April 4, 2014

1961: Patriots Obtain Babe Parilli in Five-Player Deal

On April 4, 1961 the Oakland Raiders traded QB Vito “Babe” Parilli and FB Billy Lott to the Boston Patriots for FB Alan Miller, HB Dick Christy, and DT Hal Smith. It was the biggest deal thus far in the year-old American Football League’s short history.

The Raiders were coming off a 6-8 first season and had problems at the organizational level with too many owners, which resulted in front office disarray. Thanks to the intervention of AFL Commissioner Joe Foss, the ownership situation had been sorted out just prior to swinging the trade with the Patriots.

Boston was 5-9 in 1960 and had finished at the bottom of the league in points scored. There was a particular need for depth at quarterback behind 36-year-old Butch Songin, and Parilli, a month short of his 31st birthday, looked to be a good fit. While Alan Miller had led the team in rushing, it was expected that the addition of Lott, a fine blocker who led the Raiders in receiving, along with returning FB Jim Crawford, hindered by a bout with pneumonia in ‘60, would be an overall improvement in the backfield.

As for the players obtained by the Raiders, Miller was expected to start at fullback, Christy was fast and versatile and could return kicks, and Smith filled a need for quality interior linemen on defense.

Babe Parilli, the key player in the trade, had been a star at Kentucky, where he was coached by Paul “Bear” Bryant and led the Wildcats to two bowl victories. A first-round draft choice by the Packers in 1952, he split time with Tobin Rote for two years with uneven results (a promising rookie year was followed by a season in which he tossed 19 interceptions and only four TDs) and moved on to the Cleveland Browns. He first went into the military, missing two years before seeing some action in 1956 and finding it difficult to endure criticism from Head Coach Paul Brown. Traded back to Green Bay in ’57, he was cut during training camp in 1959. Parilli played a year with Ottawa in the CFL before joining the Raiders of the new AFL for 1960. There he split time with talented young Tom Flores, completing 46.5 percent of his passes for 1003 yards and five touchdowns while giving up 11 interceptions.

Parilli started off the ‘61 season backing up Songin, but after Lou Saban was replaced as head coach by Mike Holovak, the two quarterbacks were platooned as the team went 7-1-1 on the way to a 9-4-1 overall record. Parilli led the AFL with a completion percentage of 52.5 and tossed 13 TD passes against 9 interceptions. While not always the most consistent passer, he had an excellent arm and was a good ball handler who was adept at play action, which fit well with Holovak’s offense. By 1962 Songin was gone and Parilli the unquestioned starting quarterback.

The Patriots got off to a 6-2-1 start in 1962 with Parilli having an even better year until, in a key Eastern Division loss to the Houston Oilers, he went down for the remainder of the season with a broken collar bone. With backup Tom Yewcic behind center, Boston ended up once again at 9-4-1 and in second place. Parilli had a career-high completion percentage of 55.3 as he threw for 1988 yards and 18 TDs, giving up just 8 interceptions.

The Patriots dipped to 7-6-1 in 1963, but paradoxically they won the division thanks to a tiebreaking playoff win over Buffalo. Parilli’s performance was more uneven as his completion percentage fell to 45.4 and his interception total rose to 24. And while he had a 300-yard passing day in the Eastern Division playoff win, the Patriots were routed by the Chargers in the AFL Championship game. Still, he was named to the AFL All-Star Game for the first time.

Parilli had his finest pro season in 1964 as he led the AFL with 3465 passing yards and 31 TD passes, although his 27 interceptions also led the circuit. The Patriots improved to 10-3-1 but failed to catch the Bills and once again settled into second place. Parilli was a consensus first-team All-AFL choice and an AFL All-Star once again, but he talked of retirement before being lured back for another year.

As it turned out, the “Sweet Kentucky Babe” lasted two more seasons with Boston. Over the course of seven years, Parilli threw for 16,747 yards and 132 touchdowns while being picked off 138 times. The team had a winning record in his starts and he was an AFL All-Star for a third time in 1966, when the Patriots went 8-4-2. He then spent two years backing up Joe Namath with the New York Jets and earned a Super Bowl ring following the 1968 season as a result, retiring in ’69.

As to the other player obtained by the Patriots, Billy Lott led the team in rushing in 1961, gaining 461 yards on an even 100 carries while catching 32 passes for 333 more yards and scoring a total of 11 touchdowns, but he ran the ball only 43 times over his two remaining seasons for 112 yards and caught four passes.

Things did not go so well for the Raiders in ‘61, who were blown out in their first two games of the season by a combined score of 99-0 on the way to a dismal 2-12 record. Alan Miller started at fullback, proved to be a good blocker, but was more productive as a pass receiver (36 catches, 315 yards) than a ground gainer (85 carries, 255 yards). He played a total of four seasons with Oakland, rushing for 979 yards, catching 111 passes for 1186 yards, and scoring 17 TDs.

Dick Christy appeared in one preseason game for the Raiders before being dealt again, this time to the New York Titans. A productive all-purpose back, his best year was 1962 when he accumulated 2147 total yards and was an AFL All-Star. Hal Smith appeared in eight games in 1961, his only season with the Raiders.

All in all, the trade worked out well for the Patriots, where Babe Parilli was a solid performer for a team that often contended during his time there, topping the division once. He was so well regarded for his knowledge and leadership that Mike Holovak held a spot open on his coaching staff that was reserved for Parilli to fill once he retired. While he never became an assistant under Holovak, he did become a pro assistant, serving as quarterback coach for the Steelers and Broncos before holding the same position with the Patriots in 1981. He was also a head coach in the World Football League and with several Arena Football League teams.