September 18, 2013

1965: Namath Sees First Pro Action, But Chiefs Hold Off Jets

The American Football League’s New York Jets were coming off a 5-8-1 record in 1964 and slowly but steadily improving under the guidance of Head Coach Weeb Ewbank. Rookie FB Matt Snell made a big impact on the offense and, in the offseason, the Jets made a big splash by drafting and signing QB Joe Namath out of Alabama. His then-huge $400,000 contract, used to lure him away from the St. Louis Cardinals, the team holding his NFL draft rights, was enough to bring notoriety. While the Jets invested in other rookies, including Heisman-winning QB John Huarte of Notre Dame, it was Namath who got the big publicity and buildup. The only concern was that, while he had tremendous potential, he already had a bad knee that had required surgery.

Ewbank was determined to not rush his star rookie into the lineup and announced that QB Mike Taliaferro, a backup in ’64, would start the 1965 season behind center. Taliaferro went the distance in a Week 1 loss to the Oilers at Houston.

On September 18, 1965 the Jets played their home-opening game against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs, coached by Hank Stram, were 7-7 in ’64 and coming off a bad loss to the Raiders in their first game. The Chiefs had talent but had underachieved since moving from Dallas to Kansas City following a title-winning campaign in 1962. QB Len Dawson was a precision passer who led the AFL in that category for the second time in ’64. Curtis McClinton and Mack Lee Hill were productive running backs. The offensive line was solid and the defense, if all hands stayed healthy, was sound as well.

There was a crowd of 53,658 on hand at Shea Stadium for the Saturday contest. The Chiefs went three-and-out on their first possession and the Jets, getting into scoring territory on a series highlighted by FB Matt Snell’s 15-yard run, came up empty when Jim Turner was short on a field goal attempt.

Neither offense was moving effectively but a pass interference penalty gave the Jets a first down at the Kansas City 15 on their next possession. Mike Taliaferro overthrew flanker Don Maynard twice and was loudly booed by the home fans. This time they got points, however, as Turner booted a 19-yard field goal.

Early in the second quarter, the Jets again failed to move well on offense as Taliaferro missed receivers and Turner suffered a blocked field goal try. But following a punt by the Chiefs, Joe Namath entered the game to an ovation from the crowd.

The first series was quiet as the rookie quarterback handed off three times and the Jets had to punt. Kansas City CB Willie Mitchell returned the kick 54 yards to the New York 30. The Chiefs made the most of the great starting field position five plays later as Len Dawson connected with split end Chris Burford in the back of the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown. Tommy Brooker’s extra point was good and the Chiefs were in front by 7-3.

On the next series for the Jets, Namath immediately went to the air and hit Maynard for 18 yards, but the play was nullified by a holding penalty. Namath’s first official completion was to Snell and actually lost four yards as New York again failed to move effectively and had to punt.

The Chiefs moved the ball well on offense but, with a third down at the New York 47, Dawson was sacked for a 15-yard loss by DT Paul Rochester and they had to punt. The score remained 7-3 at the half.

The Jets started off the third quarter by driving into Kansas City territory, primarily thanks to Snell’s three carries for 21 yards, but dropped passes caused the series to stall and Jim Turner’s field goal try was partially blocked.

Following a trade of punts, the Chiefs had another short series and had to kick the ball away. However, Jerrel Wilson’s punt was deflected back to him by Rochester and his second kick went only 11 yards to give New York the ball at the KC 28. Snell ran for 9 yards on first down but the Jets could get no further. On fourth-and-one, they went for it and Snell was stopped for no gain by DE Jerry Mays and LB Sherrill Headrick.

The Chiefs moved well offensively until the drive finally stalled at the New York 48 early in the fourth quarter and they punted. Namath threw to Maynard for 14 yards but was again victimized by dropped passes. Following a penalty on the Chiefs, the rookie quarterback faded back and had the ball knocked out of his hand by LB Bobby Bell, who recovered and carried to the New York 24. Kansas City wasted no time in capitalizing as on the next play Dawson threw to Burford for a touchdown.

The teams once again traded punts before the Jets put together a scoring drive. Namath threw a pass to split end Bake Turner that gained 10 yards and then, looking deep for Turner again, the Chiefs were called for interference. Namath went long for Maynard and it was complete for a 37-yard touchdown. Jim Turner’s successful conversion made it a four-point game.

The Chiefs managed to eat up valuable time on the following series and the Jets got the ball back with just over two minutes remaining. Namath completed two passes but a long throw on fourth-and-three fell incomplete to effectively end the game. Kansas City held on to win by a score of 14-10.

The statistics reflected the closeness of the score – and the difficulty both offenses had in moving the ball. The Jets led in total yards (231 to 224) and first downs (14 to 9). They also sacked Dawson four times, while allowing just one sack themselves. However, New York gave up the game’s only turnover, and it led to a touchdown for the Chiefs. KC was penalized 7 times, at a cost of 117 yards, while New York was flagged only once. Kansas City also punted the ball 11 times, to just five by the Jets, but Jim Turner was unsuccessful on three of his four field goal attempts.

Len Dawson had a rather ordinary day by his standards as he completed 10 of 20 passes for 118 yards, but two of them were good for touchdowns and none were intercepted. Chris Burford had four catches for 58 yards and both TDs. Mack Lee Hill gained 65 yards on 13 carries and Curtis McClinton added 58 yards on 15 attempts.

For the Jets, Joe Namath was successful on 11 of his 23 passes for 121 yards and a TD, also without an interception. Several of his misses were on target but dropped. Mike Taliaferro was a woeful 4-of-12 for 24 yards. Bake Turner had 5 catches for 41 yards while Don Maynard gained 83 yards on four receptions that included a score. Matt Snell ran the ball 19 times for 82 yards.

Kansas City ended up at 7-5-2 to place third in the AFL Western Division. The Jets continued to struggle, losing two games, tying one, and then losing again before reeling off four straight wins (including one over the Chiefs in their second meeting at Kansas City). They went on to finish second in the Eastern Division, although they cooled off down the stretch and again produced a 5-8-1 record.

Joe Namath took over the starting job at quarterback for all intents, although Mike Taliaferro continued to see action. While Namath completed only 48.2 percent of his passes (he would never have high completion percentages throughout his career), they were good for 2220 yards and 18 touchdowns with 15 interceptions. He received Rookie of the Year recognition and was chosen for the AFL All-Star Game.  The big investment the Jets had made in the quarterback known as “Broadway Joe” would pay off in big years to come.