Days before Super Bowl III, held 50 years ago on Jan. 12, 1969, Joe Namath — the young, brash quarterback for the New York Jets, which belonged to the upstart American Football League — “guaranteed” a win over the Baltimore Colts, of the NFL.
It was a ridiculous thing to say. The Colts were heavily favored to win (by 18 points) and an NFL team — Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers — had already easily won the first two Super Bowls ever played. The Colts were widely expected to continue the NFL’s dominance.
But the Colts were mistake-prone from the outset and could never get their game together. In the opening quarter, Colts kicker Lou Michaels missed a 27-yard field goal. After a fumble recovery deep in Jets territory, quarterback Earl Morrall — a journeyman player acquired when the legendary Johnny Unitas went down with an injury in training camp — threw a pass to tight end Tom Mitchell that deflected off the receiver’s shoulder and was intercepted by New York.
Joe Namath proceeded to guide the Jets on a 12-play, 80-yard drive culminating in a 4-yard touchdown run by Matt Snell; the first points of the game, made 6 minutes into the second quarter.
Later in the second quarter, Michaels missed a 46-yard field goal attempt and a Morrall pass was intercepted at the New York 2-yard line by ex-Colt Johnny Sample. And just before the half, an attempted “flea flicker” play backfired when Morrall threw another interception deep into Jets territory. Thus at halftime, the Colts were down 7-0, when they should have had a three touchdown lead.
After halftime, although Unitas was available to play, Colts Coach Don Shula chose to stay with Morrall, who had led the Colts to a 13-1 regular season record and two playoff victories. But the third quarter was disastrous for Baltimore as the Colts had the ball for barely 4 minutes, losing a fumble, and allowing the Jets to pad their lead with two Jim Turner field goals, upping the margin to 13-0.
Just before the end of the third quarter, Coach Shula replaced Morrall with Unitas. However, without his usual arm strength or accuracy, the task was too much. The Jets added another Turner field goal 4 minutes into the final period to lead 16-0.
Not until three minutes remaining in the game did the Colts score on a 1-yard touchdown run by Jerry Hill. Baltimore executed a successful on-side kick, but were stopped on downs, not getting the ball back again until seconds remaining. The gun sounded, the game ended — a 16-7 Jets victory. Newspapers and television accounts around the country showed the victorious Mr. Namath, arm held up, flashing the “we’re number one” index finger in triumph.
For the established NFL, it was a shock; it was devastating to Baltimore Colts fans — in particular: me, who was 11 at the time. For the AFL, it was vindication, proof that they deserved equal status with the older league. Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom, who had planned an elaborate postgame “victory” party, was left humiliated and placed the blame squarely on Coach Shula, destroying that relationship and leading to the latter’s departure from Baltimore a year later.
A number of ironies occurred in the years following.
The Jets, in the half century since that fateful game, have never returned to the Big Game — nor did Namath ever play in another Super Bowl.
The Colts moved from the NFL (soon to be National Conference) to the former AFL (now AFC) and would win Super Bowl V with Don McCafferty as coach, beating the Dallas Cowboys with Morrall relieving an injured Unitas midgame.
After the 1969 season, Don Shula left to coach Miami, leading the Dolphins to three consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s, including two triumphs in a row, the first (in 1972) being to date, the only undefeated, untied season in NFL history. In that perfect 17-0 season, Miami’s starting quarterback, Bob Griese, went down with an injury during the regular season; Coach Shula then turned to his newly acquired backup who led the Dolphins into the playoffs — a guy named Earl Morrall.
William J. Thompson is a Baltimore historian, teacher and writer. His email is email@example.com.