George Blanda: great showman, the original gunslinger

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Sep 27, 2010



By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Old Warhorse of Analysis
 
Pro Football Hall of Famer George Blanda passed away Monday at 83 years old – 35 years after the end of a wild ride of a career unlike any other in the history of the game.
 
Blanda, you might say, saw it all and played it all. He was the P.T. Barnum of pigskin, pro football's great showman whose flair for the dramatic during the sport's formative years helped propel pro  football from second-class afterthought to national passion, and he was its original gunslinger, too, the first quarterback who relentlessly attacked defenses down field come hell or high water.
 
The ride was much rockier, more compelling and dramatic, more unusual and unexpected, than the way many remember it today.
 
Blanda was born to play football in 1927 in Youngwood, Pennsylvania, in the heart of the Gridiron Breadbasket, and in the cradle of quarterbacks around Pittsburgh that has produced so many of the game's great signal caller. Like another local boy, Johnny Unitas, Blanda was born of eastern European roots in the coal-mining culture of western PA. Joe Montana was born 29 years later and 25 miles west of Youngwood in New Eagle.
 
Blanda was schooled at the University of Kentucky, where played football for one of the game's greatest legends, Bear Bryant, at a time when the college game ruled the national consciousness.
 
He joined pro football at the height of its wild, leather-helmeted high-scoring post-war days. He helped carry the game and an upstart new league into the modern TV age of the 1960s, as the record-setting first star quarterback of the AFL; and he ended his career as a living legend with the colorful Raiders in the depths of the brutal Dead Ball Era, when his flair for drama captivated audiences, even though he was well into his 40s and playing in a period  when defenses ruled the day.
 
That's a lot of a time spent among the greatest people and places in the history of football, and he left his imprint every step of the way.
 
Blanda is best remembered as the oldest player in league history. His record 26-year pro playing career began in 1949 with the Bears ended in 1975 with the Raiders.
 
He certainly deserves to be known for his lengthy career. But it's a reputation that actually does a disservice to his legacy. Blanda was so much more than a human oddity who merely stuck around longer than any other player.
 
First and foremost, Blanda was the original "gunslinger" – encapsulating, perhaps more than any other quarterback, both the pros and cons with which we consider the term today. At his peak, he was a big-armed, daring and highly productive player who kept defenses racing backward to defend his constant long-bombs; a player whose downfield derring-do was often self-destructive, but always entertaining.
 
The most notable statistical evidence of his wildly entertaining but paradoxical gunslinging ways: Blanda set a pro football record with 36 touchdown passes for the old Houston Oilers in 1961, a star-studded team and the first in history to score 500 points (513) in a single season. The very next year, he set a pro football record, one that still stands, with a truly remarkable 42 interceptions. Even contemporary gunslingers BrettFavre and Jay Cutler couldn't  approach that many picks in a season, try though they did.
 
But that paradox of production is only one of the career touchstones that made Blanda the original gunslinger and  one of the game's great showmen. The ride that brought him there is what's truly amazing.
 
College football still ruled the national landscape in the postwar years of the mid to late 1940s, and Blanda was one of its stars at the University of Kentucky. He was the first of what would become a long list of legendary quarterbacks that the great Bear Bryant cultivated in college, and the pair combined to lead the Wildcats to the first bowl game in school history.
 
Blanda, fittingly enough, booted a field goal for the first points in Kentucky bowl history, and then added three extra points in a 24-14 win over Villanova in the first and only Great Lakes Bowl.
 
He played for another legendary coach in the 1950s, George Halas, after the Bears drafted him in 1949. Halas was looking for the quarterback of the future to replace the great Sid Luckman. But the coach and the quarterback never quite clicked, and Blanda never quite produced.

It was a decade spent as a struggling NFL journeyman. Blanda fought for playing time behind the likes of Johnny Lujack, the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner from nearby Notre Dame, and Ed Brown, who had a highly productive eight years with the Bears. Blanda even had a cup of coffee with the 1950 Colts, arguably the worst team in NFL history, before heading back to Chicago to play out what seemed a disappointing pro career.
 
His nine-plus years with the Bears ended in 1958, a back-up quarterback and kicking specialists who could no longer split the uprights. He hit an anemic 37 of 77 (48.1%) field goals over his final three seasons in Chicago, including just 11 of 23 (47.8%) field goals in 1958. Both he and the Bears had seen enough of each other and Blanda rode off into the sunset.
 
He spent the 1959 season watching the game from home, a 32-year-old ex-pro football player. The forgettable George Blanda story looked like it had ended there.
 
But the great showman, and the great gunslinger, had merely been warming up for the big time.
 
The AFL came along in 1960. League co-founder, and Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams, a Texas oilman who had been spurned by the old NFL, began snapping up talent, most notably 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon out of LSU, the first plum prize in what became a hotly contested talent war with the NFL. Adams and coach Lou Rymkus pegged Blanda as the guy who could orchestrate the offense.
 
They essentially saved Blanda from obscurity. But Blanda, in turn, grabbed the opportunity with both hands and never let go, riding a wild new form of football for all it was worth.
 
While the AFL saved him from obscurity, Blanda saved the league from its own potential obscurity, pioneering an aggressive, unapologetic new style of offensive football.
 
It worked better than even Bud Adams might have anticipated. The Oilers won the first two AFL titles in 1960 and again 1961, the latter year behind Blanda's record 36 TDs and the aforementioned record 513 points.
 
Houston competed for the league title again in 1962 (losing to the Dallas Texans), after an 11-3 season in which they scored 27.6 PPG, second in the AFL. We can only imagine the offensive records that would have fallen had original gunslinger not averaged a truly amazing three INTs per game during that 42-pick season.
 
It's a statistical improbability that you could be so reckless and yet still win games. But Blanda, the pioneer, made it happen: out at the forefront of a form of football that took nearly a whole decade for defenses to come to grips with.
 
The Oilers were the first great team of the upstart AFL, and Blanda was the team's, and the league's, first great star. He set passing records with the AFL's first great weapons, receiver Charley Hennigan most notably (the first player to catch more than 100 passes in a season), while teaming up with dual-threat back Cannon.
 
Few teams in history depended more heavily on their quarterback to carry them than the Oilers depended on Blanda in the 1960s. Last year, we reported on the "Mad Bombers," the quarterbacks who could "carry a team" – that is, win when the pass was their primary weapon.
 
Blanda quarterbacked 56 games when asked to "carry a team" – among the most ever – and he won 28 of them. It's a remarkable rate of success in a sport in which passing often usually means defeat.
 
The AFL is widely remembered today for a pioneering style of aggressive, downfield football. But it was not the AFL's style of football that we remember. It was really the Houston Oiler's style of football; it was really George Blanda's style of football.
 
The history of the AFL is shrouded in mythology, as the Cold, Hard Football Facts proved last year. It was a decade of prolific offensive production and record-setting performances in both leagues (still the highest scoring decade in NFL history, too).
 
But where and when the legends touched down in the end zone of reality, these legends were true because of the Oilers, and because of George Blanda.
 
The team struggled, and Blanda struggled with it, in the middle of the 1960s. In fact, the Oilers/Titans, now in their 51st season, have never been as good as they were in the Blanda Years of the early 1960s. He was released at the end of the 1966 season. It would have been a remarkable career had it ended right there.
 
But the best was still yet to come.
 
As Blanda was the first great quarterback to play under Bear Bryant, and as he was the pioneer of the "AFL style" of football, he then became the first in a long line of incredible salvage products by Al Davis and the Raiders.
 
Oakland picked up Blanda before the 1967 season, hoping he could improve the team's terrible kicking game of the year before: Mike Eischeid and Mike Mercer had combined to hit just 12 of 30 field goals in 1966. Blanda, despite the fact he was in his late 30s, already one of the oldest players in league history, had hit better than 50 percent of his field goals each of the previous two years (combined 27 of 51). It was a pretty good rate for the era.
 
But Oakland, and pro football fans, got so much more out of the Old Man than a reliable kicker; Oakland and pro football fans got so much more than we ever expected.
 
The Raiders dominated the AFL in 1967, with a 13-1 record, while outscoring opponents better than 2 to 1 (468-233). Blanda had a career year as a kicking specialist, nailing 20 of 30 field goals, a league best 66.7 percent rate.
 
Oakland won the AFL title and the great showman Blanda got his shot under the Super Bowl Big Top. But his Raiders proved no match for Vince Lombardi's mighty Packers in Super Bowl II. Green Bay won big, 33-14. Blanda booted both Oakland extra points, etching his name, however trivially, in the Super Bowl history books.
 
Blanda proved during his Raiders days that he still had plenty of sling left in the old gun, too. He played at least one game at quarterback every year from 1967 to 1972, still the oldest guy in NFL history to take a snap at quarterback.
 
And he booted the ball better than ever, nailing more than more than 60 percent of his field goals every year from 1971 (at age 44) to 1975 (at age 48).
 
John Madden had taken over as head coach of the Raiders in 1969, leading to a period of iconic moments not just for the franchise, but for the NFL itself. Blanda played a huge role in forging that Raiders tradition. (Incredibly, Blanda played for head coaches Bryant, Halas and Madden ... quite a career for that reason alone.)
 
Specifically, he'll forever be remembered for one magical run in 1970, when he saved Oakland's season and provided an unexpected boost to a struggling team that ended with a battle in the AFC title game.
 
Blanda came off the bench to throw late touchdowns or kick late field goals to help the Raiders salvage four victories and one tie in five straight games. The Old Man's magic led to AFC Player of the Year honors for Blanda at age 43. It remains one of the most remarkable runs for any team, and one of the more remarkable accomplishments for any individual player in NFL history. 
 
Thanks to Blanda, the 1970s Raiders eked out an 8-4-2 record and captured the first AFC West title. Oakland beat Don Shula's Dolphins in the divisional playoffs, before falling to Johnny Unitas and the Colts in the first AFC  championship game.
 
Blanda played more than his part in the title tilt: he booted a 48-yard field goal, incredibly long for a straight-ahead kicker, and he threw touchdown passes to Warren Wells (15 yards) and Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff (38 yards).
 
But his old gunslinging ways betrayed him that day: Blanda was also picked off three times. It was the best and worst and most entertaining of Blanda all in one game. But it was eminently dramatic, an unexpected, for a 43 year old quarterback to be fighting and clawing against Johnny U. himself for a shot at the Super Bowl in front of the entire nation.
 
The living legend trotted out for one last season in 1975. Now 48 years old, an age at which most guys have given up even barroom softball, Blanda was still contributing for the Raiders, in the rough-and-tumble AFC of the mid-1970s.
 
Blanda began his college career the month that World War II ended, September, 1945. His pro career, meanwhile, extended into America's Bicentennial year: he kicked an extra point and a late field goal in Oakland's 16-10 loss to mighty Pittsburgh in the AFC title game, on Jan. 4, 1976.
 
Hell, if not a pair of Kenny Stabler picks, or a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns by Hall of Famers Franco Harris and John Stallworth, Blanda and the Raiders would have played Tom Landry, Roger Staubach and America's Team in Super Bowl X.
 
Now that would have been quite a story.

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