September 24, 2010

1972: Namath & Unitas Engage in Epic Passing Duel as Jets Beat Colts

By the 1972 season, QB Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts was 39 years old and in the twilight of his great career. Joe Namath of the New York Jets (pictured above) was ten years younger but had missed most of the previous two seasons due to injuries. After winning the Super Bowl following the ’70 season, the Colts had gone 10-4 in 1971 to make the playoffs as a wild card team, but were now in a transition under a new owner, Bob Irsay, and vice president and general manager, Joe Thomas. New York had fallen under .500 in both 1970 and ’71 without Namath, following the ’68 season that had resulted in an AFL title and Super Bowl victory over the Colts and a division championship in ’69. Age and injuries had taken their toll on both the teams in general and starting quarterbacks in particular.

The Colts and Jets, division rivals since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger, met at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium on September 24, 1972. New York had won its opening game the previous week at Buffalo handily, but more due to the running of second-year FB John Riggins (125 yards on 26 carries) than Namath’s passing (5 completions in 14 attempts for 113 yards with a TD and an interception). Baltimore, meanwhile, had lost dismally to the Cardinals – while Unitas passed for 257 yards, the Colts couldn’t get in the end zone and two passes were intercepted while PK Jim O’Brien misfired on three field goal attempts.

Expectations could not have been great for a high-scoring passing display, but that is what the 56,626 fans in attendance got. Namath set the tone in the first quarter by connecting with diminutive (5’10”, 160-pounds) WR Eddie Bell for a 65-yard touchdown. The extra point attempt was missed, and Unitas responded with a touchdown pass of his own that covered 40 yards to WR Sam Havrilak. O’Brien was successful on the PAT and the Colts held a 7-6 lead at the end of the first quarter.

Baltimore tacked on six more points in the second quarter as O’Brien booted field goals of 14 and 32 yards. The pace of the scoring sped up as the Jets responded with a 67-yard touchdown pass play from Namath to Riggins that was quickly followed by Baltimore’s RB Don McCauley returning the ensuing kickoff 93 yards for a TD. Namath struck again to knot the score at 20-20 with a 28-yard touchdown pass to WR Don Maynard. Broadway Joe’s fourth TD pass of the half, a mere 10-yard toss to TE Rich Caster, provided the Jets with a 27-20 lead at halftime.

The tide receded a bit in the third quarter, which was marked only by Bobby Howfield kicking a 14-yard field goal to put the Jets ahead by 10 points. But in the fourth quarter, McCauley ran in for a Colts TD from a yard out to make it a three-point game. Namath followed with a 79-yard touchdown pass to Caster. Unitas connected with HB Tom Matte for a 21-yard touchdown, but Namath iced the cake by again throwing to Caster, this time for an 80-yard TD that provided the final score of 44-34.

“I know it sounds dumb, but I’ve had better days throwing the ball,” said Namath afterward. While he completed just 15 of his 28 passes, they went for an astounding 496 yards with six touchdowns against one interception.

Rich Caster gained 204 yards on six catches with three touchdowns. Eddie Bell added another 197 yards on 7 receptions with a score. Don Maynard and John Riggins each caught one pass apiece, for touchdowns of 28 and 67 yards respectively; Riggins also was the leading rusher with 87 yards on 21 carries.

It all overshadowed an outstanding effort by Johnny Unitas (pictured at left), who completed 26 of 45 passes for 376 yards with two TDs and no interceptions. Tom Matte was the leading rusher, with 42 yards on nine carries, and also caught the most passes, with 9 for 69 yards and a TD. The converted halfback Sam Havrilak gained 115 yards on four receptions with a touchdown, and TE Tom Mitchell was right behind with 114 yards on 8 catches.

The game proved to be the last great performance for Unitas in Baltimore. While the Colts shut out Buffalo the next week, they proceeded to lose the next four games. After a 21-0 loss to the Cowboys in Week 5, GM Thomas fired Head Coach Don McCafferty, who had refused to bench Unitas – John Sandusky, the interim head coach, was ordered to do so and the nondescript Marty Domres started at quarterback ahead of the all-time great for the remainder of the year. It was the conclusion of an outstanding era for Unitas and the Colts. Baltimore ended up with a 5-9 record for third place in the AFC East.

The Jets finished second in the division with a 7-7 tally. Joe Namath stayed healthy enough to start all but one game and led the NFL in passing yards (2816), touchdown passes (19, tied with Washington’s Bill Kilmer), yards per attempt (8.7), and yards per completion (17.4).