Posted by Jason Lisk on July 31, 2009
When it comes to the AFL, it may seem logical to think that the AFL was improving at a fairly constant rate, and that it would be doing better in terms of talent acquisition in year five, compared with year one.
After looking through the draft data and careers of the players, I would like to suggest an alternate history. The AFL came in and immediately made a splash against the NFL, signing several high draft picks and taking away a lot of young talent. I have the early drafts rated as wins for the AFL in 1960 and 1963, and for the NFL in 1961 and 1962. Overall, it was a great start for an upstart league.
In this post, I am altering my method for calculating draft value slightly.
We saw in the trends that by 1963, the rookie starting rates weren't that far apart, so using a standard of 3 starting seasons for the NFL to qualify, versus 4 for the AFL, was necessary initially, but probably not by 1963. Adjusting 1963 with that in mind raises the draft value number for the AFL, while the AFL dominated the pro bowl and "elite player" numbers from that draft. So, I'm comfortable saying the AFL was holding its own after four seasons in terms of new talent.
We also need to adjust our expectations of pro bowl appearances and other awards as the draft classes progress through the 1960's. For all draft classes, the amount of pro bowls decrease as the classes get closer to playing some portion (or perhaps a greater portion) of their careers after the merger, in a league with 26 teams and 13 conference members. For the AFL guys, the adjustment relative to the NFL should also be less severe over time, for the rookie classes that enter a now established league.
Draft Value: AFL- 31.3%; NFL 68.7%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL- 44; NFL - 84
Prior to the 1964 Draft, the NFL instituted a covert operation entitled "Operation Babysitter". Behind closed doors, the NFL realized that it had probably taken the AFL owners too lightly, particularly in the willingness of the AFL to take on short term losses and pay greater bonuses to incoming players. Some AFL teams were also proactive in recruiting players to gain commitments, much like a college program would today. The NFL realized that it couldn't rest on its reputation and history anymore. If you look at the aging trends from the early 1960’s, the NFL was also an aging league by the time the 1963 season ended, and that trend needed to be reversed.
As discussed in “The Draft” by Pete Williams, the babysitters were NFL scouts, other front office personnel, and even businessmen loyal to the NFL, who were responsible for developing a relationship with, recruiting, and “babysitting” top prospects from talking with the AFL teams. NFL teams would submit a list of potential top prospects, and the babysitters would be assigned players.
Did it work? Well, if you look at the draft data from 1964, the NFL won the draft battle fairly convincingly. And it was a good year to do so, as the 1964 draft in retrospect may have been, if not the best, certainly one of the top draft classes of the decade.
Seven NFL players drafted in 1964 are now in the Hall of Fame, while no AFL players from that draft are. I'm not even counting Roger Staubach in this analysis as his career basically began post-merger. In looking over the AFL list of top players, I don't think any of them are on the short list of AFL players in consideration for veteran's committee slots. 1964 was a crucial draft for the NFL, and it won handily.
Top NFL Players of 1964
Robert E. Brown
Draft Value: AFL- 41.0%; NFL 59.0%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL- 45; NFL - 57
Joe Namath was a big signing for the AFL, as it put a young star quarterback in the New York market. The idea, though, that this signing somehow signaled that the AFL was getting more competitive at signing players is false. The AFL had done fairly well during the early part of the decade. As we saw in the last post on trends by position, the AFL was getting its highest share of players on the lines during the early part of the decade. The one position where the AFL lagged significantly was at quarterback, which may be why the Namath signing was perceived as such a big deal. John Hadl was the only top QB prospect who signed with the AFL and actually showed something on the field (Daryle Lamonica was another later round pick in the early part of the decade, but he had not started full-time by 1965). In contrast, the NFL added Fran Tarkenton, Roman Gabriel, Norm Sloan, and Don Meredith to the other all-time greats like Unitas and Starr.
Overall, I have this class rated as an ever so slight win for the AFL. Both leagues got significant stars, as the NFL added a strong linebacker class with Butkus, Hanburger and Curtis, to go with one of the best playmakers the NFL had seen in Gale Sayers. The AFL class of 1965 was not just about Namath. Four productive wide receivers were part of this class (Biletnikoff, Taylor, Garrison and Sauer) along with Jim Nance at running back. This was easily the best draft class for the AFL in the middle part of the decade.
Top NFL Players of 1965
Draft Value: AFL- 30.7%; NFL 69.3%
Combined Pro Bowl Appearances: AFL- 14; NFL - 40
The 1966 draft was probably the worst draft in terms of talent during the entire decade. The AFL class was led by two undrafted free agents in Emmitt Thomas and Rich Jackson. No other player recorded more than two pro bowl appearances during their careers, and three running backs--Super Bowl heroes Mike Garrett and Emerson Boozer, along with Hoyle Granger, accounted for the remaining pro bowls.
The NFL class was also fairly weak. Only five players made more than 2 pro bowls in their careers, led by guards Tom Mack and John Niland. Tommy Nobis and Cardinal QB Jim Hart are the other highlights of this class. The NFL won this draft because the AFL got so little long term talent out of this draft, not necessarily because the NFL got a whole lot.
Top NFL Players of 1966
Doug Van Horn
The NFL's focus on signing new players, as represented by Operation Babysitter, appears to have had an impact on the draft wars. The NFL won both the strongest and weakest draft classes of this period, while they still got super star talent in 1965 as well.
The result though, was a Pyrrhic victory for the NFL (though not for the fans who wanted to see the two leagues compete). The AFL had announced their presence back in 1960 when Billy Cannon was signed to a large contract, and the AFL signed half of the NFL's first round selections. The NFL used their muscle and spent heavily for the right to sign draft picks, but it was a concerted response to the AFL threat that began too late. By 1964, the AFL was already established as a competitor, and had its own loyal following of fans and its own television contract.
The "draft wars" may have left the NFL with more than its share of talent from the middle of the decade, but it also left the owners with the realization that it could not continue. Before the next draft would occur, the leagues would agree to a merger, and the remaining drafts of the AFL/NFL era would be combined, where teams would no longer compete for players once they were drafted.