Forty-three seasons ago, a poised young quarterback and No. 1 draft pick led Baltimore to a division title, only to have his team lose its first game in the NFL playoffs. Still, the 25-year-old wunderkind took NFL Most Valuable Player honors.
Would he have traded his trophy for a postseason run?
“In a heartbeat,” Bert Jones said in late January. And he believes the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson feels the same.
Jones, the second player chosen in the 1973 draft, played for the Colts for eight seasons and helped resurrect a moribund team that would win its division three straight years (1975-1977). The former LSU star put up his best numbers in 1976, passing for a league-leading 3,104 yards and 24 touchdowns in leading the Colts to an 11-3 mark before they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the playoffs.
Teammates endorsed the MVP selection of Jones, who received 41 of 84 votes, having finished with a quarterback rating of 102.5. (Jackson’s rating this year was 113.3.)
“They say Jones is ‘the franchise,’ and he is,” said George Kunz, the Colts’ All-Pro offensive tackle.
Said Colts coach Ted Marchibroda: “I hope he can have the same statistics next season, but he wants to improve them.”
To Ravens fans today, those words sound especially familiar.
Jones is one of three previous NFL MVPs, all quarterbacks, to play for Baltimore teams. Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas won three times (1959, 1964 and 1967) and was the first QB to get the award, which was first handed out in 1957. (The only player to win more is Peyton Manning, with five.)
Publicly, Unitas accepted the honor with typical disdain.
“It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to me if I’m named all this or all that,” he said upon being feted in 1967, having captured 40 of 47 votes. “Winning an award doesn’t help a team on the scoreboard.”
It hadn’t hurt the Colts in 1959, when Unitas guided them to a second straight championship after a regular season in which he passed for 2,899 yards and a league-best 32 touchdowns. Five years later, after several crippling setbacks, he repeated as MVP (2,824 yards passing, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions) though favored Baltimore (12-2) lost the NFL title game to the Cleveland Browns, 27-0.
In 1967, at age 34, Unitas threw for 3,428 yards and 20 touchdowns in leading the best Colts team never to make the playoffs to an 11-1-2 record. Again, the year ended badly, a 34-10 rout in the regular-season finale by the Los Angeles Rams, who advanced to the postseason instead.
Sidelined in 1968, Unitas bowed to Earl Morrall, a 35-year-old journeyman who the team had obtained as his backup. Morrall proved a godsend; the Colts went 13-1 and avenged the 1964 championship loss to Cleveland by thumping the Browns, 34-0, for the crown. Morrall passed for 2,909 yards and 26 touchdowns (a league high) and easily won the MVP with 33 of 48 votes.
It was, he said, “my biggest personal honor. I’m just happy I was able to carry on for the best football team I ever played for when John Unitas came up with an injury."
It marked the only time that two different quarterbacks from the same team have been named MVP back-to-back. Yet even Morrall’s award proved bittersweet. Three weeks later, he erred in Super Bowl III, failing to see receiver Jimmy Orr standing wide open in the end zone in the Colts’ 16-7 loss to the upstart New York Jets.
Unitas died in 2002; Morrall, in 2014. And Jones? At 68, he works at the lumber manufacturing plant he owns near his home in Ruston, Louisiana. His MVP award “is in my momma and daddy’s trophy case in their house down the road.” It’s a keepsake coveted by Jones’ father, Dub, 95, a onetime All-Pro running back for the Browns.
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“I’m thoroughly impressed,” Jones said. “He carried (the Ravens) on his shoulders. If anyone is deserving of (the award), it’s Lamar. He’s a lot better player than me and I wish him well, though I’d encourage him to be more cautious; I worry about him getting hit all the time.”
While Jones has never met Jackson, he offered his kudos: