(The Jets’ offensive line giving Joe Namath time to make a pass in Super Bowl III)
Bob Lederer is the author of a new book on the Super Bowl III Champion New York Jets, Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl TEAM That Changed Football (Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover, $27.99)
Lederer tells the story of how the Jets, the American Football League champions, stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Colts of the National Football League, on January 12, 1969.
Jets quarterback Joe Namath, known to all as “Broadway Joe,” became synonymous with victory after the upset win, but Lederer looks at the team as a whole in this work timed for the 50th Anniversary of the Jets’ historic victory.
Members of the 1968-69 Jets share their often funny, poignant, and insightful personal personal stories about their teammates. They also reflect on how the team evolved from being part of a so-called “Mickey Mouse” league, through the sudden transformation caused by the signing and introduction of Namath on America’s sporting scene.
Fullback Matt Snell wrote the foreword of Beyond Broadway Joe representing the offensive side, and linebacker/defensive end Gerry Philbin wrote one for the defensive unit. There is also a complete roster of the 1968-69 Jets and Lederer gives biographies of each coach and player, plus a play-by-play of Super Bowl III.
Beyond Broadway Joe is one of the most detailed books you will read on the Jets’ championship team, a must-have for Jets diehards, as well as anyone interested in the role this team played in the history of professional football.
I had the opportunity to catch up with Lederer recently, and here is some of our conversation:
JS: It is incredible to think that the Jets have only been in one Super Bowl and it arguably was the most consequential one in history.
BL: That’s the irony of the whole thing. I don’t think the Giant-New England Super Bowl is to be sneered at, but that was the second greatest upset in Super Bowl history because those two guys played four weeks before, and it had been a very close game. I don’t think the fact that the Giants beat them in a Super Bowl was as shocking.
I was 16 the day the Jets won the Super Bowl. If they never win another Super Bowl, that’s okay with me because I saw them do it already.
JS: Describe what the Jets franchise was like from their inception until they won Super Bowl III.
BL: The Titans were the Jets’ predecessors and they played in the Polo Grounds. You really have to read the first couple of chapters in the book to get an idea of what a sad situation that was because the Polo Grounds had not been kept up after the baseball Giants moved to San Francisco, and it hadn’t been rehabbed, from what I read, since 1911. So, the Titans played there in ’60, ’61, ’62, and the expectation was that Shea Stadium was going to be ready in ’62. It was not because of terrible weather one winter and then there was a union strike, and that stopped the construction. So, after the Titans were bought out at a bankruptcy court by the Jets, by Sonny Werblin and his co-owners, the Jets had to play at the Polo Grounds for a year.
Sonny Werblin was a great marketer, and I emphasize great, and he knew how to market anything. He had a TV background, and he was known as “Mr. Entertainment.” He was the agent to the stars. Just as a handful, he was the agent to Abbott and Costello; he was the agent for Jack Benny; he was the agent to Gregory Peck and Elizabeth Taylor; he was the agent for Alfred Hitchcock, among many other Hollywood and Broadway stars. He not only had them under contract and was managing their careers, but he was also building television programs around them and selling it to the networks.
That went on through the ’50s, then Congress stepped in in the early ’60s and basically told MCA – Music Corporation of America – where Werblin was working, he was the number 3 guy there, that you can’t have a monopoly where you own the talent and the programming. So, Werblin left MCA and he formed a syndicate, five people altogether, guys who were basically racing track buddies, and they bought the Jets.
As I said before, they had to play one year at the Polo Grounds, and as good as Werblin was with marketing, he couldn’t get people to come see the Jets in the Polo Grounds, either. Admittedly, they didn’t have much of a team, but the very next year, 1964, when they moved into Shea Stadium, they went from averaging like seven or eight thousand season tickets to over 30,000 season tickets, so it really made a difference where they were playing.
The Jets were a terrible football team at the start because the Titans had little or no talent. Still, four guys on the Titans that made it from ’63, when the Jets had their first training camp and had like 30-something Titans players in camp – to the Super Bowl, Don Maynard and Bill Mathis, Curley Johnson, and Larry Grantham. The key to their success is that they each got better each year. They were playing against horrible competition in the beginning, but the AFL competitiveness got better and better year by year as more and more college players got convinced with a lot of money to come play in the American Football League.
I only went to one game at Shea Stadium my whole life, a football game. I remember it was 1967, and I was up in the “bleed seats” behind what would have been first base. It was freezing cold, and the wind was blowing Joe Namath’s passes all over the place. The players told me that they had a distinct home advantage because they knew where some of the unique areas in the ballpark were. For instance, I think it was the end zone behind home plate. The right corner was 11 feet lower than where the uprights were. The Jets knew that and it helped their quarterback because if he didn’t compensate for it, passes would fly really high over the head of a receiver. Then you had the opposite side of the field, out in the outfield, and you had the wind, and they changed direction all the time.
Jim Turner was the Jets’ field goal kicker, and he set a professional football points scoring record in 1968-69 that was never broken in 14 games. It didn’t get broken until there was a 16-game season. He told me how he and (Head Coach) Weeb Ewbank spent every week kicking from all over the field getting ready for that weekend’s game and trying to figure out the adjustments he had to make. It’s interesting about what Weeb taught him. Weeb wasn’t just a great quarterbacks coach, as he was with Johnny Unitas and later with Namath, but he was an outstanding kicking coach and Turner gives him all the credit in the world for his kicking prowess.
Ewbank could also basically coach any position on the field. He had been the defensive line coach with the Cleveland Browns, much to his chagrin, but he learned how to coach that too. The guy was really a very good all-around coach.
JS: Jets Coach and General Manager Weeb Ewbank employed a secret personnel evaluation system. While coaching college football in the late 1940s, Ewbank deployed a ratings system for each of his players. Every starting player on offense and defense was rated from “0” to “5” on every play. That statistical report was complemented by a comprehensive written evaluation of the players’ strengths and weaknesses. Ewbank employed that two-tier system with the Jets, which produced never-before-seen revelations. Would you say Ewbank was ahead of his time with this?
BL: Well, he was ahead of his time – nobody else was doing that. Charley Winner, who was his son-in-law and the guy who replaced him as the coach in 1974, I think it was, told me that nobody was doing the statistical work that Weeb Ewbank was doing on every single player, and Weeb hadn’t even done what I would call the personnel evaluations, the evaluations he dictated to his secretary, who typed them out. One is shown in the book, but they’re widely quoted in the book. His statistical charting of the players, every single play, had started in his first college coaching job, which was at Washington University in St. Louis in the late ’40s. We talk in the book about the fact that his won-loss record is very ordinary, I think he’s one game over .500, 130-129, but he built two franchises, first the Colts in Baltimore and then the Jets in New York, essentially from scratch, with little or no talent, and the talent he did have, he, the word is ‘coached up.’ He made guys who were pretty decent players into stars.
JS: Was that true about the 1968 Jets?
BL: Oh yeah, it was true, I’ll give you an example. Don Maynard was a great receiver in the American Football League before the Titans became the Jets. Weeb Ewbank’s first evaluation of Don Maynard was he was a talented guy but ordinary because he had no discipline, didn’t reliably catch the ball, and he didn’t block – he was very skinny, so he couldn’t block. Over the next two, three years, through the guidance really of Clive Rush, who was the offensive coordinator, Maynard developed into a Hall Of Fame receiver.
JS: There are so many connections between the Colts and the Jets. Was it almost fate that they would meet in a Super Bowl?
BL: The first connection is really quite remarkable, and that is that the AFL teams each had exclusive rights to all players cut by one selected NFL team, and each team in the AFL had their choice. The Titans picked the Baltimore Colts, probably because the Colts had won two NFL championships in a row a couple of years earlier, and they were likely to cut some talented backup players. But there wasn’t one guy I could find from the Baltimore Colts roster in ’60, ’61, or ’62 that the Titans picked up and brought into their camp to try out.
That was the first link, and obviously the most recent link is the Jets trading the first round pick and two second round picks to the Indianapolis Colts to get the rights to who turns out to be Sam Darnold.
JS: Speaking of Sam Darnold, you see all the hype that he is the Jets’ best quarterback since Namath. Do you think it’s true?
BL: Yes, I do. I also think there’s something else that I’ve brought up, and nobody else is really picking up on it. If you go all the way back to Namath, Sam Darnold is the first number-one rated college quarterback to come out, go to the pros, and the Jets pick him…They’ve had Richard Todd and they’ve had Mark Sanchez, and they had Pat Ryan, a whole bunch of guys, Chad Pennington, but not until they picked Darnold, that was only the second time in their history that the number-one rated quarterback came to the Jets. Thank you Cleveland Browns for taking Baker Mayfield. I was thanking God that night…This offensive line, which is not that good, when they give him time, he’s really sharp and he’s a rookie. You don’t expect that from rookies.
In fact, here’s another interesting thing about the early Jets. In those days in the ’60s, the rule of thumb basically was that when a college quarterback came out, no matter how good they were, they were expected to stand on the sideline and hold the clipboard for four years because they weren’t making any money, it didn’t matter. But Namath came in, and the hoopla and the money he was getting and the fact that Sonny Werblin was promoting him, and he was even pushing Weeb to put him in the lineup sooner, but Weeb wouldn’t do it until he was ready. I think he started the fourth game of the season in 1965, and they won the Super Bowl in his fourth year.
JS: Perhaps the moment Namath is most famous for is when he guaranteed the victory in Super Bowl III, which did not please Jets Head Coach Weeb Ewbank. What was it like getting his teammates to comment on this?
BL: The veteran players had all the confidence in the world that they were going to win the game and watched the film of the Colts, and they saw real chinks in the armor of the Colts, supposedly the greatest team of all-time, and a completely swarming and dominating defense. They saw things they could easily do against the Colts from the film, and in retrospect, with all the other information I read about the Colts, it made sense. In the two weeks before the game, the media focus and attention was on how this was going to be such a lopsided game and that the Jets shouldn’t even bother showing up because they’re going to be embarrassed. I didn’t think that this Jets team was as good as the Kansas City or the Oakland teams that had been in the first two Super Bowls. They had some ability to do things that those other teams didn’t. I mean, their offensive line just blocked much better for Namath than Kansas City had for Len Dawson and Oakland had for Daryle LaMonica.
There was a player in the AFL who told me, and I talked to a number of guys that played against this Jets team, and he told me that he bet $5,000 on the Jets, and he said it was because Namath could read defenses. Joe would be able to dissect Baltimore and be able to do damage against them. And he didn’t know what I found out in the book about the fact that the Jets realized early in the game that the offensive systems, even the numbering system between the two teams, was identical, because (Colts Head Coach Don) Shula, when Weeb had been fired in Baltimore, and Shula replaced him, didn’t change anything except the direction of play. So a play in Baltimore was an identical number in New York, but the play in Baltimore went to the left and the play in New York went to the right. The Jets figured that out early in the first quarter of the game, and Namath audibled to basically send players on the Colts on defense in the wrong direction. The minute they took a step in the wrong direction, he switched the play and went in the opposite direction, and that’s why Baltimore was always a step or two behind on defense…The end of the game, somebody showed me last week, Unitas figured it out, but it was with three minutes left in the game. He went to Shula and was calling the Jets plays as they came to the line of scrimmage. He had figured it out. By the way, the original NBC broadcast is on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RW5GnZCxqIw
JS: One thing that was interesting about Namath was how flashy he was at a time when not everyone was.
BL: Joe was a great football talent, he was tough as nails. He had terrible knees, he had to take injections and have his legs wrapped just to get on the field, but he was also packaged as a celebrity and a sex symbol. In fact, there’s a professor I saw who wrote a paper that compared Namath and Johnny Unitas, not as football players, but as societal figures, and they were polar opposites. You’re talking about Unitas, who was as square as you could be, all the way up to his crew cut, and Namath, who had long hair and sideburns and a goatee, and just was flash. Sonny Werblin, the owner, would tell the media each night where Joe would be as far as the nightclub circuit, who he would be escorting around, and there are some pictures of him with Raquel Welch that would just knock your eyes out.
JS: What were your motivations in writing this book? What did you want to highlight about this Jets championship that people didn’t already know?
BL: One of my reasons for the book, and I’ve always been a Namath fan, but I was a bigger fan of Emerson Boozer and Gerry Philbin. The other guys on that roster did not get their due. For the last 50 years, if somebody says ‘Super Bowl III,’ the immediate response is ‘Joe Namath’s game.’ And again, there were 39 other guys on the field with Joe that day. Right after the game, Joe emphasized that it wasn’t just him, and yet we live in a world of 15-second sound bites, so if you were to talk to Joe for a TV or radio segment, and you could only use something from him for 15 seconds, chances are you would ask him to recount what happened in Super Bowl III, and you would never get to the point where he would tell you how beautifully they blocked for him, and the catches that George Sauer made, and the fact that Matt Snell ran like a bull who had been released from a cage and that no one guy could stop him. That’s really what drove me to write this book, I could say set the record straight and give these guys their due 50 years after the fact
JS: Fullback Matt Snell was as key to the Super Bowl III victory as anyone, as he ran for a record 121 rushing yards, and some feel he should have been named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Snell and halfback Emerson Boozer’s Super Bowl rings say “19 straight” on the inside, the play that Baltimore had no answer for. Snell was the first number-one pick ever to sign with the Jets, and he earned the Jets’ first AFL Rookie of the Year honors in 1964, a year he also led the team in rushing and finished second in receiving. Snell is the fourth-leading rusher in Jets history with 4,285 yards. What did you learn from your conversations with him?
BL: There’s a couple of big ‘ah hahs’ in that chapter on Snell, and the one that people focus on is the end of it because for years and years, people have wondered why is Matt Snell angry at the Jets? Why won’t he go to their reunions? Why won’t he participate in a Ring of Honor ceremony where they’re inducting him? I truly relate to what Matt is talking about, about having promises made and not kept, and I relate to what he says and what he feels, and I think he’s in the right. I think the fact that this Sunday (when the Jets will honor the 50th anniversary of the Super Bowl III champions), there’s a 99.9 percent probability that he’s not gonna be there is an incredible shame for the people who matter the most, the fans.
JS: The biggest impact of Super Bowl III was that it led to the merger of the AFL and the NFL. It also may have saved the existence of several AFL teams. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers thoroughly defeated the AFL representation in the first two Super Bowls in 1967 and 1968. With the Colts expected to follow suit, some Jets players heard rumors that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle was considering not including some financially strapped AFL franchises.
BL: The merger was going to happen regardless. The final chapter explains some of the things the NFL was thinking about if the Jets had been beaten as badly as Kansas City and Oakland…Let’s put it this way, the AFC and NFC as we know it today would not exist if the Jets had been beaten badly…It’s remarkable, and young people don’t realize it today, there was serious talk about getting rid of the weakest AFL franchises, which were the Patriots and Denver Broncos
JS: To close, what was it like to talk to get into contact and work with the members of the 1968 Jets?
BL: It was a pleasure- in some cases, it was an honor, and in other cases, I made some incredible friendships. The players were extremely giving. I would call them and tell them that I’ve been a fan of the team since 1963 and I remember when you did this or that or the other thing, and they were touched on a personal level – even bad stuff. Bill Baird was their starting free safety and I remember in the ’60s, I would buy Street and Smith’s football magazine and the Sporting News football magazine and all these other things to get ready for the season, and they would always write, ‘This has to be the year the Jets finally replace Billy Baird at safety.’ And I told Billy, ‘that’s what I most remember about you,’ and he laughed. And I said, ‘so how is it that you were one of the two defensive players who appeared in the first Jets game in 1963 and was still there, for the Super Bowl game?’ And he still holds the record for career interceptions by a defensive back with the Jets. They were just a pleasure, and talking about Matt Snell. Everybody said to me, ‘you talked to Matty? He talked to you?’ because he doesn’t talk to the media and I was fortunate to make the right kind of connections, and I can call Matt and we can talk whenever we feel like doing it, and it’s very normal, just like two guys talking, and a lot of times, it’s not just about football.