Friday, September 5, 2008

Broadway Joe, Weeb & Super Bowl III

Long before he damaged his reputation by making a pass at a female sideline reporter on Monday Night Football, Joe Namath was the poster boy for the American Football League's challenge to NFL supremacy in the late 1960's. This was an era in which players with crew cuts such as Johnny Unitas were the model citizens of professional football. Along comes Namath and his eye popping $400,000 salary to usurp center stage from the NFL old guard. Broadway Joe represented everything that was great about the AFL. He was brash yet smooth, charming, humorous, likable, unabashed at living the high life. Though being in New York at Shea Stadium, Miller High Life was not available, just rancid Schaefer, the beer to have when you're having more than one.

Joe quickly became known as an enviable, true to form womanizer. Combine that with some genuine quarterbacking talent and you have one of the all time icons of the sport, despite his drunken antics of his later years.

The 1960's saw the Oakland Raiders and New York Jets build one of the fiercest rivalries in all of pro sports. Each time they played it seemed to be high stakes action. In the 1968 season, the Raiders were seeking to return to the Super Bowl after losing to the Green Bay Packers the previous season. They stood an excellent chance of doing so with a high powered, tenacious team. All that stood in their way was the Jets. Unfortunately for the Raiders, this was the Jets' year. Broadway Joe did not stand alone. There was the hulking Matt Snell to carry the ball and George Sauer, Don Maynard and Emerson Boozer to catch it. The man at the helm of the Jets was none other than Weeb Ewbank with two NFL back to back championships to his credit as head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1958 and '59.

Weeb is probably the most unheralded of great coaches. He was one of the best, hands down. He played the old school way which means you absolutely had to control the clock with the run and attack with the pass to keep opponents chasing. It sounds simple but few teams succeeded in executing that way. Those that did, like the Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Colts, Chicago Bears and Detroit Lions (believe it or not) of the 1950's, were emulated because they won championships.

You know the rest of the story. Namath guaranteed Jets victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III. They got it and Joe was vindicated for making the guarantee of certain victory. Though if you really look at the game, what won it was ball control. There wasn't a whole lot of scoring and if you compare the game to the previous two encounters between NFL and AFL teams, this one was played differently by the AFL team. Weeb had his Jets playing NFL style ball and that was the difference-maker. No Joe Namath heroics to be found. Not a single jump pass with those creaking knees. No last minute drive. Just efficient football, foiling the Colts at their own game. If the Colts had Johnny Unitas available instead of Earl Morral, would the result have turned out differently? Maybe but Johhny just could not go and Colts Head coach Don Shula may not have even played him anyway. Morral was enjoying a superb season, leading a juggernaut Colts team to a 13-1 record. Morral was NFL MVP in 1968 so there's irony there since he did not play well in Super Bowl III.

It wouldn't do any good to speculate what would have happened had the Raiders managed to beat the Jets in the AFL playoffs in 1968. They certainly had the team to do it. They almost did beat the Jets. It was a close game with just a 4 point margin of victory decided in the final quarter. But that season belonged to the Jets. It was one of the best Super Bowls even if the thrills were few. I was too young to experience it but at least there's the DVD highlights.

Unfortunately for Jets fans, the team has never come close to repeating the same measure of success.

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