George Blanda wasn't dead long before the Oakland Raiders rushed to claim him as one of the all-time iconic silver and black heroes. Raiders owner Al Davis may have little clue about what it takes to win in the NFL today, but he made sure that his PR department branded Blanda "a brave Raider" as fast as could be.
Which is all fine and good, arguably even honorable (in a self-promoting Raiders way), but it's obscuring just how important Houston was to the career of one of the NFL's all-time legends — and just how good Blanda was for the Houston Oilers in the AFL days.
The Oilers are the franchise that gave Blanda a chance to be a quarterback again after the Chicago Bears of the NFL tried to turn this punt, pass and kick multi-threat into strictly a kicker. And Blanda more than repaid the faith, making the Bears brass look sillier and sillier as he racked up passing numbers in Houston that wouldn't be seen again until the days of Dan Marino.
Blanda threw 36 touchdown passes for the Oilers in 1961, a ridiculous number in those days, even in the wild, wild AFL. It would take 23 years for someone to break that mark (Marino and his 48 touchdown tosses in 1984). While in Houston, Blanda enjoyed his finest seasons, winning AFL Player of the Year honors in '61, throwing for more than 3,000 yards three times in one four-season stretch, recasting himself as a championship-caliber QB (the Oilers won two AFL titles under Blanda and lost another championship game).
In his typical do-everything fashion, Blanda scored all of Houston's points in the 1961 title game — throwing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Billy Cannon, kicking the extra point on that score and hitting a 46-yard field goal (in the days when kicks from that distance were anything but close to expected makes).
When Blanda (who died at age 83 Monday) was interviewed later in life, he took great pride in those Oilers days.
"That first year, the Houston Oilers or Los Angeles Chargers (the team Blanda and the Oilers beat in the AFL title game) could have beaten the NFL champion (Philadelphia) in a Super Bowl," Blanda said. "I think the AFL was capable of beating the NFL in a Super Bowl game as far back as 1960 or '61. I just regret we didn't get the chance to prove it."
While the Monday Night Football crew calling the Bears-Packers game hours after his death and sportswriters and commentators around the country focused on Blanda's age-defying five-game run for the Raiders in 1970, the legend himself always recognized that Houston is where he actually played his best football.
Blanda was never the most accurate passer. This gambler threw a then-NFL-record 42 interceptions for Houston in 1962 and the Hall of Famer actually finished his career with more interceptions (277) than touchdowns (236), but he is also one of only four quarterbacks in history to have ever thrown seven touchdown passes in a single game. And it could have easily been more. Blanda left that game in the third quarter.
That moment also came in an Oilers uniform.
The Raiders and Al can claim Blanda all they want. Ron Jaworski can forget that as a quarterback, Blanda's real highlights came for Houston. The man himself knew the real score.
This is a Houston legend.
"George will always be remembered by me and our fans as the first quarterback of the organization,” then-Oilers and now Titans owner Bud Adams said in a statement. “In his time with us, he guided the Oilers to 45 wins and still remains the third most prolific passer in our team’s history.
"He was the perfect fit for the start of the AFL, joining our league and displaying the ability to lead a high-flying offense. His play garnered our league a lot of attention and fans."