Wednesday, January 12, 2011

January 12, 1969: Broadway Joe

MIAMI - If you base everything on the results, strip away all context and just look at the man based only on what happened on the football field, Joe Namath was, at best, a below-average quarterback.

He only led the league in touchdown passes once, but led it in interceptions four times, and finished his career with 47 more interceptions than scoring throws. He twice led the league in passing yards, but he also led the league in attempts those seasons, artifically inflating those numbers. The highest passer rating he ever had in a season
was 74.3, which would have placed him better than only four full-time starters in 2010.

Yah, you say, but the game was different back then. It was much more difficult to pass in the 60s and 70s, and nearly every offense was geared around the run. Besides, a true measure of a quarterback's worth is wins and losses.

Fine, we'll go there. Namath played 13 seasons in pro football. He won 10 games exactly twice. He made the playoffs exactly twice. In fact, his career record as a starter is one game below .500. And then there's his lack of durability. He played every game in only six of his 13 seasons, and only played in 140 of a possible 197 games in his career.

No matter how you look at it, the only reason Joe Namath is in the Hall of Fame, the only reason we remember him at all, is one sentence he uttered. At a dinner before Super Bowl III, at which the AFL's Jets were huge underdogs to the NFL's Colts, Namath was being heckled by Baltimore fans. In response, he said "We're gonna win. I guarantee it." And really, what else was he going to say? What starting quarterback is going to face hecklers from the opposing team and say "You're right, we're gonna get our asses kicked. I don't even know why we're going to take the field." Of course he's going to have confidence, or at least display false confidence. He's the quarterback, the team leader.

Of course, the Jets went out and shocked the Colts. They started slowly, but they completely controlled the game. They were up 16-0 by the time the Colts called an aging Johnny Unitas off the bench to try to lead a comeback attempt. Unitas got the Colts one touchdown, but no more. The Jets had won 16-7, the AFL had beaten the NFL in the Super Bowl for the first time, and Namath ran off the field with his index finger in the air and became a football immortal.

Quickly and permanently, Joe Namath became the story of Super Bowl III, became the reason for the Jets upset. But look closer. Namath remains the only quarterback to win the Super Bowl MVP award without throwing a touchdown pass. Sure, he threw for 206 yards, but Matt Snell ran for 121 yards and a touchdown, and the Jets defense was so dominant that Baltimore starter Earl Morrall went 6-for-17 passing with three interceptions. Namath didn't even throw a pass in the fourth quarter as the Jets turned to the ground to run out the clock.

Sure, Namath played a good game in Super Bowl III. I'm not trying to deny him that. But the Jets played so well they probably would have won with Namath's backup in the game, or with any number of other quarterbacks under center. But that's not what's remembered. The memories of this game revolve around Namath's guarantee, one sentence that somehow has turned him into a legend.

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