave Kocourek for 33 yards to the Oilers’ 2 where Lowe capped Los Angeles’ final scoring drive with a two-yard run. Lowe’s touchdown brought the Chargers within one, 17-16, and set the stage for Cannon’s heroics.
Early in the fourth quarter, Los Angeles had pinned Houston deep in their own territory when Blanda decided to exploit an opening he’d been watching all day. Charger safety Jim Sears spent most of the game creeping closer and closer to the line of scrimmage in an effort to help stop the Oilers’ rushing attack. It had for the most part worked.
So Blanda called for Cannon and WR Charlie Hennigan to each run slants toward the same sideline. Whichever player Sears broke on, the other was instructed to tear up field into the safety’s vacated spot.
As the play developed, Sears covered Hennigan and Cannon sprinted to the open space as Blanda had instructed, beating CB Charlie McNeil. Blanda, reading the play beautifully, lofted a perfect pass to the Oilers’ halfback who then raced the final 65 yards to the end zone to cap the day’s scoring, 24-16. Cannon’s catch and gallop covered 88 yards and captured perfectly why Cannon had been so highly sought. He was a running back who could catch like a wide receiver and then run like the wind. A year later, he would burn the Chargers again and help secure Houston’s second consecutive AFL Championship, scoring the decisive touchdown in a 10-3 contest on a 35-yard pass from Blanda.
Los Angeles drove deep into Houston territory late in the game but were turned back by a relentless defense. Getting the ball back, Houston marched down field to the Chargers’ 1-yard line before their fourth down attempt failed. Taking over on downs, Los Angeles moved inside the Oilers’ 20 as time began to run out. Because the AFL allowed for the two-point conversion, the Chargers were in position to tie but as they had all day, the Oilers’ defense stiffened and held on for the win, stopping Los Angeles on fourth down.
Houston, for the first time, was home to a professional sports champion. The Bayou City would have to wait another 33 years, not to mention, endure countless playoff failures, before they could celebrate another championship, this one brought home by the NBA’s Houston Rockets.
Cannon, who amassed 259 yards of total offense on the day, was awarded the game’s MVP (though Lowe actually totaled more yards, 271). He caught three passes for 128 yards, second most in team playoff history. Blanda’s 301 yards was the sixth best playoff total for an Oiler quarterback.
The AFL Oilers were, quite possibly, the cream of the league’s crop. Houston qualified for AFL postseason action a total of five times (1960, 1961, 1962, 1967 and 1969). They won two titles and played for two more. In all, the Oilers won four AFL Eastern Division championships in the AFL’s 10-year existence.
Unfortunately, the NFL-version of the Oilers could never match the success of their AFL alter egos. Perhaps the NFL provided stiffer competition. Or maybe the demise of the Oilers’ veteran core coincided with the 1970 merger. Regardless, after years of unbridled AFL success, the franchise was the last among it’s original brethren to win an NFL conference championship.
But that should not detract or lessen the team’s accomplishments in the renegade league that eventually changed football forever.
GAME STATS Chargers Oilers First Downs 21 17 Rushing Yards 162 100 Passing Yards 171 301 Passes 21/41 16/32 Turnovers 2 0 Punts 4/41 5/34 Penalty Yards 15 34
Week 20 Billy Cannon proved to be a dual threat in the Oilers’ first-ever championship. Final Score Houston Oilers 24 LA Chargers 16 Game Notes
How remarkable was Houston’s defensive performance? Not only was Jack Kemp and his offense the AFL’s top-rated passing attack, but in the four games prior to the AFL Championship, the Chargers had scored 52, 41, 41 and 50 points.
The Oiler/Charger rivalry was fierce during the AFL’s heyday. In the championship game, Houston’s Hogan Wharton and Julian Spence and Los Angeles’ Marty Schleicher were all ejected during the course of the game for fighting.
When the two teams met again the following year in the AFL Championship Game, 13 players were ejected and after the final whistle had blown, Charger coach Sid Gillman dropped an official with an elbow.
The Dream Season Week Opponent Result 01 @ Oakland 37-22 02 @ Cleveland 16-7 03 NY Jets 26-20 04 @ Cincinnati 30-27 05 Denver 42-14 06 @ New England 28-14 07 @ Buffalo 28-16 08 @ Pittsburgh 24-17 09 Washington 41-17 10 NY Titans 49-13 11 @ New England 26-23 12 Miami 35-30 13 @ Dallas 30-24 14 Pittsburgh 31-6 15 @ San Francisco 10-7 16 @ Baltimore 24-21 17 Bye Week N/A 18 @ Cleveland 24-23 19 @ San Diego 17-14 20 LA Chargers 24-16 RETURN TO THE DREAM SEASON