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Lifetime guarantee; Jets-Colts

Joe Namath's boast, and the performance that followed, has more than stood the test of time; Super Bowl III 30th anniversary

By Phil Jackman

Sun Staff

January 12, 1999

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"I guarantee it."

These words may never go down with "Four score and seven years ago," "War is hell" or "Read my lips," but, remembered in proper context, they, too, will not perish from the face of the earth.

Yes, long after the particulars of the New York Jets' monumental, 16-7 upset victory over a long-ago team referred to as the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III are forgotten, quarterback Joe Namath's assurances that the 17-point favorites were going down will shine like a beacon through the ages.

"The guy is crazy," thought Namath's teammate, Jets linebacker Ralph Baker.

"We laughed. We thought it was a joke and maybe that was our problem," recalled Baltimore's all-time tight end, John Mackey.

Pete Lammons of the Jets surmised that "with the whiskey going in there a little faster, Joe decided to tell [the assembled media] what he thought about the whole deal."

"Namath talks too much," grumbled Colts defensive tackle Billy Ray Smith. "He should keep his mouth shut. He'll keep his teeth a lot longer."

This was just one of the choice, bulletin-board items that Broadway Joe unloaded on the public in the half-dozen days leading up to the NFL-AFL confrontation in the Orange Bowl on this day three decades ago.

There was a so-called run-in at a bar with Colts defensive end Lou Michaels as the hour grew late. Jets safety Jim Hudson, with Namath, remembered: "The two of them were arguing about who was the better Catholic, stuff like that. Joe ended up picking up the check and driving them [Michaels and guard Dan Sullivan] back to their hotel."

Namath said Earl Morrall, who led the Colts to a 13-1 record in the regular season in the absence of John Unitas (elbow injury) and the MVP of the NFL, would be the third-stringer behind himself and backup Babe Parilli if he were with the Jets. He ticked off the names of five AFL quarterbacks who were superior to Morrall.

Everything Broadway Joe said short of "pass the salt" made headlines.

"We were in hostile territory. It was all NFL," Lammons said. "Joe was what the writers focused on for the AFL side."

He did not disappoint.

Actually, the Jets sort of sneaked up on people during the 1968 season. They were 11-3 and had piled up the points (419), but they gave up a few (280). Oakland was favored to win the AFL crown and go against the NFL standard-bearer a second straight time, especially after crushing the Kansas City Chiefs in a conference playoff. But the Jets, with good fortune late, posted an upset over the Raiders in the AFL championship game, 27-23.

"The thing that probably got me going on the `guarantee' business and everything else on the week leading up to the game is anger," Namath said just the other day. "You get angry when told you're going to lose, and lose big, day after day. And, you know, anger can be a good thing when you're playing sports."

Also, Namath recalled his team's being favored by a couple of touchdowns against Buffalo and Denver during the season and losing both games.

Besides, Namath and his cohorts had been looking at film of the Colts' banner season, and, even though Baltimore pounded Cleveland in the NFL title game, 34-0, the Jets weren't awed by what they saw.

Lammons uttered the memorable line: "If we watch any more of these [Colts game films], we're going to get overconfident."

Defensive back Johnny Sample, a former Colt, likened the Browns to "a taxi-squad team."

As for Namath, he said: "The only thing that scared me after watching film was that the Colts would change their defense."

What film study indicated to the Jets was that the right side of Baltimore's defense was a weak spot and aging.

Thus, Jets coach Weeb Ewbank's game plan was to run that way. The other part of the plan, dictated by circumstance (a hamstring injury to deep-threat receiver Don Maynard), was for Namath to throw short, quick passes to tight end Lammons and split end George Sauer.

The conservative Jets' plan was a smash. Big and fast Matt Snell had a party running left. He and fellow running back Emerson Boozer, both excellent blockers, protected Namath expertly when he needed it. Sauer looked like a latter-day Raymond Berry all afternoon. Once assuming a 16-0 lead, Namath spent the fourth quarter handing the ball off.

Defense is where it all came to fruition for the Jets, however.

"Our defense was underrated," said Jets guard Dave Herman. "Most of the guys weren't that big, but they were strong. All our backs were signed as free agents, but practicing against Joe all the time and facing the strong passing attacks in the AFL, they became excellent."

The Colts found out how good they were every time they threatened to score. Randy Beverly had two interceptions, Sample one and Hudson one. Some were lucky, coming on tipped passes, but it was as if they knew where Morrall was intending to throw the ball all afternoon.

"I'm always asked if [Colts coach Don] Shula should have yanked Morrall and gone to John Unitas earlier," Namath said. "If Unitas wasn't involved, the question wouldn't even come up. You don't pull an MVP, a guy who led the league in touchdown passes with 26, like Earl did."

In the face of Morrall's performance, particularly on a flea-flicker play in which he failed to spot intended receiver Jimmy Orr all alone near the end zone and threw an interception, the question was being asked late in the first quarter, when the Colts had already blown several opportunities to score.

Estimates are that by halftime and performing reasonably, the Colts should have had a minimum of 16 points, a maximum of 24. Instead, they trailed 7-0.

"I think we would have had a better chance if Unitas was in there earlier," Mackey said. "In any case, right or wrong, the fact is the Jets had been consistent all year, and they certainly were that day. We weren't.

"Distractions hurt us. Our owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, took everybody on the trip but family pets. We had wives, kids, everyone. In our hotel lobby, I remember my son asking me why all these people were around asking some guy to write his name on a piece of paper. It was Frank Sinatra."

Ah, the lament of a losing team. Certainly, the Jets were subjected to at least as much attendant craziness, but Namath indicated distractions and pressure have always been overrated.

"I don't care if it's Beaver Falls, Pa. [his hometown], the University of Alabama [his alma mater] or the pros, from the time you start playing, there's always a `biggest game of your life.' You learn to cope with it."

Clearly, the Colts just happened upon a stinkeroo performance at a most inopportune time. Michaels missed a 27-yard field-goal attempt right off. Interceptions, errant passes and fumbles became the order of the day. Unitas finally got his team a touchdown, but he threw an interception down close, too.

"I thought we could win all along. I thought we were supposed to win," Namath said. "But until you do it, you can't be sure. I'll admit when Unitas came on the field, my heart almost stopped.

"I'll never forget, there was 6: 11 remaining, and I said to myself, `Please, Lord, help us out a little bit here. Get that clock moving.' When the game ended, I felt happy, I felt kiddish. It doesn't seem as if it was 30 years ago, and I know the feeling will be with me the rest of my life."