It’s the 12th week of NFL Thursdays this spring (soon to be summer), and we’re moving into the 1960s where we have two professional football leagues to examine: the upstart AFL and the more-established NFL.
Remember, of course, we only started this series with the 1950 NFL season, because prior to that, the NFL itself was pretty upstart. Given just 10 years of legitimate foundation over the new upstart, the “old” league wasn’t that much … older.
Regardless, here we go on another fun examination of the MVP awards from the past, as we take away MVP awards from two legends and give them to their more-valuable teammates …
1961 AFL MVP: George Blanda (original), Charley Hennigan (revised)
Only three teams finished above .500 in the regular season: the San Diego Chargers (12-2), the Houston Oilers (10-3-1), and the Boston Patriots (9-4-1). No other team was in legitimate playoff contention, either, as the 7-7 New York Titans finished third behind the Oilers and the Patriots in the East.
San Diego safety Charlie McNeil had an incredible defensive season, intercepting 9 passes and returning them for 376 yards and 2 touchdowns. Yet get this: Chargers cornerback Dick Harris returned 3 picks for touchdowns, and S.D. linebacker Bob Laraba also had two pick-six efforts.
Overall, San Diego’s defense posted 9 INT returns for TDs in 1961. Unfortunately, since it was such a group effort, no one player stands out for the MVP.
Onto the QBs, who clearly tossed a lot of interceptions! Houston QB George Blanda threw a record 36 TD passes (and 22 INTs as well) on his way to posting a 91.3 rating, which was the best in the AFL. He started only 11 games of the 14 possible, but his 9.2 yards-per-attempt mark meant there were a lot of bombs in that bunch of completions.
Boston had the league’s next-best QBs, Babe Parilli (76.5 QB rating) and Butch Songin (73.0), who split time while combining for a 27-to-18 ratio on TDs to INTs. So, Blanda was the standout here with his record TD mark that would not be broken until 1984, despite the fact he only played in 11 games, which is crazy, actually.
Houston also had the league’s best runner, halfback Billy Cannon, winner of the 1959 Heisman Trophy while at LSU. He topped the league with 948 yards and a 4.7 yards-per-carry average, while finishing second in carries with 200 even. No other rusher was within 100 yards of Cannon, in fact. But his season wasn’t really dominant, of course.
On the other end of Blanda’s rainbows were flanker Charley Hennigan and end Bill Groman, our pick for the 1960 MVP. Hennigan caught 82 passes for 1,746 yards, the latter being a record that would stand until 1995. Meanwhile, Groman caught 17 TD passes, which tied the record and would stand itself until 1984.
So, this comes down to two issues: Of three record performances, all of which would last deep into pro football’s future, Hennigan’s yardage record was the most impressive, and Hennigan also led the AFL in yards from scrimmage while not fumbling once. He scored 12 TDs, which was plenty considering all the other factors.
Admittedly, Cannon finished second in yards from scrimmage, adding 586 yards receiving to his rushing totals, plus scoring a combined 15 TDs. All in all, Hennigan, Cannon, and Groman finished 1-2-4 in total yards, showing the Oilers offense to be one for the ages, really, with Blanda at the controls.
But Blanda only played 11 games, and clearly, he just had to hand the ball off to Cannon or throw the ball to one of three talented players—and he still tossed 22 picks in those 11 games. Even if he was the most-efficient QB in the league, one gets the idea anyone could have stepped in at QB and done the same job.
In fact, Oilers backup QB Jacky Lee had a 96.7 QB rating while starting three games for Houston, so it’s kind of damning that Lee was even more efficient than Blanda, given the tools at his disposal. Lee’s 12:6 ratio of TDs to INTs was also superior to Blanda’s ratio.
Houston scored 513 points in 14 regular-season games, although that vaunted San Diego defense held the Oilers to just 10 points in the AFL Championship Game (a game that featured 13 turnovers, including 7 by the Oilers—and five INTs thrown by Blanda, by the way).
What a season in the upstart league, no? In the end, though, Hennigan’s performance is the one that lasted the longest in the record books, so he’s our MVP.
1961 NFL MVP: Paul Hornung (original), Jim Taylor (revised)
On the other side of the coin, the NFL featured a whopping eight teams to finish over .500, although only four teams were legitimate playoff contenders: the Green Bay Packers (11-3), the New York Giants (10-3-1), the defending champion Philadelphia Eagles (10-4), and the 8-5-1 Cleveland Browns. The Detroit Lions also posted an 8-5-1 record, but Detroit finished too far behind the Packers in the West Division to really factor into the postseason chase.
Looking at the league’s best QBs is a fun exercise, though: Seven passers managed to throw more TDs than INTs, signaling a shift in the forward-pass philosophy for the NFL, probably in response to the fans’ delight in watching the AFL QBs air it out. Six QBs finished with a QB rating over 80, led by Chicago Bears passer Billy Wade (93.7), Cleveland QB Milt Plum (90.3), and Philadelphia star Sonny Jurgensen (88.1).
The Bears finished 8-6, a half game behind Detroit and three full games behind the Packers, so Wade’s effort was somewhat wasted, while neither Plum’s nor Jurgensen’s seasons were anything special—unlike the Browns QB’s MVP effort in 1960, of course.
While Cleveland fullback Jim Brown led the league in rushing attempts (305) and yards (1,408) again, his season’s quality was sabermetrically eclipsed by Green Bay fullback Jim Taylor, who ran for 1,307 yards, led the league with 15 rushing TDs, and posted a 5.4 average per carry while fumbling just twice. For comparison, Brown averaged just 4.6 yards per carry and fumbled six times.
On the receiving end, six players caught passes for more than 1,000 yards, topped by Philadelphia flanker Tommy McDonald (1,144). Five players caught double-digit TD passes, too, led again by McDonald (13). For the record, he finished fourth in receptions with 64 catches, as well. However, none of those numbers really scream M-V-P at us.
Here begs the question: Why did Green Bay halfback/kicker Paul Hornung win the MVP award? Well, he totaled just 742 yards from scrimmage with 10 total TDs, but he led the NFL with 146 points—which was 30 points less than the 176 he scored in 1960. His kicking gave him the extra bonuses, as he topped the NFL in scoring by 49 points.
Hornung did make all his extra-point attempts (41), and he was a solid-for-the-era 15 for 22 in field-goal attempts. But he didn’t lead the league in made FGs or even FG percentage. This MVP award almost seemed a year too late, as Hornung’s 1960 season was superior in the scoring sense by far—and we didn’t even view him as an MVP candidate then, also due to his split contributions as a kicker.
Kicking in this era of pro football was often handled by a position player, as the idea of a specialist kicker had not yet come into vogue in the NFL. When it did a decade hence, those guys were so much better, too, in terms of accuracy, distance, and reliability. Anyone could have been kicking like Hornung was, in truth, but the best position/skill players were not going to be risked in the role.
Let that sink in for a moment: The second-highest scoring kicker in the 1961 NFL season was Philadelphia end Bobby Walston. He caught 34 passes and was clearly not as important as McDonald in the Eagles offense. The Giants used defensive end Pat Summerall as their kicker, while the Browns used defensive tackle Lou Groza. The four best teams in the league did not have a kicking specialist.
We just can’t justify giving the MVP to a kicker, even one who is playing another position at the same time, especially when the kicking provides the main “value” in terms of scoring. Hornung’s yardage totals were over 1,100 yards behind Brown, who led the league with 1,867 total yards—and almost 750 yards behind Taylor (1,482 yards), his own teammate.
Taylor had the superior season to Brown, though, sabermetrically as noted above, and his ability to hold on to the ball better was key, too. Efficiency and reliability matter here, and without any defensive standouts to note, Taylor gets our nod for the MVP award.