Who’s the Best Player Ever Produced by the American Football League?

Joe Namath photo courtesy of the New York Jets
NFL Historical Imagery
(Joe Namath photo courtesy of the New York Jets)
(Willie Lanier photo courtesy of the Kansas City Chiefs)

The American Football League was the most successful of the leagues that sprouted to challenge the NFL.

The World Football League lasted only two seasons, the USFL just three and the All-American Football Conference four. The AFL lasted 10 years, landing some serious blows to the NFL’s pride early on by signing such college stars as Joe Namath, Lance Alworth, Johnny Robinson, John Hadl, Ron Mix and Ed Budde — all of whom had been first-round NFL draft picks.

The AFL landed more serious blows to the rival NFL later in the 1960 decade, winning the final two Super Bowls between the two leagues. The New York Jets shocked the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III and the Kansas City Chiefs schooled the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

The AFL teams proved they could play with the NFL’s best teams — and the AFL players proved they were as good or better than the NFL players of the 1960s. So who was the best player produced by the AFL? In this week’s Talk of Fame Network poll, we’ll give you five Hall of Famers to choose from — two defenders from the Chiefs, a quarterback from the New York Jets, a wide receiver from the San Diego Chargers or a cornerback from the Oakland Raiders.

So who do you like?

Namath put the NFL on the map in 1965 when he spurned the St. Louis Cardinals to become the highest-paid player in football in signing with the Jets — then guaranteed and delivered that Super Bowl victory over the Colts.

Alworth passed on the chance to play with the San Francisco 49ers to sign with the Chargers. Nicknamed “Bambi,” Alworth averaged better than 20 yards per catch three times in his career and finished with an 18.9-yard average, 13th best in NFL history.

Willie Lanier and Buck Buchanan anchored one of the greatest defenses of all time. The Chiefs are the only Super Bowl champion defense to lead the league across the board in total, scoring, run and pass defense. Joining Buchanan and Lanier in the Hall of Fame off that defense were defensive tackle Curley Culp, outside linebacker Bobby Bell and cornerback Emmitt Thomas.

Willie Brown intercepted 54 passes in his 15 seasons and was one of the AFL originators of the bump-and-run coverage technique with the Raiders.

So who do you like? Vote now:

Previous CFL's Best? It's a Moon Shot
Next Revis best ever? Sorry, Brandon, but time for a history lesson


  1. Derek Burns
    August 26, 2015

    Where’s Gino Cappelletti!?

  2. Frank Donaghue
    August 26, 2015

    Yea, where is Gino?

  3. Rasputin
    August 26, 2015

    “The AFL teams proved they could play with the NFL’s best teams — and the AFL players proved they were as good or better than the NFL players of the 1960s. So who was the best player produced by the AFL?”

    Um, no. The AFL showed that its best teams could compete with the NFL’s best by the very end of the decade, but that certainly wasn’t true in 1960 when the AFL was a league of expansion teams, it wasn’t true in the middle of the decade or the first two Super Bowls when the AFL’s best got blown out, and even into the early 70s the old AFL teams were inferior on average to the old NFL teams. Their struggles against superior NFL competition may be one reason (among others) the 1970s is the only decade in NFL history that actually saw passing stat deflation rather than inflation from the previous decade. They would improve later, but in 1970 no AFL teams were in the top 5 in passer rating, only 2 were in the top 10, they made up 3 of the bottom 5, and AFL teams lost most of their games against old NFL opponents. So it’s more accurate to say that in the 1960s the AFL and its players were significantly inferior to the NFL and its players on average.

    And there really were no “final Super Bowls between the leagues”. The merger actually started in 1966, when a common draft (which facilitated a move toward talent balance) and the SB were established. It was a gradual merger, with 1970 only being relevant in practice because it was the year of conference realignment and the start of regular season play between old AFL teams and the rest of the NFL. If the two leagues had played each other in 1965 or earlier, when they really were two completely separate leagues, the scores likely would have been even more lopsided than they were in the first two Super Bowls.

    Also, no one really “forc(ed)” a merger. Better to say the AFL was successful enough, but ultimately still riddled with enough problems, that it made sense for both sides. AFL commissioner Al Davis hated the idea of a merger though, seeing it as tantamount to surrender, especially since the one Tex Schramm and Lamar Hunt negotiated eliminated the position of AFL commissioner and forced the AFL teams to pay millions in indemnities to the NFL.

    To answer your question I’ll say Lance Alworth, though another Charger, Ron Mix, deserves a mention too.

  4. Steve
    August 28, 2015

    Bill Walsh called Jim Otto the best center he ever saw, that’s pretty good, no?

  5. Kerouac
    October 21, 2017

    Better late than never, here am I asking ‘no Len Dawson, Bobby Bell, Johnny Robinson or Jim Tyrer among others, up vote consideration?’

    Yeah, I’m an old AFL, Chiefs fan : ) Guess the candidate list would be legion/groan under its weight were it comprised of everyone who is deserving deliberation. All those presented this article being in their prime, my take is: flip a coin/hard to choose just one player as ‘best.’

    AFL was on par the NFL early as ’63 likely, when the Champion Bears declined a challenge to play the Champion Chargers (not unlike 1904 World Series when the NL NY Giants declined to play the AL Red Sox, as the NFL the NL Giants belief was ‘we have nothing to prove – we’re better than the AL Red Sox’… convenient if not convincing.

    The difference NFL and AFL was, as someone once put it, not the NFL necessarily being better the AFL as a rule, but the team of the 1960’s GB Packers was better than ‘everybody’ most years… would agree.

    Still, time marches on. Flash forward four years, 1967. Vince Lombardi made claims post Superbowl 1 came back bite him. Reply the question ‘how did KC rate’ compared top NFL teams, Lombardi said:

    “I think the Kansas City team is a real tough football team, but doesn’t compare with the National Football League teams. Dallas is better… so is Chicago and Detroit. That’s what you want me to say. I said it.”

    Lombardi was out of his league/comfort zone as it were discussing a team other than the Packers, as he and NFL were about to discover.

    DEN vs DET August 5, 1967: that there were ‘more’ teams in the NFL than AFL, and as such more ‘good’ teams – as well more ‘bad’ – truth. Surely however the AFL’s ‘worst’ team should not merely have been beaten by one the NFL’s best. but obliterated; not on that night, not this game.

    The Broncos had managed to lose to the newest AFL expansion team MIA during the 1966 regular season, while like the Broncos the Lions of DET also won 4 games NFL 1966, managing an tie with the ‘World Champion’ GB Packers. And file this away in memory: GB had barely managed scrape by CHIC by a mere 7 points a year earlier the 1966 regular season, a game that was played in GB.

    When DEN played DET, was not just a game and not merely another exhibition, but one in an series of games known ‘The Summer of the Little Superbowl’s’ AFL vs NFL 1967. Anyone believes that this game same the others ’67 were ‘just’ exhibition game(s), is mistaken… the NFL wanted to win just as much as did the AFL.

    In brief: DEN vs DET was the game Alex Karras stated he would ‘walk back to DET’ from if the Lions lost; they did, he didn’t; in DEN or DET, Broncos 13 is better the Lions 7 any way or league you measure it.

    The unconvinced got another reality check soon thereaft.

    KC vs CHIC August 23, 1967: another Lombardi’s ‘better’ NFL teams the Bears went to KC play the Chiefs. From the heights an 3-0 CHIC lead to the depths an 66-24 loss to KC, teary-eyed George Halas aft the carnage had ended was quoted re: those Chiefs:

    “They gave us every evidence they’re as good as any team.” Not any team the AFL, any team in all of pro football, including the NFL. As I stated earlier, a KC team 42 points better same CHIC team that was just 7 points worse than GB a year earlier, suggests, experience and execution as the only difference… ’69 Chiefs as ’68 Jets, affirming.

    One game, KC vs CHIC as one game GB vs KC and one game as DEN vs DET… with apologies to ‘Meatloaf’ & Lombardi, ‘one’ out of three ain’t bad – GB being better than KC for one game Superbowl 1, two & three being losses the aforementioned NFL ‘betters’ DET and CHIC the AFL’s best team KC as well its worst team, DEN.

    The NFL won the majority those ’67 AFL vs NFL games, but by ’68 and ’69 aft as the Superbowl’s affirmed, AFL not only caught up to the NFL but passed them in terms ‘the best teams’ being AFL’s Chiefs and Jets, not NFL Colts and Vikings. As well, that KC and OAK both had ability if not the execution and experience beat GB Superbowl’s 1 & 2, evident, on any given exhibition, regular and Super Sunday game same.

    • Rasputin
      October 24, 2017

      The NFL beat the AFL 13 games to 3 in those 1967 “little super bowls”. So to the extent that preseason games indicate anything (and I’m not sure it’s much), by your own logic that stands as proof that the AFL was NOT as good as the NFL.

      I also think you misunderstood Lombardi. In response to the question about how the “best” teams would fare he started by mentioning the Cowboys, obviously at the top of the NFL having just come within one score of the NFL title (as they would again the following year), but then added that “Chicago and Detroit” are better than the AFL champion too.

      He wasn’t saying Chicago and Detroit were among the best NFL teams. They weren’t. Chicago had a losing record of 5-7-2. Detroit was even worse at 4-9-1. He was saying that EVEN lowly Chicago and Detroit were better. He likely added the testy followup “That’s what you want me to say. I said it” because he knew what he said might be considered controversial or untactful, but he was giving his honest opinion.

      It wasn’t without basis. The Packers had just annihilated the AFL champion Chiefs 35-10, a 25 point margin. That’s a bigger margin than Green Bay beat the Bears by in two games COMBINED that year. The Packers slipped by Chicago 13-6 after beating them 17-0 earlier in the season. They beat Detroit by 9 points and 24 points.

      In fact the Packers’ SB 1 victory was the most lopsided game they played all year except for a 56-3 drubbing of expansion Atlanta. Key word “expansion”. Expansion teams rarely fare well against established pro teams.

      EVERY AFL club was an expansion team in 1960. To think that they would have been as good as the NFL on average by 1963 is ludicrous in my opinion. It’s doubtful they would have been on par with the NFL for over a decade or more if the leagues had remained separate, if
      indeed they ever caught up.

      I appreciate your conceptual point that a smaller league might be as good on average as a larger team even if its best team isn’t as good as the larger league’s best or even best few teams. That’s true. However, it’s also true that an exceptional team or two from the smaller league could become better than the best teams in the larger league without their whole league necessarily being as good on average as the larger league.

      We have a proven example of that with the AAFC Browns. Paul Brown’s innovative club utterly dominated the AAFC, winning the title every year. When they joined the NFL they won the title their first year, edging out the Rams by 2 points, by far the closest championship game margin in the young team’s history. That was their 5th season of existence, and at least by that point the Browns had the best team in pro football. That doesn’t mean the AAFC was better than the NFL though.

      The AAFC wasn’t even close to the NFL. That was obvious from how much the Browns’ stats plunged when they joined the NFL. And the AAFC 49ers, who also joined the league, went from title game runner ups the AAFC’s final year to doormats their first year in the NFL. Even the Browns would lose the NFL title game the following three years.

      That’s an extreme example since no team dominated the AFL to the degree the Browns had the AAFC (though the 66 Chiefs and 67 Raiders were the only AFL teams with double digit wins those years), but it illustrates the point. The 1968 Jets winning didn’t prove the AFL was better or even as good on average as the NFL. In fact the Jets’ win was more of an upset by a team that played really well against a Colts team that was somewhat unsettled at QB, with their real starting QB spending most of the game on the bench after having missed the season with injury. Backup Earl Morrall was outstanding that year but it was telling that Baltimore yanked him for Unitas in the third quarter, and Unitas played better. Many argue that the Colts would have won if he had started.

      The 1969 Chiefs, on the other hand, clearly had the best team in pro football (though the Raiders were up there too). While the Vikings weren’t as good as the 66 Packers, the 69 Chiefs were a lot better than they had been in 1966.

      Keep in mind that’s after three years of a common NFL/AFL draft that accelerated movement toward talent equity between the two leagues, not to mention the interleague exhibitions you raised that were learning experiences if nothing else. The merger was only completed in 1970, but it started in 1966. From the first common draft in 1967 through 69 the Chiefs had added at least 3 HoFers and a slew of other Pro Bowlers and starters.

      Back to the “little super bowls”. Dallas, the good NFL team Lombardi mentioned, won its game against the Oilers, who would win the AFL East in 67. In fact Dallas won all four of its games against AFL teams in the 1960s. You mention Detroit losing to Denver, but the Lions beat the Bills, who had been the AFL runner up to Kansas City in 1966 (though they’d fall to a losing record in 1967). Detroit also pounded the Chargers pretty good, and Sand Diego posted winning seasons in both 66 and 67. You talk about the Chiefs blowing out Chicago, but the Rams blew out the Chiefs that same preseason 44-24. The Eagles handled the Jets pretty easily. And San Francisco, who went 0.500 in both 66 and 67, beat eventual AFL champion Oakland.

      The next year the AFL bounced back, winning 13 games to 10 in the 68 preseason. But in 1969 the NFL struck back by winning 19 games to 13. Overall the NFL beat the AFL 42 games to 29 with 1 tie in the “little super bowls”.

      The AFL began in 1960 and gradually grew closer to the NFL in quality, but they certainly weren’t on par with the NFL by the time the first Super Bowls were played (including the “little super bowls”). I don’t think they were even there on average the last couple of years of the decade, though that’s arguable. Former AFL teams fared poorly against established NFL teams in 1970, the first year of the full merger. That wouldn’t always be the case, but it’s worth noting for the record that only 2 old AFL teams, the Dolphins and Raiders, won Super Bowls for more than two and a half decades after the full merger.

      In these HoF discussions we’re really talking about the bulk of the 1960s, when there were two completely separate leagues. I think it was either Al Davis or Lamar Hunt himself (I don’t recall for sure but either way the statement is true) who said that the only real game ever played between the pure AFL and the NFL was Super Bowl I. The NFL won 35-10.

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