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Chapter One: Len Dawson was KC's First "Developed" Quarterback

Posted Jun 11, 2015

Hank Stram rescued Dawson and made him a winning professional

This is another in a series of season-long columns on the Kansas City Chiefs search for a franchise quarterback. It will appear weekly on Thursdays throughout the 2015 season.

PAST CHAPTERS

Introduction: The Quest for a "Franchise Quarterback"




The likelihood of a new league opting for a rookie quarterback to lead its new start-up and not a veteran was never in play, particularly when there were so many vets who had washed out, or were soon to wash out, of the NFL in the early 1960s. The idea of developing a franchise quarterback at such a time was a convenience no owner could afford to pursue if he wanted to stay in business very long.

And so it was that Len Dawson arrived in Dallas after having languished on the bench of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers and later the Cleveland Browns for so long that even he would admit that his skills had atrophied.  He was 27, an oldster by his new team’s standards which averaged about 23 years.  The team’s starter at the time, Cotton Davidson, had a two-year jump on Dawson, was a bit older and like his new competition had never had much of a chance in the NFL backing up Johnny Unitas in Baltimore and only finding his way onto the field as the team’s punter.

Texans QB Cotton Davidson had a two-year jump on Len Dawson

It wasn’t as if Hank Stram was unhappy with Davidson, his starter since the Texans put on uniforms in 1960. But as with any coach who had mentored a player and realized success in doing so, Hank Stram believed in Dawson, something he had seen in him while the two worked together at Purdue University.  (Think of the way Dick Vermeil felt about Trent Green, and you’ll have some idea about how he felt). Even with Don Klosterman, the architect of the great Chiefs drafts of the early days, on board by this time, understand that Dawson was Stram’s call and no one else’s.

He immediately went about working with his one-time student, refining his fundamentals and rebuilding his confidence. But Stram also had to consider Davidson’s skill as the team’s punter; he was one of the AFL’s best. And, he was from Texas, after all, a fact not lost on team owner Lamar Hunt who believed that pedigree would prompt an audience to turn out for games given the public’s love and appreciation for home grown talent.

Davidson came into the 1962 season on something of a roll. He had recently led the AFL’s Western All-Stars to a victory over the East, been named the game’s MVP after originally being added to that team as its punter. He now found himself engaged in a battle for the starting quarterback job with Dawson.  According to Stram’s son, Dale, the coach wanted to keep both men around, particularly in light of Davidson’s punting skills, and also wanted to hold onto rookie Eddie Wilson, making it three quarterbacks on a 36-man squad.

Eddie Wilson was one of 3 QB’s on the Texans’ 1962 roster

“Why not specialize in quarterbacks?” Stram shot back when asked about why he was stockpiling so many. He had only recently moved another, Bobby Ply, to defensive back, and thought he could use him if ever in an emergency.  But coaches have their favorites and Dawson was Stram’s, and that counted for much.

Davidson held an off-season job in Dallas with the Lee Company, so he wasn’t in any hurry to leave town. Finally a starter, there was no way he would simply accept a back-up role in his native state. “He was a great guy,” remembered wide receiver Chris Burford, “older than Len, had a great arm, but was not quite as accurate.” (He averaged in the mid-40 percentile as a passer in Dallas.)

Davidson (top row, 4th from left) had an off-season job in Dallas

Stram was more than a bit surprised, however, when his owner, Lamar Hunt, suddenly up and traded Davidson to the Oakland Raiders – largely to prop up a struggling franchise in a still struggling league. Such was Hunt’s passion for a business he had created and wanted to succeed – in all AFL cities, not just his own.  The trade would be Hunt’s one-and-only over his lifetime as team owner.

With the departure of Davidson, the punting job fell to backup Eddie Wilson, who turned out to be nowhere near as good, finishing in the bottom of the league in that category.

Trading Davidson was a gamble, or at least the media saw it that way.  He was a veteran, knew the league well after two years as a starter and Dawson, although he too like his predecessor had been a former NFL number one pick, was still unproven as a pro.  That is, until the opening game of the 1962 season against the Boston Patriots when he completed nearly 70% of his passes, threw for two touchdowns and took home a Mercury convertible as the “Texan of the Week.”

By game seven Dawson had thrown 17 touchdown passes, the same number Davidson hit the prior year in 14 games and more than half as many as Davidson completed in two years with the Texans.

Dawson had thrown 17 TD passes by Game 7 of his 1st AFL season

It was suddenly new life for the Ohio native and for his new team as the Texans ran out to a 6-1 record leading to the franchise’s first championship, and any number of all-league nods for the quarterback at the season’s conclusion.  Dawson was named first team All-AFL by the Associated Press and UPI.

Dawson’s success was equally Stram’s and proof that as much as anyone, he had “developed” him — maybe rescued him is an apt description — and turned him into a professional quarterback.

“He was a real gamer,” Burford said of Dawson.  “When he arrived, his arm was weak from not playing for five years.  But he was accurate, one of the real game managers,” praise that later Chiefs coaches would hand out to any number of his successors in the decades to come. “Game manager” would take on a somewhat negative connotation among media 40 years later.

WR Chris Burford considered Dawson, "a real gamer"

Wilson would serve as Dawson’s backup for the next three years, starting one game, before moving on to Boston.  As for Davidson, he went on to start for the Raiders for the 1962 campaign, but was gradually out of that rotation by the following year and his pro career ended there in 1968.  Dawson would become the face of the franchise for the next 14 years.

But in the meantime, the search for a new backup and maybe successor one day would begin almost immediately  “They don’t call [Stram] the quarterback collector without reason,” observed the Dallas Morning News.




Next week - Chapter Two: AFL-NFL Draft war heats up and a top QB is a prize

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