The passing of George Blanda this week garnered some national attention, including statements from coaches, former players and journalists about the uniqueness of the man and his career. All of it was deserved, as is Blanda's bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Perhaps a more appropriate send-off for Blanda's NFL career and legacy would be a giant thank you card from quarterbacks across the league. Not to mention fans from Oakland, Houston, Kansas City, New York, Denver, New England, San Diego, Buffalo… and perhaps, to a lesser extent, Miami, Cincinnati, and Tennessee; essentially all the franchises with AFL roots.
While most of the archival footage of the sage quarterback-turned-kicker showed his famous years as clutch personified in a Raiders uniform, it was his days as Houston Oilers quarterback that should be both remembered and appreciated. From 1960 to 1966, Blanda played a part in changing the way teams approached playing offense, incidentally altering ticket sales from not many to almost enough -- as in almost enough to turn a profit.
That was saying something in those days. When K.S. "Bud" Adams founded the Oilers franchise, he had both the pressure of creating a winning team and attempting to make money in a brand new football league. The Oilers were the AFL's most powerful franchise next to Lamar Hunt's Dallas Texans, mostly because, like Hunt, Adams had deep oil pockets. Adams and newly hired general manager John Breen accomplished the winning part in signing Blanda, and while not making money, lost less than much of their AFL brethren.
Most AFL players were NFL rejects in that first season of 1960. Blanda was no anamoly in that department, other than the fact that he was the best pure passer out of all of them. Adams knew that big offense and subsequently ticket sales started with him, while Breen knew it would take other teams three years to get defensive backs talented enough to stop him.
The Oilers recorded over 3,000 passing yards that first season, the only franchise in either league to do so. Almost all of that was Blanda. Adams drew 32,000-plus for the AFL title game, which the Oilers hosted (and won), about 31,000 more than arrogant NFL owners thought he'd draw. Much of that was because of Blanda.
In 1961, Blanda outdid himself -- and everyone else. The then 34-year-old threw for 3,330 yards and a then record 36 touchdowns over the 14-game season. The Oilers drew even more people to Jeppesen Stadium and won their second straight title.
If Blanda's productivity and all of the winning wasn't enough to convince NFL followers that the passing game was at least a spare key to success, maybe his seven touchdown passes against the Titans was. Too bad he left that game midway through the third quarter.
The Oilers' wide receiver duo of Charley Hennigan (1,746 yards, 12 TDs) and Bill Groman (1,175 yards, 17 TDs) produced video game numbers that sounded a very early warning death knell to the dominance of the power sweep -- although it took a couple of decades until the NFL was certifiably pass happy. In fact, Hennigan's receiving yards total in 1961 wouldn't be broken until some guy named Jerry Rice surpassed it in 1995, although he had two more games to do it.
Pro football was changing, painted blade of grass by painted blade of grass, at an old high school football stadium. While none of the AFL stadiums had particularly healthy fields or green grass, several of the teams had bloated passing games and, in time, greener wallets. A handful of quarterbacks -- like Len Dawson, Jack Kemp and Babe Parilli -- were drawing crowds, and Blanda was simply the best of them.
Like players such as future Hall of Famers Dawson and Don Maynard, Blanda saw himself as more than just a guy riding the pine. The AFL was that one spot in the universe where opportunity, good fortune and ridiculously productive Houston wideouts partied together.
Taking a step back from the trees to see the forest, Blanda's journey isn't too different from recently retired Kurt Warner, whose career rebirth was the confluence of opportunity (Arizona), good fortune (Eli Manning landing in N.Y.), and the presence of Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Like Blanda, Warner had major success in the NFL, only to be tossed onto the pro football scrap heap in his 30's with a one-year deal to be Manning's backup. But that was a blessing, as Manning's development made Warner expendable, resulting in Warner's second career act: taking flight with the Cardinals and their immensely talented duo of Fitzgerald and Boldin.
When one plays as long as Blanda did, there are shades of several players' careers to discern. Like Halas with Blanda, Raiders owner Al Davis banished an uber-talented Marcus Allen to the bench, only to watch him resurrect his career as a 30-something in Kansas City.
But in most fans' minds, Blanda was the salt-and-pepper embodiment of the aging player that would neither retire nor give up making clutch kicks. In that way, he is the lovechild of Brett Favre and Morten Anderson.
In reality, the deepest shade of Blanda is the shadow he casts over the development of the passing game. It may not be as obvious as Paul Brown, new age as Bill Walsh, or high tech as Peyton Manning. But if Brown was the album, Walsh the CD, and Manning the Ipod, then consider Blanda the cassette tape.
He contributed to making passing a more convenient way to win than the three yards and a cloud of dust, and an easier way to draw fans than marching bands. And much like the staying power of cassettes, would you believe Blanda's single-season touchdown record wasn't broken for 23 years?