On a Wednesday afternoon at the pool, the golden-armed quarterback made people take notice of his football team. While accepting an award from the Miami Touchdown Club three days before Super Bowl III, the face of the AFL made people reconsider the assumption that the heavily favored Colts would waltz to victory. And for one afternoon in January 1969, the mouthpiece for not only the upstart Jets but the other nine teams belonging to pro football's red-headed step-child of a league was the most important player in the sport.
They were all one person.
A salty Joe Namath, tired of hearing that Baltimore was going to crush the Jets, didn't merely assert that his New York team would win the most relevant contest to the future of a merged AFL-NFL while accepting that award, he made it stick, saying, "I guarantee it." He stuck it further by commandeering an upset for the ages, helping the lowly AFL upend the goliath NFL in one fell stroke.
So how did he pull it all off?
Enter Joe Willie Namath, game manager.
The Jets' franchise quarterback transformed into the kind of signal caller Bill Parcells once not-so-lovingly deemed "a bus driver." A little less Aaron Rodgers, a few more lumps of Alex Smith, please. The guy who had the best arm and footwork Bill Walsh had ever seen, the guy who had, in 1967, become the first passer to throw for 4,000 yards in either league, reined it in during the biggest game of his life, extending his arm more than cocking it.
New York beat one of the dominant regular-season teams in NFL history, Don Shula's Baltimore Colts, 16-7 behind a power running game with a series of intermediate passes sprinkled in. The men in green and white pounded and pounded on Baltimore's hyped front four no less than 43 times. Matt Snell went well over the century mark in rushing yards (121), tossing in a touchdown. Overall, Gang Green rushed for over 140 yards against the NFL's most vaunted defense.
Guess who called the plays? Namath. He engineered a game that we would now call Parcells-esque, rolling with a 60-40 run-pass ratio.
This is not to say Namath didn't let it fly from time to time. He just made sure to mix it up against Shula's beleaguered D, leaning on Snell plunges, shotputs in the flat to fullback Bill Mathis to beat the blitz and the occasional green pepper down the seam to his top-shelf wideouts. While Don Maynard and George Sauer Jr. were the best receiving duo around, the AFL's poster boy was not about to ruin the league's chance at its first Super Bowl win by forcing the ball to either player just to prove a point.
In the first two Super Bowls, the AFL had been hammered by Vince Lombardi's Packers, with Green Bay cruising to a 35-10 win over the Chiefs in Super Bowl I and a 33-14 triumph over the Raiders in Super Bowl II. The nature of those blowouts was typified by the way Chiefs defender Fred "The Hammer" Williamson knocked himself out in that first contest. It wouldn't go that way this time -- because Namath played a cerebral quarterback's game, not the gunslinger version for which he is so often remembered.
"They were able to dominate the teams they played in the NFL, so they're gonna play the same they'd been playing," Namath told HBO for the aptly title documentary, "Namath". "Why would they change anything ... for the Jets?! They're not gonna change anything."
On the game's opening drive, Namath read the defense and called running plays on four of five plays. On the Jets' second possession, with Baltimore anticipating more of New York's ground assault, Namath attacked the air with six straight passes to five different targets. The Colts were on notice; every man would have to be accounted for on every play, especially in the passing game.
So naturally, Namath adjusted by beginning the next series with two straight runs.
The Jets were moving the ball, but an overthrow and a Sauer fumble halted progress. Hey, they weren't supposed to score, anyway. This was the big, bad NFL -- Not For Long, as Jerry Glanville would say -- they were playing.
And then, early in the second quarter, Namath engineered a beautiful 12-play drive, wielding the run and the pass by calling seven of the first and five of the latter in a possession that ultimately paid off in a Snell touchdown dash. The drive ate up nearly half the quarter, and the little engine that allegedly couldn't was beating the legendary team that wasn't, 7-zip at halftime.
Baltimore couldn't get out of its own way. Quarterback Earl Morrall, the NFL MVP in 1968, was as selective about going to the air as his counterpart, but he wasn't nearly as efficient, tossing three interceptions on only 17 attempts. Even when he had Jimmy Orr wide open on a flea flicker, Morrall seemingly couldn't distinguish him from the halftime band, throwing to the other side of the field and right into the hands of Jets safety Jim Hudson, Namath's closest friend on the team.
Hudson's buddy was determined to avoid the very travesties that had befallen Morrall. After throwing five interceptions in a Week 3 loss to the Bills and yet another five picks against the undermanned Broncos in Week 5, Namath began changing his game. And not without some not-so-gracious prodding from Jets defensive coordinator Walt Michaels, who reminded Namath that, as Namath remembered it, "we have the best defense in the league."
In other words, You don't have to put the game on your shoulders.
For Namath, who had led the AFL in both pass attempts and interceptions in 1966 and '67, the kind of offense he ran would be as important as how many runs he called.
In that vein, Namath's play-calling only grew slicker in the third quarter. The lifeblood of the Jets' offense was in how the pieces were used. Gone were the risky throws and vertical shots to Maynard, replaced with a balance of Snell scampers and higher-percentage medium-range throws based on the defensive alignment. The Colts had been confident in their base defense's domination throughout the 1968 season, but Namath was doing even better than reading them like a book -- he was reading them like Cliffs Notes.
"If [the Colts] line up this way, you can expect the defense to do this," Namath said in the HBO documentary. "So we didn't call a lot of plays in the huddle. I gave the formation and said, 'Check with me,' and we operated from the line of scrimmage, for the most part."
On the opening stanza of the third quarter, Namath employed the ground game to extend the Jets' lead to 10-0. Then, on the Jets' next possession, right when the Colts started playing the run and calling blitzes to interrupt New York's offensive momentum, Namath hit the jet stream, completing four passes to get New York down to the 23, in range for yet the second of three Jim Turner field goals. After another Baltimore punt, Namath led the Jets downfield again, finally tossing the deep ball everyone had waited all game to see: a beautiful skinny post to Sauer for 39 yards. One more Turner field goal made it 16-0. More importantly, Namath had eaten up 13 minutes of game clock.
By day's end, Namath had underlined the most famous guarantee in the history of sports, let alone football, with an MVP performance.
"It is a victory for the entire American Football League," he would say in the locker room to the reporters present.
NFL Films forever upped the ante with the iconic image of Namath running off the field displaying the We're no. 1 finger for all who could see -- and for all who hadn't listened to his prediction.
And to think, he managed it all by being a game manager.
Did you know?
Saying the 1968 Colts were one of the greatest regular-season teams ever is no reach. Frankly, they might have been the top horse in the imaginary race. Baltimore scored 402 points while allowing only 144 ... in 14 games. That means Shula's club won its games by an average score of 28.7 to 10.3! The Colts shattered the Browns' Super Bowl hopes in the NFL title game, winning 34-zilch.