TURNING POINT : Namath-Led Jets Gave the AFL Credibility With Super III Victory
Twenty years ago, the National Football League received its first taste of parity.
The New York Jets, making good on Joe Namath’s “guarantee” for victory, pulled off one of sport’s biggest upsets by shutting down the heavily favored Baltimore Colts 16-7 in the third Super Bowl.
The win not only made Namath a national celebrity, but proved that the American Football League could compete with, and even defeat, the very best the NFL had to offer.
“There were a lot of guys who wanted to get even with the NFL,” said Don Maynard, the Jets’ star wide receiver who began his career with the New York Giants in the late 1950s.
“I don’t cuss very often, but I’d say you’re damn right we wanted to prove ourselves. I was so sick of that garbage about us not being good enough.”
The AFL had been fighting for respect since its inception in 1960. Although attendance had improved steadily over the years and the signing of college stars like Namath and Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte had helped force the NFL to agree in 1966 to a common draft and eventual merger, few believed the two leagues were of equal caliber.
“To say that there was a friendly relationship between the owners of the two leagues would be misleading,” recalled Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell.
The first Super Bowl was played after the 1966 season and gave AFL partisans little to boast about as the Vince Lombardi-coached Green Bay Packers rolled over the Kansas City Chiefs 35-10. In his best-selling account of the 1967 season, “Instant Replay,” Packers guard Jerry Kramer remembered his team laughing out loud while watching films of the Chiefs.
Kramer was more respectful of the Oakland Raiders, the 1967 AFL champions, but the Packers, playing for the last time under Lombardi, again dominated the Super Bowl with an easy 33-14 victory.
On paper, the third Super Bowl didn’t shape up as being much closer. Led by journeyman quarterback Earl Morrall, who filled in brilliantly for a sore-armed Johnny Unitas, and an aggressive, blitzing defense, the Colts finished 13-1 during the regular season, outscoring opponents 402-144.
The Jets had enjoyed a fine season, finishing 11-3 to win the AFL East, but could hardly match the numbers put up by the Colts. New York, in fact, had only the third-best record in the league as Kansas City and Oakland each finished 12-2 to tie for first in the Western Division.
And while Baltimore breezed through the playoffs, defeating Minnesota 24-14 in the first round and crushing the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the championship, the Jets were forced to rally from behind in their 27-23 victory over the Raiders.
“I thought it was going to a runaway because the Colts were considered one of the great NFL teams and I didn’t think the Jets were anywhere near our best,” Kansas City owner Lamar Hunt said.
A quick poll in the press box after Baltimore’s game against Cleveland failed to turn up a single writer who gave the Jets a chance to win the Super Bowl. Two days later, oddsmaker Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder confirmed that opinion by making the Colts 17-point favorites (the Packers had been favored by 14 and 15 points, respectively, in the previous Super Bowls).
“The Colts have the greatest defensive team in football history,” proclaimed Snyder, who gave Baltimore four points each for their front four, linebackers and defensive backs.
Snyder gave the Colts two points for running backs Tom Matte and Jerry Hill and added three more for “intangibles,” singling out Baltimore coach Don Shula for praise over Weeb Ewbank of the Jets. Namath was rated even with the tandem of Morrall and Unitas.
“The Jets won’t be able to establish a running game,” Snyder predicted. “The Colts are just too good defensively.”
While the experts were dismissing the Jets, the 25-year-old Namath was heaping scorn on the Colts. He declared that Oakland quarterback Daryle Lamonica was better than Morrall and had a barroom confrontation with Baltimore kicker Lou Michaels.
“Namath didn’t shake hands or say hello,” Michaels recalled. “He just said, ‘We’re going to kick the bleep out of you and I’m the guy who’s going to do it.’ I said, ‘I’d like to have you outside for one minute,’ and he said, ‘I’m not a dummy, I won’t do that.”’
The quarterback was also fined for missing a press photo session and made headlines by asserting, with a double scotch in his hand, that “We’ll win it. I guarantee it.”
Namath recalled the guarantee as something “that just came out.”
“I never guaranteed any game prior to that. I don’t know if it was just a guardian angel. It was basically anger with the way we thought knowledgeable people were painting us.”
But Namath and the Jets were all business on the field. Curt Gowdy, who did television play-by-play for the game, remembered watching the team work out during the week.
“It was the weirdest practice. I was there for an hour and a half and there wasn’t a word spoken. All you could hear was the thud of body hitting body, nobody said anything.
“They were the most maligned, insulted boys in the country. They were pissed. They were determined.”
The Jets had a strong offense, with Namath passing to Maynard and George Sauer and handing off to Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer. Their defense led the AFL against the rush and cornerback Johnny Sample, a former Colt, had solidified the secondary.
“We were watching films of the Colts after the point spread had been announced,” tight end Pete Lammons recalled. “After seeing some of the things they did, I got up and said to everybody, ‘If we watch this anymore we’re going to get overconfident.’ ”
The Jets believed they could have success running and passing against the Colts. On the ground, they were counting on left tackle Winston Hill to neutralize aging defensive end Ordell Braase and open holes for Snell and Boozer.
“It all narrowed down to Braase. I became pretty obsessed,” said Hill, cut by the Colts in 1963.
And Ewbank felt the Colts’ blitz would play right into the hands of Namath’s passing game.
“Namath had a quick release and we had fine receivers. We also had Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer to pick up the blitz. We only hoped that they kept on blitzing because we thought we could lick ‘em.”
The Jets were also unimpressed by the Colts’ offense.
“There wasn’t a lot of imagination,” defensive end Gerry Philbin said. “They let you know what they were going to do and they did it. They beat the teams in the NFL with their personnel and we didn’t think they were going to do that to us.”
Shula, dismissing the 17-point advantage, was concerned about containing Namath.
“I emphasized Namath was in his fourth year working with his same receivers while Earl had just four months with his receivers.” And while respectful of Namath’s quick release and skill in reading defenses, Shula had no plans for turning away from the blitz.
“The blitz is what got us there,” Shula said.
A crowd of 75,377 packed Miami’s Orange Bowl on Jan. 12, Super Sunday, with scalpers seeking $100 per ticket. Before the game, astronauts James A. Lovell, Frank Borman and William A. Anders recited the Pledge of Allegiance and television commentator Al DeRogatis stated that if the Jets gained 100 yards rushing, they had a good chance of winning.
Meanwhile, Ewbank talked to his players about not repeating the mistakes of the previous AFL Super Bowl teams.
“I told them we had to maintain our poise. I thought the teams in their first two bowl games had lost their poise,” Ewbank recalled.
Neither team scored in the first quarter. But the Colts got the first break late in the period when Sauer fumbled a sideline pass at the Jets’ 12 and linebacker Ron Porter recovered.
On third-and-4, Morrall found Tom Mitchell in the end zone, but the ball bounced off the receiver’s shoulder pad and Randy Beverly intercepted.
“It had to be a pass over (linebacker) Al (Atkinson) and under me,” Beverly said. “It had to be a perfect pass, but the pressure from the line made him (Morrall) hurry the throw. Al was able to take away Mitchell’s vision and the ball hit his shoulder pad.”
The Jets started at their 20 and Namath began calling “19 straight,” Snell around the left side with Hill leading the way.
“On the first play of the game, we ran a sweep and I broke clean. I broke for about 10 or 12 yards,” said Snell, who gained 121 yards on 30 carries. “I came back to the huddle and said, ‘These guys are not so tough.’ ”
Snell got the ball on four straight plays, gaining 26 yards. On third-and-4 at the 50, Namath hit Sauer for 14 yards, then connected with the wide receiver again for a 13-yard gain.
With the ball at the 4, Namath called for Snell again and the fullback swept in for the score.
“That touchdown started happening before the ball was snapped,” Namath said. “I saw them send a defensive player on the field and knew what formation they would be in. We didn’t even take three-point stances. I believed that first split second put us in the endzone.”
After each team missed field goal attempts, the Colts threatened again when Matte raced 58 yards on a trap play to the Jets’ 16. But when Morrall threw to Willie Richardson at the 2, Sample cut in front and intercepted the pass.
“I had studied the films all week and knew Richardson had a tendency to try to get on the inside of me,” Sample said. “I just closed down and made the interception. It was really a pretty easy play, I read it right away.”
With less than a minute remaining in the first half, the Colts attempted a trick play that would symbolize their frustration. During the regular season, Baltimore had picked up a long gain against Atlanta when Morrall handed off to Matte, drawing the defenders in, got the ball back on a lateral and threw to a wide open Jimmy Orr.
Now, at the Jets’ 45, Shula called for the “flea flicker.” The play seemed to work perfectly. Matte took the handoff and flipped the back to Morrall. Orr raced down the field and was wide open in the end zone, 20 yards behind the nearest defender.
“Orr’s alone in the end zone,” Gowdy screamed. “He’s waving his arms.” But Morrall never noticed, choosing instead to throw to Hill down the middle. Jim Hudson intercepted and the Jets held on to their 7-0 lead at halftime.
Why didn’t Morrall throw to his primary receiver? Morrall himself said he never really looked in Orr’s direction.
“As I caught the ball, I was facing the middle and saw the fullback (Hill) wide open,” said Morrall, the NFL’s Most Valuable Player that season. “I should have rifled it. I just lobbed it up there.”
Matte felt that Morrall’s vision was impaired by the halftime band, which had gathered behind the end zone.
“They had blue uniforms, similar to ours,” Matte said. “Earl never saw Jimmy.”
Beverly, however, scoffed at the idea that Orr was wide open.
“We were in good coverage. Jimmy Orr was so far downfield that three or four of us would have been there if Morrall had thrown to him. Often the receivers looked more open then they were.”
While the band covered the field in Baltimore blue, Shula berated his team for the missed opportunities and told Unitas to be ready should Morrall continue to struggle. But the Colts couldn’t get untracked. Matte fumbled on the first play of the third quarter and Ralph Baker recovered at the Baltimore 33. Jim Turner’s 32-yard field goal made it 10-0.
After Morrall failed to move the Colts’ on their next possession and Turner’s 30-yard field goal gave the Jets a 13-0 lead with just under four minutes left in the third, Shula brought in Unitas.
“I felt fine,” said Unitas, the hero of the Colts’ overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game. “I didn’t have as much velocity as I’d like to have, but if I’d been given the whole half to work, I think we could have turned the thing around.”
But Unitas couldn’t generate any offense on his first set of downs and Namath engineered another long drive that consumed the rest of the third quarter and culminated with Turner’s 9-yard field goal.
“When a team controls the ball like that,” Shula noted, “it sort of gives you a helpless feeling.”
Unitas, however, wasn’t giving up. Another interception by Beverly killed a drive early in the fourth quarter, but the 35-year-old quarterback moved the Colts 80 yards on their next possession with Hill going over from the 1.
Baltimore recovered the onside kickoff at the New York 44 and passes to Orr and Richardson moved the ball to the 24.
“All along I knew in the back of my mind that Johnny Unitas was on the sidelines,” Snell said. “When a legend like that is standing on the sidelines, I don’t know if you can ever have a game like that in hand.”
But the Jets’ defense tightened and Unitas’ fourth-down pass to Orr was batted away by Larry Grantham.
The next time the Colts had the ball, just eight seconds were remaining. The game ended with Sample tackling Richardson at midfield.
“That is so special to me, I don’t if anyone could understand it,” said Namath, who trotted off the field wiggling his right forefinger over his head. “It was the most tingly feeling inside of me. Waving the finger wasn’t really my style. I just appreciated being able to win that game. You could see my head’s down as if to say, ‘I humbly accept the title.”’
For Hunt and the other AFL owners, the victory wiped away the long years of frustration.
“Down in the Jet locker room, there was virtually an AFL owners meeting,” Hunt said. “There was a a great feeling of euphoria and accomplishment. I never felt that way about another team winning before.”
The NFL owners, meanwhile, were devastated by the loss.
“They stuck it to us pretty good,” Modell admitted. “There was a scheduled post-game party at (Baltimore owner) Carroll Rosenbloom’s house and it wasn’t a party, it was more like a funeral. It was not one of our better days.”
The game’s effect reached beyond that season. Merger talks had previously stalled on the insistance of some NFL owners that the AFC consist of just the 10 AFL teams and the NFC consist of the 16 NFL teams playing at the time.
AFL owners had resisted, saying the uneven breakdown would be demeaning to their league.
“If we had fully dominated them in the Super Bowl, the ones promoting the 16-10 alignment would have had a lot better case,” Modell said. “I remember the late (Jets owner) Phil Iselin complaining about not wanting to see his children open the paper and see the numerical superiortiy of the NFL.”
But the victory brought increased respect for the AFL, which wanted 13 teams in each conference. The Colts, Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers eventually agreed to join the AFC.
“The game definitely helped that along,” Hunt said. “A person like an Art Modell, who had a great team with a great history, could justify the move to the AFC because the Browns would playing Joe Namath and the Jets.”
And for Modell and the other NFL owners, the game was an unwelcome lesson in humility.
“I remember sitting in the box with (NFL commissioner Pete) Rozelle and (Chicago Bears owner) George Halas during that unbelievable upset,” Modell said. “We were aghast and appalled at what was happening. I’m still recovering from it.
“We thought the NFL was superior but history has proved our judgment wrong.”