Sunday, May 10, 2009

Jack Kemp: A Gridiron Perspective

It’s interesting (and a tad unfortunate) that the press, when covering the death of Jack Kemp, focused more on his political career as a congressman, Presidential candidate and Vice-Presidential candidate, conservative advocate, and cabinet member of the George H.W. Bush Administration than on his professional football career. Indeed the media treated his career as a minor footnote in Kemp’s distinguished life.

That is unfair to Kemp’s memory. Jack Kemp’s professional football career was an amazing story of perseverance, courage, leadership, and triumph. It was during his pro football career that Kemp developed the characteristics and qualities that launched his political career and led him into a life of distinguished public service which stretched from the 1970’s to the 1990’s.

Kemp was a quarterback drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1957 from Occidental College in California. He was behind NFL Hall-of-Famer Bobby Layne and veteran all-pro Tobin Rote on the depth chart. His stay with the Lions was not particularly pleasant. One time Bobby Layne convened a quarterbacks meeting at the Tiger Stadium bar. (Layne’s magnificent skills as a quarterback were matched by his drinking prowess). Layne and Tobin Rote (who, ironically, would later replace Kemp as starting quarterback of the San Diego Chargers in 1963) were drinking beer while Kemp, a raw rookie was drinking soda pop. Layne and Rote were going over that week’s game plan while Kemp, awed by the two veterans, was content to listen, not saying a word. Layne finished the meeting and ordered another round of drinks for Rote and himself. He stared at Kemp sipping his soda and grumbled, “Kid, if you want to make it in this league, you’re gonna have to learn to drink.” Kemp was eventually cut by the Lions and bounced around for two more years as a taxi squad quarterback for the New York Giants and a brief spell in the Canadian Football League.

It was the creation of the American Football League in 1960 that gave Jack Kemp the opportunity to demonstrate his skills as a starting quarterback. He was signed by the Los Angeles (later San Diego) Chargers. He was the field general leading the offense for Chargers head coach Sid Gillman. Gillman is seen by many football historians as the man who developed the tactical antecedents of what is now known as the West Coast Offense. Kemp had a powerful throwing arm and great receivers and running backs to throw to. Kemp was ranked the best quarterback in the AFL in 1960 and led the Chargers to two AFL Championship game appearances in 1960 and 1961 (losing both times to the Houston Oilers who are now the Tennessee Titans).

Kemp’s world changed in 1962 when he broke his hand and was waived (either accidentally or deliberately) by the Chargers and claimed by the Buffalo Bills for a mere $100. Kemp would remain with the Bills for the remainder of his football career. The Buffalo Bills were an anomaly in the AFL: a team that lived and breathed on its defense. Kemp virtually led a no-name offense. The only Hall-of-Fame player on the offense was offensive guard Billy Shaw. The Bills had no dominant running back and an average receiving corps. Kemp had his work cut out for him.

Amazingly, Kemp overcame the Bills offensive limitations and led the Bills to three consecutive AFL Championship Game appearances in 1964, 1965, and 1966 (winning the title in 1964 and 1965). What’s amazing was that Kemp’s personal stats were hardly championship caliber. During those dynasty years Kemp’s passing percentages were always below 50%. He was never the top-ranked quarterback in the AFL (indeed he wasn’t even among the top five) during those dynasty years. He threw more interceptions than completions. Indeed the Bills offense gained most of its first downs by rushing instead on passing.

And yet Kemp led the Buffalo Bills to the only championship titles in their existence. What Kemp lacked in gaudy stats he made up for in leadership. Kemp provided constancy and stability to the Bills offensive unit. He called and made the plays that needed to be made when leading the Bills downfield. His prior championship game appearances with the Chargers provided him with the experience needed to handle the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the post-season. He was popular with his teammates (many of whom would stand by his side when he later ran for the political office). He was a moving force for the establishment of the AFL players union (which would later merge with the NFL players union). His union organizing experience would hone his advocacy skills that he would later use as a congressman and Presidential candidate. Kemp’s leadership skills illustrate a seldom seen lesson in the annals of pro football: that you don’t need overwhelming stats to become a championship quarterback. There are many examples of quarterbacks who had unspectacular stats leading their teams to titles: Charley Conerly, Kenny Stabler, and Trent Dilfer come to mind. None of them were in the same league as Dan Marino, Joe Montana, or Johnny Unitas yet they led their teams to championship titles. Look at the other great quarterback in Buffalo Bills history: Jim Kelly. Kelly’s passing records dwarf Jack Kemp’s by a wide margin and he led the Bills to four consecutive Super Bowl appearances but, unlike Kemp, Kelly could not lead the Bills to victory. Some cynics may suggest that you cannot compare the pre-Super Bowl era title games to the present-day Super Bowl experiences but a title game is a title game is a title game is a title game. You still have win when it counts. Jack Kemp did it. Jim Kelly didn’t.

After 1966 Kemp’s playing career went into decline. Age and injuries sapped Kemp’s and the rest of the Bills’ effectiveness. When he retired in 1969 he led all AFL quarterbacks in pass attempts, completions, and passing yards. Football historian Sean Lahman ranks Kemp at number 52 among all pro-quarterbacks (interestingly he ranks Jim Kelly at number 21). Whatever one thought about Jack Kemp’s political convictions there is one thing which cannot be denied. Jack Kemp was a championship quarterback, a winner.

May he rest in peace.

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