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The Jets’ one shining moment, 54 years later

Fifty-four years ago tonight, Joe Namath became a sports legend, if he already wasn’t one.
Three days before Namath’s New York Jets were to play the mighty Baltimore Colts in third AFL-NFL World Championship Game–more commonly known as Super Bowl III–the Jets quarterback predicted his American Football League champions would knock off the mighty National Football League champion Colts.
The bold prediction drew scorn from media outlets from coast-to-coast. Since the Internet nor cable television existed in 1969 (okay, cable did exist, but only in about .00001% of the United States, all in rural areas where an antenna could not pull in a signal), unless you were in the room when Namath made his prediction, you would have to wait until the next morning to read about it in your local newspaper.

Namath’s Jets won the AFL’s Eastern Conference, by far the weaker of the two conferences, by a large margin in 1968. Meanwhile, the league’s two best teams, the Raiders and Chiefs, were locked in a battle to the death in the West.
Kansas City defeated Oakland 24-10 in October, as Hank Stram compensated for injuries to his top three wide receivers by running the Straight-T formation. Len Dawson threw just three passes, while Kansas City ran it 60 times and piled up almost 300 yards rushing.
(My father and a friend drove 15 hours from New Orleans to Kansas City to watch the game at the old Municipal Stadium., nearly all of it on the two-lane US 71.)
Later in the season, the Raiders defeated the Chiefs 38-21 at Oakland. When the teams completed their respective regular seasons 12-2, a one-game playoff was mandated to determine who would face the Jets in New York on the last Sunday of 1968.
Oakland won the coin toss to hold home field advantage, and for Kansas City fans, it was best they didn’t have to witness this up close.
The Raiders, seek a return to the Super Bowl after losing to Vince Lombardi’s Packers a year earlier, routed the Chiefs, the AFL’s first Super Bowl participant, 41-6.
Hype for the AFL championship was through the roof, thanks to the game the Jets and the Raiders played on 17 November.
That was the infamous “Heidi Game” in which Oakland scored two touchdowns in the game’s final 65 seconds to turn a 32-29 deficit into a 43-32 victory. If you were anywhere east of the Colorado state line, you didn’t see the ending, because NBC cut to the movie Heidi at 1900 Eastern/1800 Central.
The game lived up to the hype and then some, with the Jets prevailing 27-23.

The 1968 Colts, led by the monomaniacal and militaristic Don Shula, destroyed most of the opponents on their NFL schedule. They won all but one of their 14 regular season games, and after defeating the Vikings in the Western Conference playoff, Baltimore went to Cleveland and battered the Browns 34-0, avenging a 30-20 regular season loss.
Even with the greatest quarterback of all-time, John Constantine Unitas, sidelined most of the season due to a severely injured elbow, the Colts offense didn’t miss a beat, thanks to Earl Morrall.
Morrall was acquired off waivers from the Giants, where he spent 1967 stuck behind Fran Tarkenton. All Morrall did was earn the NFL’s Most Valuable Player honor.
Baltimore’s defense was one of the best in NFL history to that point, allowing only 144 points over 14 games. Unlike the Colt teams of the late 1950s which featured Hall of Famers Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan, this Colt defense did not have any future enshrinees in Canton, but still featured All-Pro caliber players like end Bubba Smith, linebacker Mike “Mad Dog” Curtis and defensive backs Bobby Boyd and Lenny Lyles.

Feeling the 1968 Colts were better than the Packer teams which played in each of the first two Super Bowls (but not as good as the 1962 Packers, which were far and away Lombardi’s best), and that the Jets’ defense was a notch below those of the Chiefs and Raiders, bettors in Las Vegas installed Baltimore as 18-point favorites.
The Jets not only had Namath, they also had a huge advantage on the sideline.
Weeb Ewbank was the man who coached the Colts to back-to-back NFL championships in 1958 and ’59, with Baltimore besting the star-studded New York Giants each time. Ewbank developed Unitas into the greatest quarterback to play the game (an opinion I will not change; screw you, Tom Brady), surrounded by Hall of Famers like Lenny Moore at running back, Raymond Berry at receiver and Jim Parker at tackle. Donovan, Marchetti, Boyd and Lyles were the stalwarts of a rock-ribbed defense which also featured two players who would end up starting in Super Bowl III, end Ordell Braase and linebacker Don Shinnick.

The first quarter saw the Colts control play, but come away empty-handed after Lou Michaels (brother of future Jets coach Walt) blow a 25-yard field goal. Baltimore got another chance on the final play of the opening period when Lyles popped the ball loose from George Sauer and Ron Porter recovered at the New York 22.
Then came the turning point.
On the second play of the second quarter, Morrall spotted reserve tight end Tom Mitchell open in the middle of the end zone. The ball popped off of Mitchell’s left shoulder and into the hands of Jets safety Randy Beverley.
Following the touchback, the Jets drove 80 yards on 12 plays, with Matt Snell scoring the touchdown on a 4-yard sweep around left end. Jim Turner’s extra point made it 7-0, the first time the AFL led in a Super Bowl.
Morrall threw two more interceptions in the second quarter, one to former Colt Johnny Sample, and another to Jim Hudson when he failed to spot Jimmy Orr all alone in the back left corner of the end zone on a flea-flicker.

With the Colts trailing 13-0 and Morrall failing to spark the offense, Shula finally brought in Unitas late in the third quarter.
Before Johnny U could get anything going, Namath hit Sauer from 39 yards out to move the ball to the Colts’ 2. A touchdown here would have put the game out of reach, but to their credit, Baltimore’s defense held New York to a short field goal by Turner, his third of the day.
Down 16-0, Unitas drove into Jets territory, only to be intercepted by Beverley. Turner missed a 42-yard field goal on the ensuing drive, but the possession achieved its goal by burning precious time off the clock.
The Colts finally broke the ice on a 1-yard run by Jerry Hill, but only 3:19 remained, and Baltimore still needed two scores (the 2-point conversion was used in the AFL before the merger, but not in a Super Bowl until January 1995) to win.
The Colts recovered an onside kick, but had to turn it over on downs.

Not long thereafter, the gun sounded. Jets 16, Colts 7. Namath ran off the Orange Bowl field waving his right index finger in the air.
The Jets have not been back to the Super Bowl since. They have played in only four AFC championship games (1982, ’98, 2009, 2010) since, all on the road. They have not been to the playoffs since losing the 2010 AFC final to the Steelers, the NFL’s longest active drought.
Joseph William Namath remains the Jets’ best quarterback. Only the Bears, where it has been Sid Luckman and a whole bunch of nothing for 70 years, has had it worst at one of the most important positions in professional sports.

I seriously need better things to write about if this was the best I could do.

Retirement spares Luck inglorious ending

The sports world went apoplectic last Saturday evening when Colts quarterback Andrew Luck announced his retirement after seven seasons. He was battling a nagging calf injury throughout training camp and exhibition games, and given his history of past injuries, including one which kept him out during the entire 2017 season, it was totally understandable.

By stepping away 19 days shy of his 30th birthday, Luck is going to be able to help his children (his wife is pregnant with their first child) play sports. He’s going to be able to help his family build a dream house if they haven’t already. He’s going to save the NFL a heck of a lot of disability payments, because he isn’t going to have nearly the dire conditions many of his contemporaries will be facing.

Luck is going to be in the NFL in some capacity, either as a broadcaster or an executive. He’s not going to let that Stanford degree go to waste. I’m sure all of the networks are eyeing him for 2020. I could see him joining Joe Tessitore and Booger McFarland in the ESPN Monday Night Football booth. Or maybe Cris Collinsworth decides to hang it up and Luck slides in next to Al Michaels on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

By hanging it up when he did, Luck saved himself the embarrassment two former Colt quarterbacks suffered, and the embarrassment a third avoided.

Johnny Unitas was, in my opinion, one of the two greatest quarterbacks to grace the National Football League. Sammy Baugh is the other.

Unitas was the NFL when he led the Baltimore Colts to NFL championships in 1958 and ’59. He continued his greatness into the 1960s, then bookended his career by helping the Colts win Super Bowl V in 1970.

In 1972, new Colts general manager Joe Thomas and new owner Bob Irsay ordered Don McCafferty, who coached Baltimore to victory over Dallas two years prior, ordered Unitas to be benched in favor of Marty Domres, who was acquired from the Chargers during the offseason. McCafferty refused and was immediately fired. Unitas was benched by interim coach John Sandusky. He remained on the bench save for brief appearances in December games, when the Colts were assured of their first losing season since 1956.

Unitas was not going to be back in Baltimore for 1973. After 17 seasons in Baltimore, the prudent thing would have been for Johnny U to hang up his black hi-tops and ride off gracefully into the sunset.

Sadly, Unitas felt he could still play at 40. So the Colts dealt him to the Chargers, where San Diego coach Harland Svare was assembling the NFL’s old folks home. Unitas joined fellow great Deacon Jones in California, as well as a draftee out of Oregon.

Unitas was well over the hill. His tenure in San Diego was an unmitigated disaster. The Chargers finished 2-11-1, and it was later revealed many players were using marijuana. The only good thing to come out of Unitas’ season with the Chargers was the rapid ascension of Dan Fouts, the rookie who set NFL records piloting Air Coryell in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Unitas’ replacement was Bert Jones, drafted second overall out of LSU in 1973 (the Saints owned the pick, but traded it to Baltimore for defensive end Billy Newsome). Jones won the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award in 1976 and led the Colts to three consecutive AFC East championships.

By 1981, he had been beaten to a bloody pulp behind a Swiss cheese offensive line. The fact the Colts’ defense had more holes than Swiss cheese forced Jones to throw 50 times a game, wearing out his arm faster than it should have.

When Frank Kush became the Colts’ coach in early 1982, his first move was to dump Jones. Fortunately for him, the Rams were in need of a quarterback after Vince Ferragamo jumped to the CFL’s Montreal Alouettes, and a trade was worked out.

Jones won the starting job in training camp, but the injury bug bit again. Ferragamo was back in Los Angeles after the Alouettes were forced into bankruptcy, and after the 1982 strike which reduced the season from 16 games to 9, Ferragamo took the job and kept it. Jones retired after the season.

Kush replaced Jones with Art Schlichter, drafting the Ohio State star fourth overall in 1982. Too bad Schlichter liked gambling more than football. The Colts then bounced from quarterback to quarterback (Mike Pagel, Chris Chandler, Jack Trudeau, Jeff George, Jim Harbaugh) before drafting some guy out of Tennessee first overall in 1998.

Peyton Manning, the Colts starting quarterback from 1998-2010, suffered a serious neck injury and was forced to miss all of 2011. When the Colts went 2-14 and secured the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, they knew they would be selecting Luck as soon as he declared for the draft.

Manning went to Denver, but instead of facing the same fate as Unitas and Jones, resurrected his career, winning MVP honors in 2013 by throwing 55 touchdown passes. He closed his career by defeating the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.

Fortunately, we will never have to witness the grotesque sight of Luck in a uniform other than the Colts. Manning is the exception, not the rule.

The Saints have had their share of geezers who didn’t know when to quit. Jimmy Taylor, Ken Stabler and Earl Campbell all come to mind, and don’t forget Paul Hornung was selected by the Saints in the expansion draft but retired before ever playing a game. Doug Atkins defied the odds and had three stellar seasons in New Orleans, capping a 17-year career which landed him in the Hall of Fame.

Emmitt Smith in a Cardinals uniform may have been the worst. Nobody would have blamed him if he had called it quits after surpassing Walter Payton’s career rushing record. Payton never lowered himself to the humiliation of another team after 13 seasons with the Bears. Neither did Jim Brown.

Athletes don’t want to be viewed as quitters. In this case, Luck wasn’t a quitter. Quite the opposite. He was man enough to admit it was time for him to walk away.

I hope the Colts do not give any angry fans refunds on their tickets. Fans cannot and should not gripe about a particular player retiring or otherwise being injured. That’s sports.