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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.

One score and 13 years ago…

The 97th season of the National Football League kicks off tonight when Denver hosts Carolina in a rematch of Super Bowl 50.

I began following the NFL in 1983. That season kicked off a month before my seventh birthday. The Washington REDSKINS were the dominant team at that time, having won Super Bowl XVII following the strike-shortened 1982 season, and setting a then-NFL record by scoring 541 points in 1983 behind Joe Theismann and John Riggins, who set the NFL record with 24 touchdowns, since bettered by Emmit Smith in 1995 and LaDanian Tomlinson in 2006.

The 1983 season also saw the Saints, my hometown team at the time, make their biggest push for the playoffs in franchise history up until that point. New Orleans could have made the postseason if it defeated the Los Angeles Rams in the Louisiana Superdome in the final week of the regular season, but lost 26-24 on a last-second field goal by Mike Lansford. The Rams won that game despite not scoring an offensive touchdown, returning two Kenny Stabler interceptions for TDs, returning a punt for another TD, and adding a safety when Hall of Fame defensive end Jack Youngblood sacked Stabler, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month.

New Orleans embarrassed itself on national television, too. In their first Monday Night Football game in three years, the Saints led the Jets 28-14 going into the fourth quarter, only to watch in horror as New York scored 17 unanswered points in the final period. The crusher was a 76-yard punt return TD by Kirk Springs to complete the comeback as the Jets escaped, 31-28.

The Raiders, playing their second season in Los Angeles, won Super Bowl XVIII by routing the Redskins 38-9. The Silver and Black avenged a 37-35 loss at Washington in week five, and that was after the Raiders defeated the Seahawks in the AFC championship game. Strangely enough, Seattle won both regular season games.

The Raiders went 12-4 during the ’83 regular season. The team responsible for the fourth loss? The St. Louis FOOTBALL Cardinals. That’s right. A team which ended the year 8-7-1, having to win four of its final five to nose above .500. A team which played what was called the worst Monday Night Football game EVER, a 20-20 tie against the Giants in late October, a game in which Neil O’Donoghue missed THREE field goals in overtime, including a 19-yard chip shot. YEESH.

The more amazing thing about the Cardinals-Raiders game of 1983–only the second between the clubs all-time–was L.A. led 17-0 early in the second quarter, only to get steamrolled the rest of the way as St. Louis went on to a 34-24 triumph, easily one of the best games the Cardinals played during their 28 seasons (1960-87) in the Gateway City. The loss may have stoked the Raiders’ anger, because their last four games–the regular season finale vs. the Chargers, then three playoff games vs. Pittsburgh, Seattle and Washington–were all blowouts.

The Cardinals were in the chase for the NFC East championship in 1984, only to lose the finale at Washington 29-27 when O’Donoghue missed a long field goal. Three years later, St. Louis had a chance to make the playoffs, but again, it lost the final game of the regular season, this time 21-16 at Dallas. Three months later, the Cardinals officially moved to Arizona.

The ’83 Cardinals also beat the Seahawks, but lost 38-14 at Kansas City, which finished last in the AFC West. Had St. Louis been able to win that game, it would have made the playoffs at 9-6-1. Losing by wide margins twice each to the Cowboys and Redskins didn’t help.

This season, Arizona is attempting something the Cardinals franchise has never achieved–four consecutive winning seasons. In fact, the Cardinals have a chance for four consecutive 10-win seasons. WOW. Remember, this is a franchise which has lost over 700 games since the NFL began in 1920.

I can truly consider the 1983 NFL season the beginning of my obsession with sports. By the end of ’83, I was watching all four major sports leagues and college football.

Tie it on boys!

The only gridiron football league in the United States were ties are permitted saw one occur today in Cincinnati.

The Bengals and Panthers played to a 37-37 sister-kisser. Both teams, first Cincinnati and then Carolina, kicked a field goal on their first possessions of the extra period. The two possessions ate up all but the last two and a half minutes of overtime. The Bengals drove to the Carolina 19 and had a chance to win, but Mike Nugent missed a 36-yard field goal wide right, and thus we had our third deadlock in as many years.

In the old days, the Bengals would have won the game because they took the ball and scored first. However, beginning with the 2010 postseason and 2013 regular season, if a team wins the toss and takes the ball, it must score a touchdown to end the game. If it does not, the other team can possess the ball. If that team scores a field goal, the game then goes into sudden death for the remainder of the period (regular season) or however long it takes (postseason). If the team who has the ball second gave up a field goal but scores a touchdown, the game is over.

Cincinnati is no stranger to ties in tis own stadium. The Bengals and Eagles played to a 13-13 stalemate in 2008. Donovan McNabb, Philadelphia’s star quarterback at the time, didn’t think a game could end in a tie, and he did not show a sense of urgency on the Eagles’ final possession.

The team which has gone the longest without a tie is the Saints. Their last deadlock was in October 1972 vs. the 49ers, two years before the NFL Instituted overtime in the regular season. Three expansion teams who came into the league after 1974, the Seahawks, Jaguars and Texans, have never played to a tie. Today’s was the first for Carolina. The Ravens, who were officially an expansion team after Art Modell moved the original Cleveland Browns in 1996, tied the Eagles 10-10 in 1997.

Ironically, the first NFL regular season game to go to overtime, Steelers at Broncos in September 1974, ended in a 35-35 tie after Denver’s Jim Turner missed two field goal attempts in the fifth quarter.

The first NFL regular season overtime game to produce a winner came in November 1974 when the Jets beat the Giants 26-20 at the Yale Bowl, where the Giants were playing while (a) Giants Staidum in the New Jersey Meadowlands was under construction and (b) Yankee Stadium, Big Blue’s home from 1957 through 1973, was closed due to massive renovations by George Steinbrenner.

The Jets were 1-7 coming into the matchup with the Giants, and trailed 20-13 late in the fourth quarter before tying it up on a 5-yard touchdown run by this guy Joe Namath. Heard of him? Well, for Namath to RUN for a touchdown was nearly impossible, since by 1974, Namath’s knees were shot and he had no cartilage left. Broadway Joe was supposed to hand off to Emerson Boozer on a dive play, but Namath faked the dive and limped around left end. When Namath reached the end zone, numerous bottles came flying from the Yale Bowl stands.

The Giants won the overtime toss and moved into field goal range, but the normally reliable Pete Gogolak hooked a 42-yard attempt to the left. Namath and the Jets took over their own 25 and drove 75 yards to the game-winning touchdown, a 6-yard pass from Namath to Boozer where the Jets’ fullback got open behind Giants’ All-Pro linebacker Brad Van Pelt.

The NFL’s first sudden death overtime game was the epic 1958 championship game between the Colts and Giants. There were three other OT playoff games prior to 1974: 1962 AFL championship (Dallas Texans 20, Houston Oilers 17 in double OT); 1965 NFL Western Division playoff (Packers 13, Colts 10) and the longest NFL game ever played, the 1971 divisonal playoff which turned out to be the last football game at Kansas City’s Municipal Stadium (Dolphins 27, Chiefs 24).

Major college football allowed ties until the 1995 bowl season, and one bowl game, Toledo vs. UNLV, required the extra session. The Rockets, coached at the time by current Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, won 40-37. Overtime was introduced in the regular season for 1996, meaning the Kansas Jayhawks will forever hold the NCAA record for tie games, 57.

I don’t see where ties are the end of the world. It’s a symptom of American culture where every game MUST have a winner. Heck, ties in association football go on all the time. Is that a reason why the game hasn’t caught on in the United States? I hope the 20,000 who go to Sporting Park in KCK and watch Sporting KC know matches can end tied during the regular season. The NHL didn’t have overtime for 40 years and nobody thought less of the game. Ties also throw monkey wrenches into standings, and more often than not, a tie will prevent the use of tiebreakers.

I’m not crying over the tie. In fact, it’s a good day for NFL fans everywhere.