HOH: Turning Point

Posted May 6, 2012

Team Historian Bob Moore takes a look at the 1966 AFL Championship between the Chiefs and Bills

A Mr. Bert Gambini, who authored a piece in the latest edition of “The Coffin Corner,” the official magazine of the Professional Football Researchers Association, took the position that the Kansas City Chiefs victory over the defending champion Buffalo Bills in the 1966 AFL league championship was a turning point and indeed it was…for both franchises.

(Excerpts from “The Coffin Corner” are offered here with permission from PFRA)

The Bills were one of the best AFL teams in the mid-1960s and while the Chiefs were also among the league’s better clubs they had not won a championship since their days in Dallas following the 1962 season.  Kansas City would close out the AFL’s days as the franchise with the most championships (3) in the 10-year league’s history.

Gambini scoffed at the notion that “Buffalo was unable to contain Kansas City’s innovative offense” as a major ingredient for the Bills’ loss, in reference to statements made by Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson and others after the game, preferring instead to take aim at “an amazing display of errors [and an] ineffective offense” on the part of the Bills as better reasons.

The game was played in Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium, as Gambini described it:  “a oval-shaped concrete facility built in the 1930s as part of the Works Progress Administration” and one that had been fitted with “an atrocious looking upper deck with a corrugated steel rain shelter, which kept out little rain and made an incongruous architectural marriage of rock and iron.” Indeed, fans had to “look around the string of newly installed 100-foot steel columns that were anchored roughly 20 rows from the playing surface.”

The conditions for the players weren’t much better, reflected the Chiefs Chris Burford, who started in the game and knew War Memorial to be “one of the most decrepit stadiums in the AFL.”  He along with a number of players of that era were quick to recall the long walk down a flight of steel stairs when they exited the tiny locker room onto a narrow concourse, past concession stands, then down another flight of stairs through an area occupied by fans and finally onto the field.

Teammate Smokey Stover remembered the hostility of the Bills’ fans that day.  “My wife was spared,” he recalled, “after barely being missed by a flying beer bottle.”

The field, subject to all the miserable late fall and winter weather western New York could offer, also reflected “the abuse endured from the front-end loaders and dump trucks that cleared [it] of snow and the combination of calcium pellets and nitrogen compounds sprinkled routinely during the colder months to prevent the ground from freezing,” according to Gambini who also noted that Chiefs QB Len Dawson found the mud and cold that day, “two conditions I hate.” (See the accompanying photo of Chiefs coach Hank Stram inspecting the field prior to kickoff).

Actually the weather for the championship was quite mild for Buffalo that time of year with a calm wind and a temperature hovering around 33 degrees, wrote Gambini, or at least that’s how it was at kickoff.

So, to the game and to the reasons Mr. Gambini believed the Bills went down to defeat ushering in a period of gloom for Buffalo over the franchise’s remaining years in the AFL.

The Bills got behind immediately following a fumble on the kickoff.  Dudley Meredith, “a reserve defensive tackle and up-back on the Bills’ return team”, chose to run with the ball after fielding it and was hit and fumbled with the Chiefs’ Jerrel Wilson recovering at the Bills’ 31-yard line.  Gambini wrote fellow Bills special teamer, Bob Schmidt, would later say of Meredith: “He just wasn’t a real athletic type of guy.”  The Chiefs quickly scored when Dawson hit Fred Arbanas for a 29-yard TD with only 1:43 gone in the game. (You can see that play highlighted in the Chiefs Hall of Honor’s “Greatest Plays.”)

Innovation from the Chiefs was nothing new to the Bills, so forget that as a reason for the Kansas City victory.  Gambini was on target in writing that KC’s “multiple sets was no secret to Buffalo” and even most Chiefs players would concur, despite some comments following the game that “we fooled them.”  While Chris Burford agreed that whatever innovation Stram and company brought to the game, it wasn’t enough to turn the tide, no matter a sportswriter’s perspective or whatever an emotional player might say in the joyous moments just following a win. “Players win games with execution, not formations,” Burford believed.  “They adjust relatively quickly to whatever is thrown at them.”

Buffalo’s defense was the best in the league and it was the offense and special teams that let the team down.  The Bills, noted Gambini, held “league-leading Kansas City running game – which accounted for 113 yards in that game – well below its season average of 162.”  Burford said that the Bills’ “D line was their strength” but that the Chiefs had “usually pretty good days against their secondary though [Butch] Byrd and [Booker] Edgerson were good corners.”  Burfod’s 45-yard reception in the fourth quarter led to Mike Garrett’s score and the game was pretty much over.

Buffalo’s offense was ineffective because it didn’t go to the air enough.  “Despite the Bill’s early success stretching the Kansas City defense, Buffalo never went back to the play – or the long ball,” Gambini wrote. Kemp had tied the game 7-7 in the first quarter on a 69-yard pass to Elbert Dubenion. Well, Kansas City’s defense was no slouch and even in its early days featured some of pro football’s greatest defensive players including three players named to the AFL’s all-time defensive team.

Indeed, Stover remembered Chiefs defensive coordinator Tom Catlin telling his players before the game “to hold the Bills to two touchdowns and we would win.  We held them to one.”

“All of the Kansas City points had been set up by offensive mistakes and errors on special teams” wrote Gambini.  Special team play is too often ignored at the expense of offense and defense as a reason for a victory or a defeat. That the Chiefs were able to win handily with special teams is a credit to their preparation and play-making.  As for mistakes, they are part and parcel to every win and loss. Johnny Robinson’s interception near the end of the first half stopped a scoring drive by Buffalo and set up a Mike Mercer field goal for KC.

“We recovered fumbles and intercepted passes,” said Stover.  “Our defense completely dominated the second half.  The battle was ferocious, for example the hit by Fred (The Hammer} Williamson put on Glenn Bass. You would have to see it on film to appreciate it.”

Buffalo “would have been a tougher opponent for Green Bay” in the first AFL-NFL Championship Game in Los Angeles, at least according to the Bills’ Mike Stratton and no doubt to others.  For Burford’s part, “it’s always a losing player’s mindset that the game could of and should have gone a different way.”

Smokey Stover is even more adamant. 

“After 46 years and counting, the Kansas City Chiefs are still the 1966 AFL champions.  Who was supposed to win doesn’t count, the score does.  When your team has a total of nine all-pro players (1966), five offensive and four defensive, you have a winning combination.”

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