For a while last Saturday night it looked as if Joe Namath, the New York Jets' snuff-dipping quarterback, had decided the forward pass was no longer worth the risk. A week earlier Na-math had thrown seven touchdown passes—four for his side, three for the other—and now, as Namath kept calling one running play after another against the San Diego Chargers, an AFL record crowd of 63,786 began to fidget and a few growls began rising from the seats at Shea Stadium, as if the fans feared that Namath was going to purge himself by renouncing the pass altogether.
What the crowd was not aware of was the scene in the locker room minutes before the Jets were sent onto the field. Here were the players—hunkered onto metal folding chairs, tugging at strips of tape, cleats scraping the floor, leather creaking—listening nervously as their coach, Weeb Ewbank, finished his pre game speech.
"Joe," Ewbank said, looking at Namath, "I'd like to go out on that first series of plays and cram the ball down their throats." Matt Snell, the fullback, glanced at Running Back Emerson Boozer with some wonderment. "That's the first inkling we had that we were going to run the ball so much," Snell said later. "We were very surprised. Maybe Joe and Weeb had talked about it before but it sure surprised Booz and me."
This was a game that the Jets needed very much to win if they were to stay out front in the Eastern Division with even reasonable safety. After blowing one to Buffalo on Namath's interceptions, the Jets could feel the angst creeping up on them. Worse, the Chargers were unbeaten and had not allowed a touchdown pass all season.
So Ewbank chose the Jets' first home appearance of the year to play the sort of football that some call manly, some call conservative and nearly all admit is dull—bang, bang, sweep, draw, plunge ahead and get the punter ready. For nearly 12 minutes it went that way. Through their first two series and into the third it was Snell and Boozer carrying 11 straight times. Once on third and 11, a certain passing situation, again it was Snell running a draw while the Jets' two fine wide receivers—Don Maynard and George Sauer—raced about in the Chargers' secondary and waved their arms to keep warm.
"Oh, that's the life," said Snell. "I enjoy the game the more I get to run with the ball. In the huddle Joe would say, 'We're going to run. It's up to you linemen. If you want to win, you'll have to drive them out.' Then we ran."
"We were cautious at the beginning," Ewbank said. "After a game like the one we lost to Buffalo, you just don't throw everything away. We wanted to stay away from that big error. San Diego is explosive and can take advantage of any error you make."
The Chargers showed no such reluctance to. pass. John Hadl, their quarterback, began the game as the AFL's leading passer and he threw the first time he got his hands on the ball. The trouble was, Hadl was somewhat off form. An interception set up the Jets with a field goal and a quick edge. Hadl followed with a touchdown pass to Lance Alworth, but another interception presented Jim Turner with his third field goal and the Jets with a 9-7 lead at the half.
The Chargers had to continue throwing the ball because they certainly could not go anyplace running with it. Their fullback, Brad Hubbert, a strong blocker as well as runner, is out for the season with a knee injury. Their two tight ends—Jacque MacKinnon and Willie Frazier—are both hurt. MacKinnon tried simply standing out there but he was unable to block for the sweeps that had put the fast little running back, Dick Post, among the league's top gainers. Charger Coach Sid Gillman replaced MacKinnon with a rookie flanker named Ken Dyer who weighs 185 and had never in his craziest moments considered playing tight end. The effect on the San Diego running game was disastrous. On 20 rushes the Chargers gained 28 yards, seven of which Post picked up on eight carries.
With Alworth working mostly against the Jets' Johnny Sample, Hadl began watching for Gary Garrison and hit him with two touchdown passes, one for 84 yards and both at the expense of New York's right cornerback, Randy Beverly. The second touchdown came after the Jets, on third and 25 from their own eight, had run still another draw, with Snell gaining two yards. That one set the crowd into a pother and gave Speedy Duncan the opportunity to make a brilliant 37-yard punt return. Hadl's five-yard pass to Garrison put San Diego into a 20-16 lead with less than six minutes to go.
By then Namath's true self had begun to emerge. He became famous and wealthy by throwing passes, not by handing the ball to running backs. Of the next 12 plays by the Jets, nine were passes. Because of an injury to Pete Lammons the Jets were also without a tight end, using Punter Curley Johnson and Reserve Fullback Mark Smolinski at the position. Smolinski caught two passes in the last drive. But the most important pass Namath threw was one that nobody caught.
On third and 10 from the San Diego 40 Namath hurled the ball in the direction of Maynard, who was well covered. The ball bounced off the ground and Namath did likewise under the charge of Defensive End Steve DeLong. Namath was sprawled out with DeLong lying nearby, hearing the voices of the crowd telling him that the pass was no good and that the Jets might have to try for a field goal that would leave them one point behind. But an official who was standing over the pair reached into his pocket, dropped his handkerchief, pointed at DeLong and yelled: "You hit him too late!"
"I couldn't believe it," said DeLong. "The play before, Houston Ridge [the other defensive end] had got Namath a good shot, nothing dirty, you understand, but a good shot. So then I came in and Namath's arm was still in motion while I had a full head of steam, and I couldn't avoid hitting him. I don't think it was late and I didn't do anything special to him. The Jets hold more than any club we've played. On one play Winston Hill tackled me. But I didn't try to do anything to Namath for that."
Namath agreed that DeLong's intention was honorable. "He just ran into me. He was coming so fast he couldn't stop," Namath said. However, the penalty gave the Jets a first down on the San Diego 25. A pass to Smolinski moved the ball to the six, Boozer ran to the three and, two plays later, to the one. On fourth down Lammons came in at tight end. "He's our best blocker, and the doctor said he could go straight ahead," Ewbank said. Namath called 35 Power. Boozer smashed into the left side of the line, was flung into the air and fell over the goal line as the arms of both officials and Jets players went skyward. "I didn't have too much to spare," Boozer said, tapping himself on the chest. "I got just about this much in there."
With 1:43 left after the touchdown, the Chargers managed to make it interesting. Alworth moved to the left side where Beverly, a desperate man, began cut-blocking him and even tripping. But Hadl's passes to Garrison and Dyer brought San Diego from its own eight to the New York 37. Forty-five seconds remained. Hadl called a pass that sent Alworth downfield and turning on a comeback, with Garrison crossing and Dyer sprinting to the flag. Dyer had just made a nice catch for 22 yards but this time he appeared to lose the ball and wander confusedly, looking at the sky. A couple of yards behind him the ball fell into the grasp of Johnny Sample, and the Jets had won 23-20.
"That was a stupid thing for me to do," Hadl said. "We've got a rookie kid in there, and I go to him in the clutch. I never should have done it. He's a good receiver, but I should have gone to one of the older heads."
It couldn't have been Alworth. He was busy getting tripped on the other side of the field. Despite all the attention Alworth drew, he caught eight passes for 137 yards—the 33rd time in his career that he has gained more than 100 yards—and demonstrated that he is still at least as dangerous as any receiver in the game.
Sauer, who had been leading the AFL in receiving, was held to four catches for 58 yards even though San Diego lost its free safety, Richard Farley, who was hit so hard in the first half that he was an amnesiac after the game. But the Jets had done much of their work on the ground, using more running plays than passes. "We had to keep cracking all night long," said Boozer. And Namath had thrown no interceptions whatsoever, a pleasing turn of events for New York's vastly improved defensive unit. At this stage of the season last year the Jets were a game ahead of Houston but wound up second. They remember that all too well.