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.