The AFL’s Underestimated Defense


During the ten years that the American Football League existed, the league was often referred to as being “pass-happy.” While this may have held some truth to it, the reality was that there was a great deal of top-notch defense being played as well. Because of the league’s pass- oriented offenses, new strategies were formulated to stop the high-powered offenses.

The true litmus test is to examine the quality of defensive players the league produced. Eight AFL defenders – Bobby Bell, Elvin Bethea, Willie Brown, Junious (Buck) Buchanan, Nick Buoniconti, Ken Houston, Willie Lanier, and Emmitt Thomas – eventually earned their way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. More than 15 players who began their careers in the AFL were later named to the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl after the league merged with the National Football League in 1970.

When the merger took place, many of the AFL’s defensive accomplishment remained at the top of the newly combined record book. In 1961 the San Diego Chargers registered 49 interceptions for 929 yards and nine touchdowns. Those marks remain today.

A large chunk of that production was due to the play of Chargers cornerback Charlie McNeil. In 1961 he intercepted nine passes for 349 yards and two touchdown returns. Almost half of that yardage occurred on a record-breaking performance against the Houston Oilers on September 24. That day he stole three passes for 177 yards, one of which was returned 76 yards for a touchdown. The Chargers defeated the Oilers 34-24. McNeil’s single-game mark remains an NFL record while his season return yardage mark was topped in 2004 by Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed.

Year Player, Team No. Yards Avg. TD
1960 Goose Gonsoulin, Denver Broncos 11 98 8.9 0
1961 Bill Atkins, Buffalo Bills 10 158 15.8 0
1962 Leon Riley, New York Titans 11 122 11.1 0
1963 Fred Glick, Houston Oilers 12 180 15 1
1964 Dainard Paulson, New York Jets 12 157 13.1 1
1965 W.K. Hicks, Houston Oilers 9 156 17.3 0
1966 Johnny Robinson, Kansas City Chiefs 10 136 13.6 1
  Bobby Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs 10 113 11.3 0
1967 Miller Farr, Houston Oilers 10 264 26.4 3
  Tom Janik, Buffalo Bills 10 222 22.2 2
  Dick Westmoreland, Miami Dolphins 10 127 12.7 1
1968 Dave Grayson, Oakland Raiders 10 195 19.5 1
1969 Emmitt Thomas, Kansas City Chiefs 9 146 16.2 1


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