Most impressive of the teams in exhibition contests have been Los Angeles, Dallas and Boston. The Chargers have come up with a good quarterback in Jack Kemp, who played behind Bobby Layne on the Steelers. They have ex-Ram Waller, flashy Paul Lowe from Oregon State and Royce Womble at halfbacks, and a fine old fullback, Howie Ferguson, who has moved ahead of rookie Charlie Flowers, the All-America from Mississippi who first signed with the New York Giants. The Charger interior line, including Mix, Sam DeLuca, Orlando Ferrante and Fred Cole, shapes up as the best in the league.
Dallas has perhaps more good rookies than any other team and a solid sprinkling of NFL pros. The first-year men, in addition to Jack Spikes, Robinson (who played with Cannon at LSU), Marvin Terrell and Burford (who set pass-catching records at Stanford), are Linebacker Sherrill Headrick of TCU, Defensive End Mel Branch of LSU and slick Abner Haynes of North Texas State at halfback. Max Boydston and Ed Bernet are two experienced offensive ends, and Paul Miller, the old Los Angeles Ram, may be the best defensive end in the league. There are Ray Collins, a former NFL all-league tackle, Guard Sid Fournet and Defensive Backs Charlie Jackson (Cards) and John Bookman ( Giants). Former Baylor Quarterback Cotton Davidson started slowly but has improved so much that Dallas was willing to send Dick Jamieson, who played behind Unitas at Baltimore last year, up to New York to help out the Titans.
Boston, like Dallas something of a surprise, has the two good quarterbacks, Tommy Greene and Butch Son-gin, and a fine pass-catching end from the Canadian League, Jim Colclough. Gerhard Schwedes, the Syracuse star, was a disappointment and has been traded to New York. But Ron Burton, who was possibly the best back in the Big Ten last year, may turn out to be the most exciting runner in the AFL.
Houston, Buffalo and Oakland shape up as the middle teams. George Blanda, Lee of Cincinnati and Texas A&M's Charlie Milstead give the Oilers great depth at quarterback. White is barely ahead of Dave Smith ( Ripon) and Doug Cline (Clemson) at fullback, while Charlie Tolar, who played with Northwest Louisiana and the Pittsburgh Steelers, filled in extremely well when Cannon was bothered by an injured knee. Hugh Pitts of TCU was good enough as an NFL rookie to move the Rams' huge Les Richter over; then he quit football to study for the ministry. Now Pitts is back and Houston has him. Dennit Morris is another fine Oiler linebacker. The secondary is good and in Mark Johnston, a rookie corner back from Northwestern, Houston may have one of the outstanding stars of the future. John Carson, the ex-Redskin end, is a fine receiver. But Houston's offensive line is weak.
Despite the presence of Tommy O'Connell and Richie Lucas at quarterback, Buffalo has not come up to expectations. Defensive Backs Billy Kinard and Bill Atkins and Ends Dick Brubaker and Tom Rychlec are all experienced pros. But the interior of the Buffalo line, while huge, is loaded with inexperienced athletes, and Lucas may be the only good running back Buffalo has. At Oakland, Erdelatz has come up with a real sleeper at quarterback, Tom Flores of COP. Kept out of both the NFL and Canada by a shoulder injury, Flores had given up football; then Erdelatz talked him into working on his passing, increasing the yardage carefully until he could throw hard again. Now Flores is all right—good enough, in fact, to keep Babe Parilli on the bench. The Raiders also seem to have plenty of defensive talent but hardly anyone who can run with the ball.
The weak teams are New York and Denver. Sammy Baugh's main problem, as one might guess, has been to find a passer. A number of candidates failed, and now Jamieson, up from Dallas, may turn out to be the man for the job. If not, the quarterback will be ex-Michigan Stater Al Do-row. Sid Youngelman, the old defensive tackle star for the Browns and Eagles, and ex-Giant Guard Bob Mischak are set in the middle of the line, but the offense has bogged down because of a shortage of blockers and running backs. Blanche Martin, the No. 1 fullback from Michigan State, and Don Maynard, a swiftie who spent one season with the Giants, may be the best the Titans have. Denver, which lost five exhibition games by big margins, has a horde of ex-Canadians, led by Frank Tripuka at quarter, Halfback Bob Stransky and Fullback John Brodnax, and it is hoped they are hardly as bad as the scores show. Filchock, experimenting, used 46 players in each of the early exhibition games, which could account for the one-sided results.
Regardless of how well the teams perform on the field, the owners are assured of regaining a big chunk of their $1 million investment even before the season begins. An unusual television contract with ABC guarantees each team $250,000 for the year. Advance ticket sales have been remarkably good, in the main, ranging from 4,000 ($125,000) at Denver to 15,000 ($400,000) at Los Angeles. There are those who say that Denver is the league's weakest franchise, primarily because it does not have behind it the tremendous wealth of the other seven clubs. But Rocky Mountain Empire Sports Inc., which is what Bob Howsam calls his group, has been operating the most successful minor league baseball franchise in the country for years. Because it owns its own park, it has far less overhead than the others. And in Denver, as everywhere, the newspapers have blessed the new league with strong promotional support.
What the AFL counts upon most, however, is the popularity of pro football. It is in this area that the AFL differs so markedly from the old All-America Conference, an abortive attempt to cut in on the professional football dollar back in the days following World War II. The trouble then was that there actually weren't many pro football dollars. Today there are, and it is to the rival NFL that the AFL owes a deep vote of thanks. In pioneering professional football, in bringing it up from a grubby infant to a booming, lucrative giant of a business, the NFL created a market into which the AFL can now step without having to wonder where the next customer is coming from. The next customer is already there, shut out of the park in New York and Los Angeles and San Francisco (where Oakland will play) by sellout crowds. He is waiting anxiously at Houston, Boston, Dallas, Buffalo and Denver to see in person the kind of football he has been reading about and watching on TV for years.
Last year the NFL, which has been growing like a cyclone, averaged 43,617 customers at each of its 72 league games. The AFL can break even with just half that number. Denver can do it with 20,000. In Houston, where the Oilers have to pay heavy rental, plus renovation costs on a high school stadium, the figure reaches 25,000. At Dallas and Los Angeles, where AFL teams will play in the Cotton Bowl and Coliseum, respectively, rental costs and the promotional expense of combating NFL franchises run the attendance figure necessary to achieve financial success up to 30,000.
"We aren't quite that ambitious," says Bud Adams of Houston, who owns his own oil company and whose father owns large chunks of an even bigger one, Phillips 66. "If we can get 20,000 a game we'll be happy."