It’s 1961 on NFL Thursday today, as everyone (hopefully?) enjoys football on Thanksgiving Day in America! Meanwhile, we will determine championship game MVPs for both professional leagues, and this was the first year the NFL actually awarded such a prize. The AFL would start doing so in 1963. Oh, and don’t forget the ROTY hardware, either. This is always so much fun … right?
You can check out our first miniseries entry on this year for context, by the way. Enjoy the holiday read!
1961 NFL Championship Game MVP: Paul Hornung, HB/K, Green Bay (original); Bart Starr, QB, Green Bay (revised)
The Green Bay Packers won their first NFL title under Head Coach Vince Lombardi, and they did it in resounding fashion, shutting out the New York Giants, 37-0. The G.B. defense was outstanding, forcing 5 turnovers—including 4 interceptions—and holding the N.Y. offense to just 130 total yards. Since all four INTs were by different Packers defenders, we will look to the offense for our MVP pick.
Green Bay’s halfback/kicker Paul Hornung scored 19 of the points himself on a touchdown run, three field goals, and three extra points, while Packers quarterback Bart Starr threw three TD passes himself while posting a 130.9 QB rating. Hornung won the vote at the time, but we’re not so sure. His 136 scrimmage yards represent a fine day, but it was hardly outstanding. The kicking stuff is generic to us.
We’re going with Starr on this one, as for the time period, attempting 17 passes and gaining 164 yards on those throws with three scores and no interceptions is incredible. All three TDs were in the red zone, which means Starr was at his best when it mattered most. Plus, all three Hornung FGs were chip shots, so it’s not like he was making bombs from beyond the 30-yard line or anything.
1961 AFL Championship Game MVP: Billy Cannon, HB, Houston
The Houston Oilers beat the San Diego Chargers, 10-3, in a game for the ages—and not in a good way, as the two teams combined for 13 turnovers. Yes, that is right: 10 interceptions and 3 lost fumbles between both squads. With little scoring, we have to look to the defense for a title game MVP here, perhaps, as the AFL didn’t award a trophy for the MVP until 1963.
The problem is no single player dominated for either team on defense, as there were no defensive scores or even huge returns on any of the turnovers. So, we give this award to Oilers halfback Billy Cannon, who scored the game’s only TD and accounted for 101 scrimmage yards on 20 touches. With both teams gaining just 256 yards each, Cannon was the only player to truly shine and stand out.
1961 NFL ROTY: Mike Ditka, TE, Chicago Bears (original, confirmed)
There were several good candidates for this award, including Chicago Bears tight end Mike Ditka, who won the vote at the time for totaling 1,076 yards receiving and 12 TD catches. He did fumble twice, however, as the Bears went 8-6 and finished 3 games behind the Packers in the West Division. The other candidates were Minnesota Vikings QB Fran Tarkenton and Dallas Cowboys HB Don Perkins.
The expansion Vikings posted a 3-11 record, while the Cowboys improved from 0-11-1 to 4-9-1 in one season. Perkins had more yards from scrimmage (1,113) than Ditka, but he also fumbled 5 times. Ouch! Meanwhile, Tarkenton tossed more TDs (18) than INTs (17), which was pretty heady for a rookie QB, let alone a veteran one, at the time.
We like the fact Ditka caught 3 TDs passes in a 31-28 home loss to the Packers, though, showing that he was playing well against the best team in the league—which later shutout the opponent in the title game. We will confirm Ditka’s award, therefore. Oddly, this is the fifth NFL ROTY Award in a row that we have confirmed.
1961 AFL ROTY: Earl Faison, DE, San Diego (original, confirmed)
For posting 3.5 sacks and 2 INTs, Chargers defensive end Earl Faison was voted the AFL ROTY, but we don’t see too much statistical value there, even for the time period. San Diego did win its division, so there’s that. We’re going to look at some offensive candidates first, however, before deciding if we will let Faison keep this award.
The offensive guys are Buffalo Bills left end Glenn Bass (773 scrimmage yards, 3 TDs, 2 fumbles); Dallas Texans HB Frank Jackson (557 scrimmage yards, 5 TDs, 3 fumbles); Buffalo fullback Art Baker (571 scrimmage yards, 3 TDs, 7 fumbles); and Denver Broncos HB Donnie Stone (849 scrimmage yards, 8 TDs, 3 fumbles). Two teammates cancel each other, so we’re just zeroing in on Jackson and Stone now.
The Texans went 6-8 to finish in second place behind the Chargers by 6 games, while the Broncos were just 3-11 overall in the same division. All things being equal, we give the offensive nod here to Stone for having more an impact on a bad team. Is it enough to overcome Faison? Somehow, Faison earned a 17-AV (Approximate Value) rating for the season, which is crazy good, while Stone posted just 6 AV.
We’re going to trust the sabermetrics here, even though there aren’t a plethora of statistics to support it. But he won the award for some reason, right? The Chargers surrendered a league-low 219 points on the season, and they were able to hold the high-scoring Oilers to just 10 points in the title game (which is irrelevant for the award’s purposes, of course). Faison must have been doing something right.