For a while the coaches, Joe Kuharich of the Philadelphia Eagles and Weeb Ewbank of the New York Jets, tried to convince everyone that this interleague game was just another exhibition to test their rookies. Then the Jets started to make it a vendetta against "the other league," as they termed the NFL.
"It won't be an exhibition if we play it 10 times," said Jet Defensive Back Jimmy Hudson. "We want to show we belong with them," said teammate Larry Grantham. "I know I was blackballed by the NFL," said Corner Back Johnny Sample, "so you should know what I'm thinking."
Finally even the coaches relented a bit. Ewbank told a rookie who had been catching kickoffs and punts, "I'm not going to hold it against you because you fumbled last week against Kansas City, but I'm not going to start you in this game against Philadelphia." At about the same time Kuharich began to call the game the Poor Man's Super Bowl, "because we're going to be playing for pride and not a whole lot of money."
By the time the game between the Eagles and the Jets began last weekend at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati, it was not too surprising that the players were thinking of it as something like the Saturday-night fights. The Jets' Sample first of all racked up Timmy Brown of the Eagles, and for several moments the two of them exchanged unprintable epithets at face-mask distance. "Sample always puts his knee in your head to push up on so he can get up," said Brown. "Football," answered Sample, "is not the cleanest game in the world."
Next Mike Ditka, the old straight-arm from Chicago who now plays for the Eagles, went into a pileup, seeking Gerry Philbin of the Jets. The referees wisely intervened midway through the introductions, but even they had no idea that these were only the preliminaries.
The main bout began late in the first quarter when Eagle Israel Lang took a swing pass from Quarterback Norman Snead and, with a good block from Ditka, ran for nine yards until he was smashed out of bounds by Hudson. Ditka, meanwhile, continued downfield and obliterated Sample with a vicious block. He got to Sample just ahead of Brown who, cutting across the field, tried to hit Sample with a flying forearm but missed.
Now Ditka and Brown were up and squaring off against Sample, who was joined by teammate Cornell Gordon. "Dammit," said Timmy Brown, "I had to miss so many punches in that TV film I made [The Wild, Wild West] that I missed all I threw at Sample." And Ditka said, "If I had hit Sample I would have broken my hand on his face mask." Eventually a semblance of order was restored, and the referees excused the four combatants for the rest of the evening. "Man, as much wrong as I do, they throw me out for nuthin' this time," said Sample. "I wish I had hit someone and justified gettin' kicked out."
Sample played in the NFL for eight seasons, during which time he made more enemies than friends. "They call me a smart guy," he says, "but I play only one way, and I've been a regular for 10 years in pro ball." Sample likes to talk constantly on the field to anyone who might listen. "He kept tellin' me not to have us throw near him," said Brown, "but when someone says that to us we want to throw there more."
Sample was released by all NFL teams in a complicated move a year ago, when he was unable to agree to terms with Otto Graham and the Washington Redskins. "Graham called and said I was getting too much money for a defensive back," said Sample, "so I told him he was making too much money for a coach." A few days later Ewbank, who coached Sample with the Baltimore Colts, signed him to play for the Jets. Sample now insists he is playing exactly the way he used to in the NFL.
The fights, unfortunately, were the most exciting moments of a fairly dull game that exposed AFL football to the city of Cincinnati which, incidentally, will have an AFL franchise for the 1968 season, if, indeed, it still wants one. The Jets led 13-3 at one point in the second quarter, scoring a touchdown, after they captured a five-yard Eagle punt on the Phillie 15-yard line, and two field goals. But they already had lost Quarterback Joe Namath because of an inflamed tendon in his left knee, and without Namath the Jets are the New York Titans of the forgotten Bob Scrabis days.
The Eagles scored two touchdowns within 80 seconds just before the half to take a 17-13 lead, and they went on to win easily 34-19, with such rookies as Dan Berry and the two Harrys—Wilson and Jones—playing as though they were back at California and Nebraska and Arkansas.
It was obvious that the Eagles, who went to the NFL's Playoff Bowl last year, were superior in almost every phase of the game to the Jets, who went no place in the AFL after a good start. The pattern has been duplicated in most of the other interleague games that have been played so far, although the Denver Broncos, who have been the worst team in the AFL practically every year since its inception, have defeated both the Detroit Lions and the Minnesota Vikings.
The Eagles had the better players in the Jet game—and more of them. For instance, three regulars in the Eagles' defensive backfield missed the Jet game because of their military commitments. Nevertheless, their replacements, two rookies and a taxi-squad graduate named Bobby Shann, proved practically impenetrable against passes all night. And the Eagles did not seem to miss either Ditka or Brown, while the Jets did miss Sample and Gordon, their good defensive corner backs, and Namath.
The Eagle offensive line protected Quarterback Norman Snead so well that he rarely was even touched by the Jet defense. The Jet offensive line, trying to protect its quarterbacks, had little more luck than Brink's guards have had lately with money. Four times in the first half Shann got to the passer on a safety blitz—completely untouched by any New York blockers.
Perhaps the major difference between the two teams, and indeed the two leagues, is defense. "When I think about defense," said Ewbank, who coached Baltimore to NFL championships in 1958 and 1959, "I try to compare someone with Gino Marchetti, who played end for the Colts and always was double-teamed. I look around here and see that I don't have a Marchetti, but what can I do about it? Nothing. Just wait for one."
Sitting around the pool at his motel in suburban Cincinnati the night before the game, Philadelphia's Joe Kuharich revealed exactly how he planned to riddle and baffle the Jet defense.
"Their secondary basically is one that is set up to stop passing," said Kuharich. "So we're going to use some formations that will force them into a new defense and force their secondary to tackle the ballcarriers. One will be a closed double-wing, something the Jets probably caught onto in our films of last week's game against the Vikings. We pull in our two spread backs and put them right behind the ends, who are tight to the tackles. Now we can hit either one with a quick pitch, or work a power reverse or send the setback out behind them. And we can pass deep, too."
The Jets had picked up the formation all right, and they supposedly were prepared to defend against it. "We knew what they were going to do," said Ewbank after the game, "and we kept yelling out there at our guys, but I don't know what happened."
What did happen was that every time the Eagles went into the closed double spread, with Wilson and Jones behind the ends, they picked up seven or more yards at a crack. "Their secondary never knew how to handle it," said Kuharich.
And while the Jets never did blitz, the Eagles continually harassed the Jets with Shann's safety blitz and a six-man line—two linebackers moving up. Namath, who likes to work with his tight end, Pete Lammons, over the middle, completed only three of 10 passes—two of them to Fullback Matt Snell on flares.
"Hey, Lammons," said one of the Jets after the game, "how many passes did you catch?" Lammons answered, "None." "Well, how many times did they throw to ya?" Without thinking, Lammons said, "None. Wait a minute.... Twice, in desperation."
Despite the pregame resentments and on-field incidents, most of the players were able to praise the abilities of the opposition. "We made mistakes, sure," said one Jet player, "but they took advantage of everything they did. And they knew what we were going to do all the time." And as Norman Snead said, "We both hurt each other a little bit."
But although they were somewhat outclassed, the Jets were not disgraced. "You'll notice," said King Hill, the Eagles' injured quarterback who did not play, "there are a lot of 34-19 scores in the NFL during a season."