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OT: Tales of the AFL, Part I - The Cornerbacks


DMaynard

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This is a piece I wrote that I posted on JI awhile ago. It should bring back some memories for board members here who go back to the AFL days and help educate the youngsters about the Jets AFL heritage who were not around or were too young. I'll do some more pieces during this slow period if people find them interesting.

I wanted to talk about the AFL cornerbacks because it is a common misconception that the AFL was wide open offensive football with little or no defense. That was the case in the beginning, but by the second half of the sixties, The AFL defenses were getting very good. The three best teams, the Chiefs, Jets and Raiders all had great defenses to match their offenses. The Houston Oilers had four players on their defense (Elvin Bethea, George Webster, Miller Farr and Ken Houston), who were as good as any players at their positions in all of pro football. One of the reasons the AFL defenses got so good was because AFL teams were willing to take chances on drafting great athletes from small black colleges, particularly cornerbacks. AFL coaches took advantages of their athleticism with the development of the bump and run style of coverage, which most of the AFL teams were using by the late sixties. Keep in mind during this period, there was no five yard bump rule. So a DB could maul a receiver all the way down the field until the ball was thrown. So when people criticize Joe Namath's low completion percentage and high interception rate, keep that in mind as well.

Let's take a stroll around the 10 AFL teams and look at the incredible wealth of good cornerbacks during this period. Let's start with the eastern division. Our Jets, of course, had Johnny Sample and Randy Beverley. Neither was a speed burner or great athlete, but both were very smart and played with good technique (but not the bump and run style). The Buffalo Bills had a great pair in Booker Edgerson and Butch Byrd. Edgerson was a great bump and run technician and Byrd was a tough hitter who had great hands and a nose for the ball. The Houston Oilers had Miller Farr and Zeke Moore. Farr had a strange career. He was little touted coming out of college. He was the older brother of the much more touted Mel Farr, a great RB from UCLA who had a good but injury shortened career with the Lions. Miller's career started as a back up for the Broncos and Chargers. Then he joined the Oilers in 1967 and in that year and 1968 he played cornerback as well as anyone I have ever seen. Farr had everything you look for in a CB. He had the speed of a track star, great hands (intercepted 10 passes in 67, returning 3 for TDs), great instincts and technique. During that two year period, he only gave up 1 TD pass (to some guy by the name of Lance Alworth). In 1969, he started slipping a bit but was still good enough to make the all star game again. In 1970, he was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals and was never the same again. Zeke Moore had great speed, but was definitely the weaker of the pair. The Boston Patriots had a great young CB in Leroy Mitchell. His second year in the league, he was literally unbeatable. I remember reading a Larry Felser article about his year. I can't remember the exact unofficial statistics that Felser quoted from a Patriots coach, but it was something like he had only 18 or so passes thrown against him all year with like 6 completions for short yardage. No TDs allowed. Talk about a shut down corner. Don Maynard once said Mitchell was the best CB he ever faced. For some ungodly reason, the Patriots traded Mitchell to the Oilers after the 1968 season. The Oilers were excited about the pairing of Mitchell and Miller Farr. But it never happened. Mitchell suffered a serious neck injury in a pre-season game with the Oilers and missed the entire 1969 season. He returned in 1970 but he was never the same and Farr was traded to the Cardinals. The pre Don Shula Dolphins had a good pair of vet CBs that they picked up in the expansion draft, Dick Westmoreland and Jimmy Warren. Unfortunately, the Dolphins found no other defensive gems in the expansion draft.

In the western division, the Raiders were the founders of the bump and run. Willie Brown was a Hall of Famer who played a long time at a very high level. Kent McCloughan was his original mate. Al Davis hoped McCloughan, a white guy with blazing speed (he once ran a 9.4 hundred yards), could contain that guy Lance Alworth. Unfortuantely, McCloughan found himself memorizing the back of Alworth's #19 Charger uniform like every other CB in the league. Nemiah Wilson later replaced McCloughan, and was also a great bump and run technician. The Chiefs also had a great pair, Jim Marsalis and Emmit Thomas. Marsalis was a little short, but had excellent quickness, toughness and technique. He had some great battles with the Raiders Fred Biletnicoff. Thomas was a great physical specimen. He had great size (about 6'3"), ran a 4.3 forty and had great hands. The Chargers had Leslie (Speedy) Duncan. Duncan was a better punt returner than CB, but he was still a good one. He was an explosive punt returner who once brought one back something like 95 yards for a TD against the Jets. Obviously, with his nickname, he was a track start and was believed by many to be the fastest man in the AFL. But once again, that guy Alworth pops up. I remember Speedy being interviewed in a TV special on Alworth that I saw. Speedy was asked what it was like to cover Alworth in practice. Speedy said he hated it, because Alworth always beat him deep and embarrassed Speedy. The lowly Broncos had a star cornerback of their own the last year of the AFL (1969) - Bill Thompson. Thompson and Jim Marsalis were the two coveted cornerbacks in the 1969 draft. They both played the bump and run extremely well, even as rookies. They started in the All Star game that used to match the best of the college senior crop against the NFL champion. Of course, the NFL champion that year was the New York Jets. Marsalis and Thompson did a very credible job against the Jets' Don Maynard and George Saure, even thought the Jets won the game easily. Thompson later switched to strong safety for the Broncos and was equally as great. Finally, the newest AFL team, the Bengals had a good one in Ken Riley. Riley had great hands and was a good technician.

DMaynard

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