October 26, 2010

1975: Bert Jones & Colts Overwhelm Jets & Joe Namath

The Baltimore Colts had fallen on hard times since winning the Super Bowl following the 1970 season. Outstanding players like QB Johnny Unitas, HB Tom Matte, TE John Mackey, WR Jimmy Orr, DT Billy Ray Smith, DE Bubba Smith, and safety Jerry Logan were gone. Joe Thomas had been brought in as general manager in order to deconstruct and rebuild, and the rebuilding was moving along far too slowly for Colts fans used to winning. The club had gone 11-31 from 1972-74, and was off to a 1-4 start in 1975 under new Head Coach Ted Marchibroda as they traveled to New York to take on the Jets at Shea Stadium on October 26.

The Jets had fallen on hard times as well. Since winning the AFL title in 1968 and upending the Colts in the Super Bowl, and then making it to the postseason again in ’69, New York had only twice done as well as .500 (including their 7-7 tally in ’74). Weeb Ewbank, the head coach and GM who had built the team into a winner, retired following the ’73 season, and was succeeded by Charley Winner. Franchise QB Joe Namath had suffered through injury-riddled years in 1970, ’71, and ’73, but when healthy he was still productive. He had played out his option and flirted with the World Football League, but Broadway Joe was back for an 11th season at age 32. The club was 2-3 thus far in 1975.

HB Carl Garrett fumbled on each of New York’s first two possessions, thus helping to put the Jets behind by two touchdowns early on. Garrett fumbled initially on the first play from scrimmage, and three plays later Colts QB Bert Jones (pictured above) ran for a 15-yard TD with just over a minute run off the clock. On the fourth play of the next possession, Garrett lost the ball again to set up a two-yard touchdown run by Baltimore RB Don McCauley five plays afterward. The score remained 14-0 at the end of the first quarter.

Early in the second period, the Jets got on the board as Namath tossed a 42-yard touchdown pass to WR Jerome Barkum. However, Jones brought the Colts right back and, on a play in which he scrambled to buy time, hit rookie WR Marshall Johnson with a 15-yard TD pass (it was Johnson’s first NFL catch as well as score).

On the next possession, Namath hit WR Eddie Bell for a 22-yard gain. A pass interference penalty on Colts CB Nelson Munsey gave New York a first down on the one yard line, and Namath threw a short TD pass to Barkum.

With just 24 seconds left in the half, Jones passed the Colts into scoring position and on the last play Toni Linhart booted a 36-yard field goal. Baltimore went into halftime with a 24-14 lead.

In the third quarter, the Colts extended the lead to 31-14 when Jones connected with Johnson again for a 68-yard touchdown. Not to be outdone in the big-play department, the Jets responded with a 91-yard pass play from Namath to TE Rich Caster to the New York one yard line (it was the longest play from scrimmage in the franchise’s history). From there, FB John Riggins fumbled into the end zone where TE Willie Brister recovered for a TD. The Colts led by 31-21 after three quarters.

Namath threw his only interception early in the fourth quarter, and it was a costly one as Colts safety Jackie Wallace returned it 38 yards for a TD and 38-21 lead that essentially sealed the game. Namath threw one more TD pass, of 22 yards to Bell. But later the Jets failed to get a first down on fourth-and-one at their own 20 and the Colts put the final nail in the coffin as RB Lydell Mitchell ran for a touchdown from there. The final score was a decisive 45-28 in favor of Baltimore.

The Colts gained 400 total yards to 341 for the Jets, who were undone by the three key turnovers while Baltimore suffered none. A gritty performance by Joe Namath was wasted – while he completed 19 of 28 passes for 333 yards with three touchdowns and the one interception, he was sacked seven times for 74 yards.

The Jets gained just 82 yards on 28 rushes, as Carl Garrett led the club with 33 yards on 10 carries (which hardly made up for the two early fumbles). John Riggins, who was held to 23 yards on 11 attempts, led the team with 6 catches, for 66 yards. Rich Caster gained 115 yards on three catches while Jerome Barkum added 71 yards on four receptions with two TDs.

Third-year QB Bert Jones gave notice of his steady improvement as he completed 17 of 25 passes for 209 yards with two touchdowns against no interceptions; he also ran for 27 yards on three carries that included a TD. Marshall Johnson (pictured at left) caught three passes for 105 yards and the two scores, while WR Glenn Doughty grabbed 5 for 44 yards and Don McCauley four for 22.

The Colts ran all over the Jets, gaining 212 yards. Lydell Mitchell led the way with 98 yards on 14 attempts and the one TD.

“I threw the ball perfectly today,” said Bert Jones afterward. “The offensive line is the key. It's enabled me to do a lot of things that I want to do. It gives me all sorts of opportunities to throw what I want...and today I did it.” As to Namath, he added, “Joe is the best there is. In fact, I think he's the best there ever was.”

For his part, Namath said, “I was impressed with their front four,” Referring specifically to DE Fred Cook and DT Mike Barnes, he added, “I thought two of them were part of my backfield.”

“We got in a hole early, but the defense has to rise to the occasion, doesn't it?” said a disgusted Coach Charley Winner. “When you have your backs to the wall you have to stop them once in a while and make them settle for a field goal at least. We just simply didn't stop anyone.”

The two teams moved in markedly different directions over the remainder of the year. Baltimore didn’t lose again for the rest of the regular season, a total of nine straight, to win the AFC East with a 10-4 record. The Colts lost to Pittsburgh in the Divisional playoff round. Meanwhile, the Jets won only once more to go 3-11 and tie for last in the division with the Patriots. Charley Winner was dismissed and replaced by Ken Shipp before it was all over.

For Bert Jones, it was a breakout season as he responded well to ex-quarterback Marchibroda’s coaching and the solidifying of the offensive line. He passed for 2483 yards with 18 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions; his 2.3 % interception percentage ranked as the lowest in the NFL. His completion percentage of 59.0 ranked third.

Joe Namath (pictured below) threw for 2286 yards and 15 touchdowns. While his 14.6 yards per completion topped the NFL, so did his 28 interceptions. The weaknesses of the team around him, exposed by the Colts, were too much to overcome.

Marshall Johnson caught just one more pass in 1975 and totaled only five for his three-year NFL career, all with the Colts. He was primarily used as a kick returner in the end.