(Joe Namath during Super Bowl III)
Fifty years ago this weekend, the New York Jets, then of the American Football League, stunned the heavily favored Baltimore Colts of the National Football League, in Super Bowl III on January 12, 1969.
Jets quarterback Joe Namath, known to all as “Broadway Joe,” became synonymous with victory and was transformed into a household name.
In the new book Beyond Broadway Joe: The Super Bowl TEAM That Changed Football (Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers; hardcover, $27.99), Bob Lederer gives a behind-the-scenes account that looks beyond Namath’s role in the win, and at the Jets team as a whole, something that has not been done before.
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 his offensive teammates, and 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 the most detailed book you will read on the full Jets’ championship team, a must-have for Jets diehards, as well as anyone interested in the instrumental role this team played in the history of professional football.
With the Golden anniversary upon us, I caught up with Lederer about what you can find about Super Bowl III in his comprehensive book.
Here is the YouTube link of the NBC broadcast:
“The 50th anniversary begins with ‘The Guarantee,'” Lederer said, referring to how Joe Namath declared the Jets would win at an awards banquet three nights before the Super Bowl, Thursday, January 9, 1969.
Jason Schott: What were your thoughts of the Super Bowl and the keys to the Jets big victory?
Bob Lederer: The Jets were not just underdogs in Super Bowl III–but also in the AFL Championship Game, even though they hosted the game at Shea Stadium. I think the Raiders were just-under a seven-point favorite in that game.
As for the Super Bowl, tickets for the game were $12.00. Namath called an estimated 50 percent of the Jets offensive plays without a huddle at the line of scrimmage, and here’s the big ‘ah-ha!’ from the book, or as I like to say, ‘it’s how Joe snookered the Colts’ defense.’ The Jets watched the film as the Colts watched the film of each other leading up to the game, but there’s no audio as you watch the film–and that became very key on Super Bowl Sunday.
When Jets Head Coach Weeb Ewbank left Baltimore after he was fired in early 1963 and came to the Jets, he obviously took his offensive and defensive systems with him to New York and incorporated it into the Jets franchise. Nobody knew until that Super Bowl game that day that (Colts Head Coach) Don Shula had decided to keep Weeb’s offense and defense, too. Although, what Shula did on his offensive plays was reverse their direction; a play call for the Jets in New York to run the ball to the left would go to the right in Baltimore. That was the one change that Shula had made.
The Jets came out on the field for Super Bowl III and, sometime in the middle of the first quarter or so, Weeb Ewbank and the Jets offensive coordinator Clive Rush figured out that the Colts were running the same offense and defense as the Jets were running. They called Namath and the center, John Schmitt, over and told them that–and that is when Joe started running these non-huddle plays, which they called ‘check with me.’ The Jets would huddle up, but Joe wouldn’t call a play; they’d go right to the line of scrimmage and Joe would make play calls there.
Everyone has always reported that Joe would go to the line and observe the Baltimore defense and watch them shift their, linebacker and safety who were known to blitz quite a bit. Most people have reported that Joe would watch them shift and then he would call a play, but here is what I found out and reported for the first time. Joe barked out signals and the Colts had the same feeling that the Jets did, that, boy, these play calls sound awfully familiar–the color codes and the plays themselves. Joe actually barked out plays that sent the linebacker and safety going in one direction or the other because the Colts thought ‘the Jets will run to the right,’ or ‘the Jets will run to the left.’ The minute the linebacker and safety started to shift one or two steps in that direction, Namath would immediately, and I mean immediately, change the play, basically execute the same play in the opposite direction.
If you can just imagine, when you’re a professional football player, if you can get a one- or two-step advantage on the other guy, the opposition will have a lot of trouble stopping you. You’ve got that step or two advantage–and it’s one of the reasons that the Jets, particularly, had so much success running the ball that day. The Colts linebackers were duped by Joe into moving in the opposite direction of Namath’s play calls. In fact, I read after the book came out that, by the end of the game, Johnny Unitas was calling the Jets plays from the sidelines as he watched the Jets come to the line of scrimmage.
JS: Can you spot that at all in the broadcast?
BL: You can’t because Al DeRogatis and Kyle Rote, who were doing the color for the game, they didn’t really understand what was going on, and in fact, nobody has ever reported it in the 50 years since the game. John Schmitt and Namath himself are the only ones still around that can tell you that that’s what happened. Namath didn’t talk to me, but John Schmitt told me what I just passed on to you. It’s in his chapter in the book, and I went back to him a second, maybe a third time and said, ‘are you sure?’ and John said, ‘yes, that’s exactly what happened.’ They basically got the Colts to go in the wrong direction, and he said Baltimore never really figured out what Joe was doing. I talked to Bobby Boyd, who was the Colts’ left cornerback, very nice guy, (he passed away in August 2017), and he told me, ‘ we never figured out what Joe was doing, and he seemed to know everything we were doing.’
JS: Did that mean the Jets’ defense discovered the same thing, that they knew just what the Colts’ offense was running?
BL: Jets linebacker Larry Grantham, who died I guess a year and a half ago, told me driving to practice every day to and from Shea, (flanker) Don Maynard and Curley Johnson, who was the punter and a backup running back, were in the car. Grantham also had Bill Baird, who was a safety, in the car, and the four were always talking about their offense and defense. Grantham told me, and so did Baird, that, yeah, we saw similarities pretty quickly in the Colts’ offense and the Jets’ offense. I don’t think it was as pronounced to them as it was to the offensive unit, but they certainly made use of tendencies. In fact, there was one play in particular that I watched and pointed out to people over and over again, where Grantham is at right linebacker and he’s listening to the play call that (Colts quarterback) Earl Morrall is making, and his hands are moving and his feet are moving in place. It was clear he knew what was coming, and the minute the ball was snapped, Larry raced to the right sideline where the Colts fullback Jerry Hill was going to take a screen pass. And Grantham, who Hill outweighed by 45 pounds, was waiting for him and Grantham and just took him down. So, I do think the Jets’ defense was helped out by that knowledge from playing their own offense during the regular season.
JS: They shut out the Colts until there were just three minutes left in the game. This was an offense that was so revered, it had to be a shock to see. Would say the Jets’ defensive performance was the best ever?
BL: No, but it was the only time that season that the Colts were shut out at halftime, and the fact they didn’t score for the first 57 minutes was to the Jets’ credit. I think you have to give a proper tip of the cap to what was going on that day. I mean Earl Morrall came down to Earth from what he had been the entire season. Morrall started that season as a backup quarterback on the Giants, and they traded him to the Colts to be a backup to Unitas, but Unitas got hurt (a terrible elbow injury, I think) and only started one game that year, and that’s the only one the Colts lost during the regular season.
Morrall played like gangbusters all year, and I have read, I didn’t put it in the book, that some Colts players were talking to themselves before the game and saying, ‘let’s hope that Earl doesn’t wake up today and realize what’s going on.’ He didn’t have a good game, and it might be because the Jets’ defense was a little bit different from what Baltimore was used to. Defensive coordinator Walt Michaels just did a couple of things that were very unusual for a professional football team in those days, and it had to have thrown Morrall off.
There was some good luck and bad luck, too. I have heard people say that the Jets got lucky with four interceptions and a fumble recovery. But Billy Joe, who was injured that day and was the second string fullback, went on to have a tremendous coaching career in black college football. In fact, only Grambling’s coach Eddie Robinson won more black college football games than Billy Joe. When Billy and I talked, he emphasized that having luck makes a difference when you’re prepared to take advantage of those situations. I mean there’s no glue that forces that intercepted pass not to get dropped.
The Colts dropped two Namath passes that could have turned the game around that day. Johnny Sample made his interception, and Randy Beverly made his two interceptions, and Jim Hudson made his important interception, and Ralph Baker recovered a fumble. Four of the five took place in the red zone. They are really to the Jets’ defense’s credit.
As I wrote in the book, the story that really has not resonated enough for 50 years is how great the Jets defense was that day…
The week after the Super Bowl, the Jets sent 11 players to the AFL All-Star Game. That’s how good they were. You know, Snell didn’t go to the AFL All-Star Game, and there were some others. They could have probably sent another half-dozen guys, but they weren’t going to send the entire Jets team to take on the AFL West team.
JS: What is the legacy of the 1968 Jets?
BL: It’s a team to remember. I grew up in New York in the ’60s, and even though I was a Mets fan, I always recognized the greatness of the great Yankee teams over the years, and particularly the ’27 Yankees because that was considered for the longest time the greatest baseball team of all time. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs that year, Lou Gehrig hit 47 or 48. They were just a juggernaut, and if you’re a Jets fan, the Super Bowl team of ’68-69 is the greatest team that they’ve ever fielded, and you have to give Weeb Ewbank a tremendous amount of credit because he not only picked the guys he wanted for the team–he made all the draft decisions–but he brought in a sterling assistant coaching staff that coached these guys up.
In writing this book, I really learned even more so than ever before how important it is to take a very talented and promising amateur collegiate player and the time you dedicate to them to be a terrific pro – it’s not automatic. If you have natural skills like Lawrence Taylor, the job is not that difficult, but 99 percent of the guys who play well in pro football are not that talented, so you have to teach them the tricks of the trade and the Jet coaches did a fantastic job doing that. They would have gone to the Super Bowl again the next year if they didn’t have so many injuries.
JS: Would you say the assistant coaches got the credit they deserved at that time, much the way coordinators do now?
BL: When you look at who those guys were, Buddy Ryan, that was his first year as a professional coach and he has made his way into, if not the Hall of Fame, then pretty damn close to it. Walt Michaels was a very good coach for the Jets after those seasons as a defensive coordinator. Clive Rush did not have success as head coach in Boston, but in the players’ minds Clive was not head coaching material–but an outstanding offensive coordinator. Chuck Knox was offensive line coach and left the Jets in 1967, and he went on to coach the Rams and Seattle and Buffalo. He had a terrific record. Weeb spotted really solid guys who didn’t have a name, but brought them in and turned them loose. Imagine still, back then, there were four assistant coaches. Rex Ryan told me that when he coached Buffalo, he had 22.
JS: What was the moment when you thought the Jets could win the game?
BL: It came after Snell scored the touchdown (9:03 mark of the second quarter) because I knew that no AFL team had ever been ahead in a Super Bowl game. That to me, and I’m a 16-year-old kid, but to me that was a turning point in my mind. Hey, something was going on here, and they had run the ball downfield on the Colts, and I had watched the Colts all year and no one had run the ball on the Colts.
The other big ‘ah-ha’ I discovered as I was putting the finishing touches together to the book: If you look at the yards given up by the Colts–supposedly the greatest defense of all time and impregnable; you couldn’t run the ball against or throw the ball against them. The Jets gave up less yards all year than the Colts did, and that was in a league that was a lot more offensive-heavy, a league that put a premium on throwing the ball. The Jets scored over 400 points that year. No Jets team has ever scored as many points as the Jets did that year.
JS: What were some of the things that happened as a result of the game?
BL: After Super Bowl III, all of the American Football League owners except Paul Brown, who was the owner of Cincinnati, stood firm that they wanted the AFL to maintain its 10-team structure. That’s interesting and noteworthy because (NFL commissioner) Pete Rozelle, the Friday before the game had talked about basically integrating all the AFL teams into the NFL, in other words, putting the Jets in the Giants’ division, putting Oakland in the San Francisco 49ers’ division, putting Houston in the Dallas Cowboys’ division, and just creating one bigger National Football League.
Now, the AFL owners had something to feel really good about and they said, ‘we want to maintain what we built here over the last nine years,’ and that became part of the merger agreement. Of course, three teams from the NFL had to move to the American Football Conference in order to create a schedule with an adequate number of interleague games. That was key to the AFL in the merger. That was a major thing in the merger for the AFL teams, who wanted the name NFL teams and new local rivals to visit their stadium. Without overturning Rozelle’s original plans, the American Football Conference would not exist today. It could have been one big National Football League instead of an NFC and AFC.
The other thing that happened as a result of the game was finally, and finally is a really important word, Monday Night Football came about. Pete Rozelle had been trying to sell one of the networks beginning in the mid-’60s on to have Monday Night Football, and famously, the President of CBS, Bill Paley, said to Rozelle, ‘let me get this straight, you want me to preempt Lucy and put a football game on?’
Well, after Super Bowl III, NBC wanted to continue their coverage of what was going to be the AFC, CBS wanted to continue coverage of the NFC, and ABC desperately wanted to get in the football business, and so they took a flier and created Monday Night Football. It wouldn’t have happened without Super Bowl III. A real thirst for football beyond Sunday had been created.
There was a significant increase in the revenue being paid to the teams from television. Before Super Bowl III, the AFL had a package with NBC that paid each team $900,000 a year. The NFL had a package with CBS that paid each NFL team $1.2 million a year. The new NBC contract, the new CBS contract, and the new Monday Night Football contract provided for each team in pro football $1.8 million a year. It doubled for the AFC teams, went up 50 percent for NFL teams.
One of the most interesting things that happened as a result of Super Bowl III took place the next year. The Jets opened the next season in Buffalo against the Bills, which was actually O.J. Simpson’s first game, and they were greeted at the airport by the Buffalo Bills cheerleaders as conquering heroes. That’s a great indication of how important that game and the result had been to the AFL teams. The next day at the game before the Jets were being introduced, the cheerleaders ran on the field and unfurled a big banner that said, ‘Champs.’ This is on the road, the Jets playing at Buffalo…
Weeb Ewbank was a renowned cheapskate; after the Super Bowl game, he had the wherewithal to pay his players more. The value of the franchise went from $6 million the day before the Super Bowl to $16 million the day after the Super Bowl. Ewbank didn’t lavish big salary increases on his players, but he gave most of them a pretty good salary increase, we’re talking five to ten thousand dollars. One of the star players, Gerry Philbin said that’s not enough and he held out, and his salary went from $25,000 to $45,000. He was the big winner…
JS: Which of the teams since this one, and they have made the AFC Championship Game a few times, is the best team the Jets have had?
BL: I think the team in 1983 that lost to the Dolphins in the AFC Championship game. They probably would have that game if Don Shula, the Dolphins’ coach, had covered Miami’s home field. The Jets had a distinct speed advantage, and so he really slowed down the field with a lot of slosh. Ever since that, ever since his decision not to cover the field, the NFL has taken control of all field conditions. That one game changed that rule.
They would have gone on to the Super Bowl that year if they’d won and played Washington, who had no trouble with the Dolphins. That Jets team had a terrific offensive line, they had really good running backs, good wide receivers, they had the four big defensive linemen (the Sack Exchange), with Mark Gastineau, Joe Klecko, Abdul Salaam, and Marty Lyons. I think that team was probably the best they’ve had since the Super Bowl game.