Mention 1969 in connection with professional football and most of America may think of Joe Namath’s ‘guarantee’ and his New York Jets ushering in the year with a huge Super Bowl III upset win over the 18-point favored Baltimore Colts. However, 1969 would also be the final year of separation for the NFL and the AFL as the merger agreement between the two football leagues in 1966 set up a complete merger into one league starting in 1970.
A few months after the NFL owners wiped tears from the league’s collective eyes after the AFL’s Jets proved to the nation the league had fully shed it’s ‘Mickey Mouse’ status (so prominently mentioned prior to the Packers-Chiefs meeting in Super Bowl I) and was ready to competitively match up to face even the upper echelon of NFL teams, the league held its meetings to discuss the logistics of the expanded NFL. The biggest problem facing the league was the fact the AFL had 10 teams while the NFL was a 16-team league. The cigar-chomping ‘old school’ NFL owners and the ‘upstart’ owners of the AFL had met a year earlier to discuss the same topic. The NFL suggested keeping both leagues in tact with anywhere from 30 to 50 interleague games on the schedule. The AFL counterparts scoffed at the notion. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle presented the proposal, which was endeared by his cigar-chomping constituency, because “it would be impossible arrive at a satisfactory division of the 26 clubs into two conferences and six divisions by negotiation.”
Essentially, this set up Rozelle’s next step which was to mix in teams of both leagues into the ‘new’ NFL. In what amounted to an intentionally stilted pick out of a hat drawing, owners of both leagues faced a scenario of two conferences with three divisions in each conference:
- Los Angeles (Rams), Miami (Dolphins), St. Louis (Cardinals), SanFrancisco (49ers)
- Green Bay (Packers), New Orleans (Saints), Pittsburgh (Steelers) San Diego (Chargers)
- Boston (Patriots), Cincinnati (Bengals), Denver (Broncos), Detroit (Lions) New York (Giants)
- Atlanta (Falcons), Buffalo (Bills), Chicago (Bears), Philadelphia (Eagles)
- Baltimore (Colts), Cleveland (Browns), Dallas (Cowboys), Houston (Oilers).
- Kansas City (Chiefs), Minnesota (Vikings), Oakland (Raiders), Washington (Redskins), New York (Jets)
The May, 1969 meetings led to the Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh franchises moving to join the old AFL teams, forming the American Football Conference. These three teams received $3 million in cash. It couldn’t be construed as a bribe as the amount was clearly discussed previous to any team making a decision to move. Teams from the AFL were exempt from paying into the fund as Rozelle acknowledge those owners had already shelled out $25 million as part of the merger talks in 1966.
What If…the Original Proposal Had Been Accepted?
During the first decade of realignment the NFL experienced the Colts winning a Super Bowl and the Steelers winning their first four Super Bowl championships. However, had Rozelle’s original whimsical proposal for merger been accepted the league may have very well seen an even larger Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty presence.
Imagine the Steelers of the 1970s in the NFC division which included the Packers, the Saints and the Chargers. Assuming divisional teams would meet each other twice in a season as they do now, the Steelers would have clearly held a serious advantage in reaching the playoffs (maybe creating a larger advantage than the Patriots have had during the Belichick years facing the Jets, Dolphins and Bills twice each per season).
Using the 1972–1979 seasons for comparison, and using the records of those actual seasons to judge the teams which would have been in the division, the Packers and Chargers come nearest to the total regular season wins by the Steelers. Both teams won 47 games in that span compared to Pittsburgh’s 88 victories. The high point for Green Bay was 1972 with 10 wins. For San Diego it was 12 wins in 1979. New Orleans plodded through ’72-’79 with 36 wins.
During those years, the AFC Central of Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Houston and Cleveland was very competitive. Ask Bengals fans how much better the Bengals would have fared had the team not had to face the Steelers twice a year or have to compete with them for a division title. The Browns and Steelers games were always physcial matchups (Turkey Jones piledriver on Bradshaw, e.g.), and in late 1970s the Houston-Pittsburgh tussles were not only exciting but absolutely (thanks to Donnie Shell’s hit on Earl Campbell) created a new description of rib-splitting. Instead of the Steel Curtain facing Ken Anderson and Isaac Curtis, it would have squared off on quarterbacks such as Scott Hunter and Jerry Tagge with ex-Steeler Jon Staggers or Barry Smith catching passes.
Had Rozelle’s whimsical division set-up there would have been a big piece of NFL/Steelers history never occurring — NO IMMACULATE RECEPTION! Replacing the Oakland Raiders in a playoff scenario would have been the San Francisco 49ers or even the Dolphins as Miami would have been in the NFC. The NFC championship game could have been the Steelers facing Green Bay which would have been a wild card playoff participant. The Raiders-Steelers rivalry of the 1970s may have actually been for all the marbles, the Super Bowl trophy.
The Raiders may have profited greater than Pittsburgh under this alignment as the Steelers and Dolphins would not have been playoff hurdles for Oakland until it would have reached the Super Bowl. However, that may not have been as easy as the AFC would have been the home of the Cowboys, the Vikings and the Oilers.