The NFL has seen dominant defenses throughout its glorious history, but one of the most dominant defenses to ever play was one that you most likely have not heard of. In 1961 the NFL was spilt between the NFL and the AFL, six years before the first Super Bowl, and the Chargers defense was the class of the AFL. Their front four was the first Fearsome Foursome, predating the Rams, and the linebackers and defensive backs were known as The Seven Bandits. The Bandits still hold the single season interception record with 49 as a team, a record that will never be broken.
The Chargers Fearsome Foursome of Ron Nery, Ernie Ladd, Bill Hudson and Earl Faison were a constant source of pressure, which forced opposing quarterbacks to make poor decisions that usually ended up in the hands of one of the Bandits. This dominating defense led the Chargers to the AFL Championship game where they lost to the Houston Oilers 12-3, but it was no fault of the Bandits. The Bandits forced seven turnovers in the game, with six interceptions!!! The only problem was that the Chargers offense returned the favor with six turnovers of their own.
In 1961 teams only played 14 games on the season, which makes this interception mark so impressive. The Seven Bandits were responsible for 42 of the teams 49 interceptions of the season: Charlie McNeil – 9, Bob Zeman – 8, Dick Harris – 7, Claude Gibson – 5, Chuck Allen – 5, Bob Laraba – 5 and Emil Karas – 3. The sheer amount of interceptions is impressive enough, but the Bandits also took nine of them back for touchdowns.
The defense was so impressive, they forced five or more turnovers in eight games with their worst performance coming in week four against Buffalo only forcing two turnovers. The Chargers broke the previous record of 42 interceptions, set by the 1943 Green Bay Packers. This record will never come close to being broken.
The NFL is now considered a passing league, and with the fact that teams play 16 games you might think I am wrong, but let’s check the recent defensive challengers. Going back to 2002 thru 2013 there have only been five defenses that had 30 or more interceptions, with 31 interceptions being the highest season total. That is still 18 behind this ridiculous record. The Chargers averaged 3.5 interceptions per game!!! No team in recent vintage has been able to average more than 2 interceptions per game, and in order to break the Chargers record a team would have to average 3.13 picks per game.
The 1961 Chargers defense is the best defense you have never heard of, and the Seven Bandits with their remarkable record deserve more credit in the annals of the NFL. To think they had six players with at least five interceptions is just incredible. I tip my cap to the greatest bunch of thieves this great game has ever seen, and a season for the ages.