December 24, 2009

1967: Joe Namath Becomes First 4000-Yard Passer in a Season

The New York Jets finished the 1967 season against the Chargers at San Diego Stadium on December 24, winning 42-31. Third-year QB Joe Namath completed 18 of 26 passes for 343 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. With his second consecutive 300-yard passing game (he threw for 370 yards in a loss at Oakland the previous week), he finished the year with 4007 yards, a new AFL record (Washington’s Sonny Jurgensen bested his own NFL record with 3747 yards that same season).

Namath thus became the first 4000-yard passer in either NFL or AFL history, and the only one to do so in a 14-game season (the record was first broken by San Diego’s Dan Fouts in 1979). Including the Chargers game, he had six 300-yard performances and one of 400 yards during the season. In addition to passing yards, he also led the AFL in pass attempts (491), completions (258), yards per attempt (8.2) and, on the negative side for the second year in a row, interceptions thrown (28). His 26 touchdown passes ranked second.

Overall, the season was a disappointing one for the Jets. After getting off to a 7-2-1 start, New York appeared to be cruising toward the Eastern Division title, but three straight defeats, including a stunning loss at home to the lowly Broncos, knocked them out of contention. Injuries to running backs Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell had a significant effect, forcing the team to over-rely on Namath’s passing and, thus, setting the stage for damaging interceptions as a result. There were also weaknesses in both the defensive line and backfield.

Namath, naturally, was the focus. A celebrity as well as a much-hyped passer out of college, he couldn’t help but draw attention, and his skills were outstanding. At 6’2” and 195 pounds, he had size, plus a strong and accurate arm that was made all the more potent by his quick release. He read defenses well, was a charismatic team leader, and stood tough in the pocket while taking many a hard shot from opposing defensive linemen. At the same time, Namath was not yet a seasoned quarterback, and while he could put up big numbers, he could also be erratic and try to force passes into coverage. In a tie against Houston, he passed for 295 yards but gave up six interceptions.

Namath came into pro football with one bad knee, injured in college; it required surgery before he ever played for the Jets, and again in 1966. Following the ’67 season he underwent surgery on his left, or “good”, knee. The resulting limitation on his mobility made him all the more prone to taking hits, yet he never missed a game because of injury in the five seasons prior to 1970 (after which time missed due to wear and tear increased significantly).

It helped that he had two excellent receivers to throw to: veteran flanker Don Maynard, who caught 71 passes for a league-leading (and career-best) 1434 yards and 10 touchdowns, and third-year split end George Sauer, who led the AFL in pass receptions with 75 and accumulated 1189 yards with six scores.

New York ended up at 8-5-1 and in second place in the Eastern Division, a game behind the 9-4-1 Houston Oilers, who succeeded with a solid ground game and strong defense. Head Coach Weeb Ewbank, who had built a championship team in Baltimore over the course of five seasons in the 1950s, took some heat for the late collapse by the Jets, but all would be forgiven the following season.