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Record to forget: Blanda's 42-INT season

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Mike Beacom

msbeacom@yahoo.com
Contributing writer

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By Mike Beacom

On the final day of the 1961 season, Houston Oilers QB George Blanda broke Johnny Unitas' single-season record of 32 touchdown passes, set only two years earlier. Against Oakland that day, Blanda passed for 350 yards and four scores — the fourth time that season he had reached or surpassed both marks. It had been a grand year for the 34-year-old — his finest ever behind center — and for it he was given the American Football League's Player of the Year Award.

Then things got a little goofy for Blanda in 1962.

The Oilers entered the season fully expecting to win a third AFL title in a row, and had arguably the league's most talented offense. Billy Cannon led the league in rushing the year before and caught nine touchdowns as a receiver. Charley Hennigan caught 12 and led the league in receiving; Bill Groman led the AFL in touchdown catches with 17.

Blanda, who had once been banished from the quarterback position by Chicago Bears coach George Halas (prompting Blanda's retirement at the end of the 1958 season), was now far and away the AFL's best passer. He was also one of its most accurate; Blanda boasted the top passer rating for 1961 and ranked third in the AFL in completion percentage (51.7).

But his efficiency numbers took a nose dive at the start of 1962. Against Buffalo in the opener, Blanda completed 15-of-30 passes, but threw just one touchdown as compared to six interceptions. Thanks to its early 28-3 lead, though, Houston was able to hold off the Bills. A month later, Blanda threw three interceptions against the Bills and the Oilers won again.

In November, Blanda threw four picks in back-to-back weeks against Oakland and Boston — but the Oilers won both games to improve their record to 7-3. That trend continued. In the final four outings of the season, Blanda completed 40.9 percent of his attempts (52-of-127) and threw a combined 12 interceptions and yet the Oilers won every single game (three of them by 15 or more points).

By the end of the 14-game season Blanda had thrown an NFL-record 42 interceptions (shattering the previous record of 34 which had been set by Frank Tripucka in 1960) and had just one 300-yard performance (a Week Two loss to Boston). It's almost surprising that of all those interceptions, only two were returned for scores (neither case resulting in a Houston loss). Despite all of Blanda's blunders, the Oilers tied with the Dallas Texans for the best record in the AFL at 11-3. The only other passer coach Pop Ivy gave significant time to that season was Jacky Lee, who completed 26-of-50 passes, but with four touchdowns and five interceptions.

Once the benchmark for AFL passers, in 1962 Blanda trailed fellow 35-year-old Tripucka (Denver) in yards, attempts and completions, and had more than twice as many interceptions as Dallas' Len Dawson (17) and more than five times as many as Boston's Babe Parilli (8). And if the numbers were not the low point of the season, his performance in the AFL title game that year certainly was. Against Dallas, whom the Oilers had split games in the regular season, Blanda threw five interceptions. In the second overtime of one of pro football's longest contests, Dallas PK Tommy Brooker nailed a 25-yard field goal to end the Oilers' title streak.

Never in the history of pro football has a quarterback gone from one extreme to another in consecutive seasons. Blanda's touchdown mark of 1961 was tied by Y.A. Tittle two years later and broken by Dan Marino in 1984; his interception record remains to this day, with no quarterback having thrown more than 35 since.

Perhaps something could be said about Halas' decision to go with Ed Brown over Blanda all those years ago in Chicago. While the 6-foot-2 Blanda could throw rockets as well as anyone with the exception of Unitas in those years, his legacy as an NFL passer is more closely tied to his 1962 statline than his MVP season of 1961. In terms of career numbers, Blanda threw 277 interceptions in 4,007 attempts (6.9 percent interception rate). Put that total next to career interception leader Brett Favre's 3.2 percent (317 interceptions over 9,811 attempts) and there isn't much of a comparison.

Blanda led the AFL in interceptions in each of his next three seasons for Houston, but the Oilers no longer could overcome it. The team didn't finish with another winning record until 1967 — the year Blanda left for Oakland.

 

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