The 1966 Season, Part 4

“To Blanda, or Not to Blanda”

By ED WETTERMAN

PREVIOUSLY – The 1966 Season, Part 1: “The Cat’s Out of the Bag, Bones is Gone, and Wally’s Back”

PREVIOUSLY – The 1966 Season, Part 2: “If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Join ‘Em”

PREVIOUSLY – The 1966 Season, Part 3: “Operation Cross-Check”

The Oilers opened the 1966 season at home in Rice Stadium against the Denver Broncos and promptly destroyed them, 45-7, conjuring up memories of old championship teams of earlier in the decade.

Quarterback George Blanda threw a touchdown to Bob McLeod and two to Charley Frazier.

The Houston defense stood strong, as the only Broncos’ score came on an 88-yard kickoff return following a first-quarter Oiler touchdown to McLeod.

Charley Frazier added one more receiving touchdown from Don Trull in the fourth quarter.

Despite his critics, Blanda looked great, completing 13-for-25 for 210 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.

Ode Burrell led the rushing attack with 81 yards on 17 carries.

The Oiler defense held the Broncos to -7 passing net yards on the game, only 26 total yards of total offense, and most impressively, no first downs!

In Week 2, the home-standing Oilers again looked like a team destined for greatness against the Oakland Raiders as they blasted the Silver-and-Black 31-0.

The Oilers struck first in the second quarter when Doug Cline picked up a fumble and returned it seven yards for a touchdown.

Then running back Ode Burrell caught a 23-yard pass from Blanda to make the score 14-0 at half.

In the third, Blanda added a 47-yard field goal, and the Oilers topped off the beating with another Burrell touchdown reception from Blanda of 12 yards before Trull relieved Blanda and added a six-yard touchdown scamper to cap off the skunking.

The Houston defense sacked Raider quarterbacks three times and snagged four interceptions.

The Raiders also fumbled four times and lost three of them to the Oiler defense.

One memorable moment came when the Oilers received a penalty because the fans were too loud, and the Raiders couldn’t run the play.

Showing the form of seasons to come, Oiler fans responded by littering the field with cups, cushions, and folding chairs.

At 2-0 and having outscored their opponents 76-7, the Oilers were off to a roaring start.

Many fans began to think that all it had taken was a return to a good coach like Wally Lemm to make it happen, but little did they know that the high point of the Oilers’ season had already come and gone.

Then, in the first of three straight road games, the Oilers faced the New York Jets, who quickly swung the pounding pendulum back into Houston’s face with a 52-13 walloping.

Joe Namath threw five touchdown passes as he tore the Oiler defense apart, while the Jets’ defense forced Blanda into four interceptions and scooped up a fumble as well.

Blanda would be pulled, and Don Trull would finish the game.

Jets Head Coach Weeb Ewbank had sent a spy to watch Houston practice, which was incredibly easy to do, since the Oilers practiced on an open field, just another exploitable ineptitude by the Oilers franchise that left it vulnerable.

Now 2-1 on the season, the Oilers travelled to Buffalo for a nail-biter that was deadlocked 20-20 with under one minute to play.

The Oilers were on the Bills 34-yard line and instead of kicking the long field goal for the win, Blanda dropped back for his 53rd pass of the day.

He threw it short toward his tight end Bob McLeod, but Buffalo’s Hagood Clarke intercepted and ran it back 66 yards for a Bills touchdown, giving the Bills a 27-20 win.

The pick was Blanda’s fifth interception of the day, and to add injury to insult, he was crushed by Bills linemen (and ex-Oiler) Roland McDole on the play and laid on the ground for a few minutes.

The venerable veteran needed help to stand, and his arm, which already required daily treatments, was shot, though the fans wouldn’t be told and wouldn’t care.

Blanda refused to use his injured arm as an excuse or to let the public know how badly he was hurting.

As author John Pirkle described it in his book Oiler Blues, “No Houston sports figure has ever heard such boos before or after.”

In his book Blanda, Wells Twombly transcribed the boo birds as chirping, “Booooo, Blanda, you bum! We want Trull! We WANT TRULL! We WANT TRUUUUUULLLLLL!”

At a speaking engagement during a Ruffnek (the Oiler booster club) meeting, Blanda once said, “If those people in the stands had any idea what an unfair pressure they put on the team they’re supposed to be rooting for when they boo, they’d shut up!”

Also quoted in Twombly’s book, Blanda said, “If I go around saying I have a bad arm, that is a signal for a defensive end to take more shots at me. All the time I was in Houston, nobody ever took up for my side of why things went wrong.

“If the team was bad, it was always because I played bad quarterback. No other reason….No reporter ever asked me, in 1966, whether my arm was sore. Everyone was too busy waiting for the fall. They couldn’t wait for Old George to leave….They like to see the big boys fall.”

The Oilers were now 2-2, but if they could beat the Broncos, they could get the season back on a winning track.

In another exciting, close game, the Broncos opened with two field goals in the first quarter to lead 6-0, but then Blanda nailed a 49-yard field goal in the second.

That’s when the offenses finally let loose.

Denver’s Abner Haynes caught a three-yard touchdown pass from John McCormick.

The Oilers struck back with a nine-yard pass from Blanda to McLeod, but on the ensuing kickoff, Broncos return man Goldie Sellers ran for a 100-yard return for a Denver touchdown.

Undaunted, the Oilers drove down the field in response, and Blanda hit a familiar target Charlie Hennigan for an 18-yard touchdown before the half ended with another Broncos field goal to cap the scoring at 23-17 in favor of Denver.

After halftime, the scoring picked up again at full speed as Haynes scored on a one-yard run to make it a Denver 30-17 lead, but Blanda hit Frazier for two quick touchdowns of 79 and 29 yards.

Then the Broncos’ Al Denson got loose and scored on a 65-yard pass from McCormick to cap the third quarter with the Broncos ahead 37-31.

The Oilers came back in the fourth with another touchdown pass to Charley Frazier to take the lead 38-37, but with 37 seconds left, the Broncos’ Gary Kroner kicked a 46-yard field goal to deal Houston a crushing 40-38 defeat and land them at 2-3 on the young season.

Blanda threw 37 times for 15 completions and 300 yards for five touchdowns and two interceptions. It was a great game by the Original Oiler, but it would also be one of his last as an Oiler starter.

Lemm was feeling the pressure and re-signed Bobby Maples and Hoyle Granger, whom he had cut during training camp.

Maples would become the starting center, and Granger would take over the fullback position from Tolar.

Defensive lineman Ernie Ladd was hurt and inconsistent and 1965 first-round pick Scott Appleton would replace him as the starter, though he wouldn’t last the season either and would be replaced by George Rice.

One of the last of the original Oilers, middle linebacker Doug Cline would be replaced by Ronald Caveness, and Cline would be unceremoniously released from the team.

The Oilers had one more good game in them, and after the rest from a bye week, they took out their frustrations on the visiting Jets, shutting out New York 24-0 and picking off Namath four times, while Blanda went 13-for-24 for 198 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception, evening their record at 3-3.

Sadly, that would be the last taste of victory in 1966 for the boys in Columbia blue.

Next, the Oilers hosted the expansion Miami Dolphins.

What should have been an easy win wasn’t.

The Oilers had to scrap for every yard of offense, forcing Blanda to air it out often, which led to four interceptions and handing the Dolphins the second win of their inaugural season, 20-13, dropping the Oilers to 3-3.

Then the Kansas City Chiefs would destroy any hopes the visiting Oilers had of redeeming the season, handing Houston a lopsided 48-23 thumping.

Giving in to the boo birds and the reporters, Lemm benched Blanda, deciding to start Jacky Lee in the game.

The mighty Chiefs, who would go on to represent the AFL in the first Super Bowl later that season, were powerful and controlled the ball the entire game.

Len Dawson and Pete Beathard combined to throw for 325 yards and four touchdowns against an anemic Oiler defense.

The Chiefs defense forced four fumbles (recovering three) and would intercept Blanda twice and Lee once.

Lee suffered an injury, forcing Blanda to take the field once more, but after he tossed two picks, Trull was put in to finish the game, somewhat emblematic of how the 1966 season had gone so far for Houston.

UP NEXT – The 1966 Season, Part 5

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