May 12, 2010

1977: Joe Namath Signs with LA Rams

Joe Namath had brought attention to the New York Jets from the moment he signed with them as a high-priced rookie first draft choice in 1965. Under the tutelage of Head Coach Weeb Ewbank, he had developed into an outstanding quarterback; the high point of his career came when the Jets won the AFL championship in 1968 and then upset the NFL champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.

But after reaching the postseason again in ’69, Namath missed significant time and the Jets fell into mediocrity. While the condition of his knees was an issue from the beginning of Namath’s pro career, he never missed a game due to injury in his first five seasons. But that changed in 1970 and ’71 as he missed a total of 19 contests – to a broken wrist in ’70 and torn knee ligaments in 1971. While he missed just one game (the season finale) in ’72, Namath missed eight games due to a shoulder separation in ’73. He made it through complete 14-game seasons in 1974 and ’75, but missed three more games in 1976. Moreover, while his presence continued to lend respectability to a mediocre team, the physical beating was taking a toll on his performance (he threw 28 interceptions to just 15 TDs in ’75).

The Jets had dropped to 4-10 in 1970 and failed to rise above .500 in any of the ensuing six seasons. Ewbank had retired following the ’73 campaign, but his designated successor, Charley Winner, failed to last through a second season and Lou Holtz, who had been hired away from North Carolina State in ’76, decided to forego the last two years of his contract to return to college coaching at Arkansas.

Richard Todd, like Namath a product of legendary coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s program at Alabama, had been drafted in the first round in ’76. With a new quarterback available (who split time with Namath in his rookie season) and new head coach in Walt Michaels, it appeared time for the 34-year-old veteran to move on. Waived so that he could work out his own deal with another team, Namath signed with the Los Angeles Rams on May 12, 1977.

The Rams had been coached since 1973 by Chuck Knox, who had been offensive line coach with the Jets during Namath’s early years with the club. Knox had been successful in LA, leading the Rams to a 44-11-1 record and division titles in each of his four seasons. However, the team had not made it to the Super Bowl (they had lost the last three NFC title games) and instability at quarterback had been a nagging issue.

Veteran John Hadl had been obtained from the Chargers and performed well in ’73, but was traded away during the 1974 season in favor of James Harris. Ron Jaworski, who led the Rams to a divisional playoff win in ’75 after Harris was injured, joined the mix, as did Pat Haden, a USC product, Rhodes scholar, and WFL refugee who started seven games in 1976.

The team was winning, but the competition at quarterback created problems both on and off the field. Jaworski refused to sign a contract extension, determined to play out his option, and was traded to the Philadelphia Eagles. Harris bridled at being benched in favor of Haden and there was talk of racism among African-American players and fans alike at a less experienced white quarterback replacing a black one with a 21-6 record in his starts (not to mention leading the NFC in passing in ’76). Harris also was dealt away in a trade to San Diego.

Namath was initially listed second on the depth chart behind Haden, but entered the season as the starting quarterback. Alas, any hopes that the brittle veteran could provide the missing element that would take the Rams to a championship were dashed by the fourth week of the season. The team started off 2-1 with Namath directing the offense, but on a cold and rainy Monday night in Chicago he was intercepted four times in a 24-23 loss to the Bears and took a significant beating along the way. It was the final appearance of his Hall of Fame career.

For his last year, Namath ended up with 50 completions in 107 attempts (46.7 %) for 606 yards with three touchdowns and five interceptions. It was an inglorious end for a quarterback who brought so much talent to the football field that, mixed with his off-field exploits and celebrity, made his career a legendary one.