January 12, 2010

1969: Jets Upset Colts in Super Bowl III

Certainly one of the most famous games in pro football history, the shocking upset in Super Bowl III by the AFL champion New York Jets over the Baltimore Colts, who had rolled over the competition in winning the NFL title, served as a coming-of-age for the younger league.

The first two Super Bowls, following the 1966 and ’67 seasons, had been fairly routine wins for the NFL champion Green Bay Packers, and there was some feeling that the AFL teams simply weren’t ready to compete with the established league at the highest level of play. The matchup between the 1968 league champions looked to be even more of a mismatch.

The Colts, under Head Coach Don Shula, had gone 13-1 in winning the Coastal Division and proceeded to win both the Western Conference title game over the Vikings and league championship over Cleveland with relative ease. They had lost their all-time great quarterback, Johnny Unitas, to a sore elbow early in the going, but veteran backup Earl Morrall had stepped in and delivered an MVP performance. The team was sound on both sides of the ball.

The Jets were under the direction of the same head coach who had built Baltimore into a champion in 1958 and ’59, Weeb Ewbank. QB Joe Namath (pictured at right) was flashy and a celebrity off of the field, but while his numbers were down from his 4000-yard passing performance of 1967, he had shown greater maturity in directing the offense in ’68. The running back tandem of FB Matt Snell and HB Emerson Boozer kept defenses honest, while Namath had excellent receivers in flanker Don Maynard and split end George Sauer. They defeated the Raiders in the AFL Championship game for the opportunity to play against the Colts.

While much has been made of Namath’s brash remarks prior to the game, in which he publicly degraded Morrall’s skills and guaranteed a win, it was Ewbank’s game planning that set the stage for the upset by the 17-point underdogs. The Colts had blitzed very effectively during the season in support of their zone defense, and the Jets planned to counter by running the ball straight ahead and utilizing simple hook and flare passes.

It was overcast with temperatures in the seventies at Miami’s Orange Bowl on January 12, 1969 as the two teams faced off. The Jets established the run in the first two plays from scrimmage, with Snell gaining 12 yards and knocking safety Rick Volk out of the game. Playing cautiously, they didn’t score in the first quarter, but set the stage for eventual success. Meanwhile, the Colts drove to the New York 19 yard line on their first possession, but Lou Michaels missed a 27-yard field goal attempt.

It was the first of many missed opportunities for Baltimore. A fumble by Sauer was recovered by LB Ron Porter at the Jets 12, but Morrall’s ensuing pass to TE Tom Mitchell hit the receiver in the shoulder and it resulted in an interception by CB Randy Beverly to end the threat. TE John Mackey dropped a potential TD pass at the New York 10, and Michaels followed up with another missed field goal attempt. A 58-yard run by HB Tom Matte (pictured below) that took the Colts inside the Jets 20 was shortly followed by an interception by CB Johnny Sample. Most notably, a flea flicker play (Matte faking a run and pitching back to the quarterback) in which split end Jimmy Orr was wide open in the end zone and waving frantically ended up being an interception when Morrall failed to see him, threw for FB Jerry Hill instead, and was picked off by safety Jim Hudson.

Meanwhile, the Jets put together the only scoring drive of the first half in the second quarter. They went 80 yards in 12 plays, with Snell carrying the ball six times and accounting for 35 yards, including the touchdown run of four yards. Namath completed four of five passes during the drive as well, for 43 yards. The score stood at 7-0 in favor of the Jets at halftime.

New York scored on two Jim Turner field goals in the third quarter, from 32 and 30 yards, and was up by 16-0 in the fourth quarter when he booted a nine-yarder. The Colts offense had turned the ball over on its first possession of the second half, leading to the first of the three-pointers by the Jets. Morrall was pressing and missing on his passes; Coach Shula finally decided that it was time to send the rusty, 35-year-old Johnny Unitas into the game (pictured directing the Colts offense below).

Now down by more than two touchdowns, it seemed as though the Unitas magic was working when he engineered an 80-yard drive in 15 plays that resulted in a one-yard TD run by Hill. There was only 3:19 on the clock at this point, but the Colts recovered an onside kick and Unitas completed three passes, leading the offense to the Jets 19. Any thought of a remarkable comeback ended there, however, as three straight passes went incomplete, including a last one on fourth-and-five that effectively ended the game. The final score was 16-7.

Statistically, the overall numbers were very close with the Jets barely edging the Colts in total yards (337-324) and net passing yards (195-181); Baltimore had a one-yard edge in rushing yardage (143 on 23 carries to 142 on 43), although 58 of their rushing yards came on the one run by Matte and the far greater number of carries by the Jets gives evidence to their ability to control the ball for extended periods. Perhaps most important of all, the Colts turned the ball over five times, the Jets just once.

While Joe Namath didn’t throw any touchdown passes, he also didn’t toss any interceptions and shrewdly ran the offense, completing 17 of 28 passes for 206 yards; he was named the game’s MVP. WR Don Maynard was playing injured and caught no passes while providing an effective decoy; George Sauer profited, catching 8 passes for 133 yards. Matt Snell (pictured at top) had an outstanding day running the ball, accumulating 121 yards on 30 carries that included the lone TD for the Jets.

Earl Morrall’s difficulties were reflected in his passing statistics: 6 completions in 17 attempts for 71 yards and three interceptions. In his quarter of action, Johnny Unitas completed 11 of 24 passes for 110 yards with one picked off. Tom Matte was the top rusher for the Colts, gaining 116 yards on 11 attempts. Flanker Willie Richardson was the team’s leading receiver with 6 catches for 58 yards.

Afterward, Don Shula summed up by saying, “We didn’t make the big plays we have all season. We just didn’t do it…They deserved the victory”.

For the Jets, it was the high point in the franchise’s history. Joe Namath had lived up to the hype and performed admirably in the biggest game of his career. Weeb Ewbank had prepared his team well to take on the Colts, capping his second successful building project as a pro football head coach. New York’s win was especially a triumph for those who had founded and built the American Football League; with full merger on the horizon, they had proved they could compete head-to-head with the NFL’s best teams.