Remembering the Past

Sid Gillman would argue that the 1963 AFL San Diego Chargers were a team worthy of a Super Bowl. He yearned for a meeting with the NFL Champion Chicago Bears. The Super Bowl, was still three years away and thus the question of who would have won, remains a mystery, or does it?

The Quotes

Sid Gillman, who coached the 1963 Chargers said, "We had one of the great teams in pro football history, and I think we would have matched up pretty well with the NFL. We had great speed and talent, and I think at that time, the NFL really underestimated the talent we had."

Paul Lowe, one of the All-time Charger greats led the way with 1,101 yards rushing in 1963, was more confident than Gillman. "Of course we would've won," says Lowe. "With our defense, our offense, our bench strength, we had no weaknesses. We knew we had a better team."

"I wish we could've played the Bears in 1963," says Keith Lincoln, the Chargers' starting fullback in 1963 who led the league with a 6.5 yards-per-carry average. "We had a great team that year."

Ernie "Big Cat" Ladd, the 6-9, 321-pound anchor of San Diego's defense, pro football's original "Fearsome Foursome," believes the Chargers could have matched up well with the Bears. "I thought we could play with anybody in 1963," Ladd says. "We had the horses."

The AFL earned its first championship game win over the NFL when Joe Namath quarterbacked the New York Jets to a stunning 16-7 victory over the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. So was it really possible for the AFL to compete with the NFL five years prior?

"I believe with all my heart," stated Jerry Mays, a starting end for Kansas City in 1963, "that San Diego would have beaten the Bears in 1963. They would have beaten them in an eye-blink. San Diego was the best team in football that year. They won the AFL title over Boston and they looked awesome. It was frightening how good they were."

"Sid's team in 1963 could have competed with anyone," Hank Stram says. "San Diego was like the 49ers (of the 1980s). Everybody talked about their offense, but they had a great defense too."

The Players and Teams

The Chargers were all about offense and led the league in seven different offensive categories, including scoring with 399 points, mustering more than 30 points five times during that span, and over 50 twice. The Bears were all about defense and in 1963 allowed just 10.3 points per game, and 144 overall. The defense held five teams to seven points or less and garnered one shutout and it would be a few years before Dick Butkus joined them.

Keith Lincoln led the AFL with an astounding 6.5 yards- per-carry average and Paul Lowe ran for 1,010 yards and averaged 5.7 yards per attempt. Between them, they scored 13 touchdowns via the ground mostly running behind 7-time AFL all-star Ron Mix. Chicago was number one against the run led by blitzing linebackers Bill George and Joe Fortunato who made the all-pro team. Larry Morris joined the all-pro linebackers and the front four was led by all-pro defensive end Doug Atkins and pass rushing specialist Ed O'Bradovich, with Stan Jones and Fred Williams at the tackles.

Lance Alworth used speed and grace to haul in a team-high 61 catches for 1,205 yards and a league-leading 20 yards per-catch average, not to mention 11 touchdown receptions. Tobin Rote led the league in passing, completing an AFL-high 59 percent of his passes and gunning the ball for 2,510 yards and 20 touchdowns. Rote led the AFL in yards-per-attempted pass, averaging 8.7. Lincoln, Lowe, Mix, Rote and Alworth were each named to the ALL-AFL team.

However, they never played a defense like Chicago had. All-pro safeties Richie Pettibon and Roosevelt Taylor were a devastating duo. They combined for 17 interceptions with Pettibon leading the league with 9 of those. Cornerbacks Dave Whitsell and Bennie McRae added another 6 apiece to make one of the best defensive backfields to ever play the game. So not only was Chicago the best against the run, they were also number one against the pass earning the triple feat of top honors against the run, pass and overall. The Chicago defense led the league in interceptions with 36, giving them the most by any NFL team in the 1960s.

Defensively, the Chargers were led by the AFL's first great front four. In 1963, the Chargers had one of the best, and certainly the most colorful, of the early AFL defenses. The San Diego unit was spearheaded by all-pro end Earl Faison and massive, 6-9, 321 pound Ernie Ladd, the "Big Cat" of the Charger defense. End Bob Petrich and tackles George Gross and Henry Schmidt filled out the front wall. The defense allowed just 3.8 yards per carry and runners were hard pressed to see any running room against them. Under Chuck Noll, the defense led the league in fewest points allowed, surrendering 256.

The Bears' ground game was by committee, with fullback Joe Marconi leading the team with 446 yards, but they were unable to muster a high average per carry. Marconi gained yards at 3.8 a clip. Willie Galimore, the blocking fullback, was fantastic in short yardage situations and scored five touchdowns. There was no Gayle Sayers on this team.

San Diego cornerbacks Dick Harris and Charlie McNeil had 12 interceptions between them with Harris netting 8 of those. The linebackers were also great pass defenders as they were able to concentrate more on the passing game with the solid front four. Linebackers Chuck Allen, Paul Maguire and Bob Mittinger added another 12 interceptions with Allen leading the group with five.

The Chicago offense scored just 301 points in 1963, the lowest for any NFL title team in the 1960s, but they led the league in turnover ratio. The Bears were paced by Billy Wade, who threw 15 touchdown passes, 8 of which went to All-Pro tight end Mike Ditka, who led the team with 59 catches. They were not a one man receiving corps though. Johnny Morris also caught 47 passes during the season.

These matchups don't even factor in two of the most innovative coaches in the history of professional football San Diego's Sid Gillman, "El Sid," against the "Papa Bear", George Halas.

The Final Analysis

The Chargers established themselves as the first of the AFL's super teams. No other team in AFL history ever invited serious comparisons with the best of the NFL. It paved the way for the eventual merger a few years later.

So who would have won the game? The only way we can know is by listening to the immortal words of Sid Gillman. After winning the AFL Championship Gillman proclaimed, "We're champions of the world. If anyone wants to debate it, let them play us."

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