In the first edition of the new NFL Rewind Barry Aldworth takes a look at one of the defining moments in the history of American Football, Superbowl III.
From when it was first founded on August 20, 1920 right up to the present day the National Football League (NFL), or the American Professional Football Conference as it was then known, has dominated the landscape of professional football in the states. Despite many rival leagues attempting to challenge or displace the NFL these leagues would ultimately crumble, or be forced to merge with the enemy on the NFL’s terms. However, unlike the leagues that came before and after it, the American Football League (AFL) would succeed in offering the American population a viable alternative and by 1966, with top talent such as University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath choosing to join the rival league, the NFL was forced to enter into negotiations to bring the two leagues together.
Whilst the merger would not come into full effect until 1970, one product of the negotiations was the Superbowl, a one off match-up between the champions of both leagues to decide who truly was the best of the best. Despite the AFL’s pre-merger success, both Superbowl I and II saw the Green Bay Packers, representing the NFL easily dispatch of the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders. These results only strengthened the belief that the NFL was the far superior league and it would be years before the AFL could offer viable opposition. It was this very belief, however, which would be destroyed when the New York Jets faced off with the Baltimore Colts on January 12, 1969.
Held up as the AFL’s poster boy, and publicly known to enjoy the life of partying that came with such a title, Joe Namath sought to lead the Jets to victory and secure the team’s place in football history. So confident was the quarterback in his team’s ability that at a pre-Superbowl function he responded to the taunts of an Baltimore fan by stating,
We’re gonna win the game. I guarantee it.
The seemingly insignificant claim spread like wildfire across the American media, before largely being dismissed by analysts who argued that had the Jets been playing NFL caliber opposition full time they would never have even progressed to Superbowl III. In fact, the Jets hopes seemed to be dead in the water when star wide receiver Don Maynard, fresh off the back of a stand-out performance against the Oakland Raiders, injured his hamstring just days before the game. However, much to the Jets’ joy the Colts never found out about Maynard’s injury and would needlessly make him the focus on their defensive efforts for the entire game.
After winning the coin toss the New York side opted to receive the ball first, but their offense quickly stalled leading to a Jets punt. Whilst the Colts would succeed in driving to the Jets 19-yard line the drive would stop there, ultimately resulting in a missed Lou Michaels field goal from 27 yards. From there both teams would trade punts as the game remained scoreless deep into the second quarter. However, with half-time looming a series of fortunate events set the Jets up to make history.
After a Namath fumble the Colts found themselves with just 12 yards between them and the first score of the game. However, on 3rd down an errant pass by Indianapolis quarterback Earl Morall was tipped by Jets’ linebacker Al Atkinson before bouncing of the helmet of Colts’ tight end Tom Mitchell and then being intercepted in the endzone by New York’s Randy Beverly. Buoyed on by the defensive effort Namath succeeded in driving the Jets offence down the field, before running back Emerson Boozer scored the first touchdown of the game, marking the first time ever that an AFL team had led in the Superbowl.
Boozer’s touchdown would prove to be the only score of the first-half, and as the third quarter wore on the Jets increasingly relied on their running game to eat up as much time as possible. With the Jets’ offence dominating kicker Jim Turner added three consecutive field goals to leave the New Yorkers ahead 16-0 with just over 13 minutes left in the match. Whilst a Jerry Hill touchdown run would reduce the deficit to 16-7 it proved to be a case of too little, too late as the Jets had just enough left in the tank to secure the historic win.
The victory firmly put an end to the belief that the AFL was in any way a “junior league,” a fact further highlighted when the Kansas City Chiefs, once again representing the AFL won Superbowl IV. Whilst the two leagues would complete the merge in 1970, joining together to form the modern two conference NFL, the Jets’ victory meant both leagues entered the new era on an equal footing, whilst also ensuring that Namath could add “psychic” to his list of talents.
Barry Aldworth, Pundit Arena.