Brace yourself, Miami, Joe Namath is headed your way. So what if last Sunday he threw 30 incomplete passes and one nearly disastrous interception. He also threw for three touchdowns as he led the New York Jets to a 27-23 victory over the Oakland Raiders in the swirling wind of Shea Stadium. In doing so he gave the Jets their first AFL championship and he also put an extra fillip into the Super Bowl.
That fillip is Namath himself. Ever since he signed his celebrated $400,000 contract four years ago, Namath has been the AFL's leading attraction. Namath grows a mustache, it gets in all the papers. He buys a fur coat, everybody knows it. He sends his llama rug to the cleaners, it's the talk of the neighborhood. But until this year, despite the notoriety, Namath had been unable to lead his team to a championship. Now that the Jets have finally done it, Namath will have the opportunity to test his arm against the Baltimore Colts. For even the casual fan, that should be a match too interesting to ignore.
Even in the locker room, where the Jets fled to escape the crowds and the cold wind that had bedeviled both teams most of the afternoon, it was Namath who saved the day. Barring the victors from their spoils—oceans of champagne—were newsmen, well-wishers and an old, familiar foe, Milt Woodard, president of the AFL. Struggling against the mob to make his annual congratulatory visit to league champions, Woodard became part of a routine that he seems to get involved in every year.
"Hey Milt," a Jets employee said, "the champagne is in the back room. Help yourself."
January 6, 1969
"No, no, cut it off, there's a league rule against champagne in the locker room," Woodard said, looking a bit embarrassed. It has become something of a tradition for Woodard to fine the AFL's championship team for violation of the antichampagne ordinance, but he never seems to enjoy it.
"O.K., Weeb," Namath said to the Jets' coach as Woodard approached them. "Where'd you hide the champagne?"
"There's 25 cases in the back," replied Ewbank, grinning.
"Twenty-five ought to be enough," Namath said. "Excuse me, please, let me through." He squeezed past Woodard. "Oh, hell," said Milt. The rest of the Jets followed.
But the way the game began—with Namath completing three of 12 and Lamonica three of 15 and the first quarter lasting 45 minutes—it appeared for a while that no one would ever get around to earning the champagne. Other than the Jets' first touchdown drive, which followed a very short Oakland punt into the howling wind, the quarter was wasted motion for both offensive units. The ball changed sides 10 times in 13 scoreboard minutes without a fumble or interception. Eventually, however, the Jets emerged with a 10-0 lead.
Namath opened up on the Raiders by throwing to Flanker Don Maynard, who had caught 10 passes for 228 yards against Oakland Rookie Cornerback George Atkinson earlier this season. Namath's first three passes were all to Maynard. Two were complete and one resulted in an interference penalty against Atkinson. Maynard scored on a 16-yard reception when his sharp break toward the sideline flag left Atkinson stumbling. A few minutes later Jim Turner, the AFL's top scorer this season, kicked a 33-yard field goal to give the Jets their largest margin of the day.
Just before the quarter ended, Oakland's Daryle Lamonica started the Raiders moving on short passes to his running backs and longer ones to his fine flanker, Fred Biletnikoff, who was working against Cornerback John Sample. Only 48 seconds into the second quarter, Biletnikoff grabbed a pass, ducked away from Sample's tackle and went 29 yards for a touchdown. Next it was the Jets' turn as Turner kicked a field goal from the 36. Then George Blanda, who had seen an earlier field-goal attempt hit the crossbar and bounce back, kicked one from 26 yards out and the Jets led by only 13-10 at the half.
With the wind blowing in tricky gusts and the footing rather unsure on a field that had puddles of mud and water standing at its edges, the Jets were far from being safe. But in the second half they pulled off enough big plays to fill a highlight film. In the third quarter their defensive unit held Oakland for three downs inside the New York six and forced the Raiders to settle for a Blanda field goal that tied the score, 13-13. Moments later Namath took the Jets on an 80-yard drive in which they were successful four times on third down plays. That drive ended—after Oakland blew a cinch interception—with a touchdown pass to Tight End Pete Lammons.
Lamonica came back with a 57-yard pass to Biletnikoff, setting up another Blanda field goal and bringing the Raiders to within four points early in the fourth quarter. Namath responded by aiming a sideline pass for Maynard, and Atkinson at last had his moment. He intercepted the ball and raced down to the New York five, where Namath had to knock him out of bounds. "The next time I call a sideline pattern, I'll ask Babe Parilli to come in and throw it," Namath said.
Oakland scored in one run by Pete Banaszak and had a 23-20 lead with eight minutes left. But it was here that Namath showed the coolness of a champion, leading the Jets to a touchdown in three plays. First came a down-and-out to George Sauer for 10 yards. Then Maynard and Namath combined on an amazingly perfect play to put the Jets back out in front. Maynard sprinted down the sideline with Atkinson at his heels, and Namath's pass fell into his hands 52 yards downfield, at the Raider six, as both he and Atkinson tumbled into the mud. From there Namath called a play-action pass, looked for Bill Mathis swinging toward the flag, turned and drilled a hard line drive pass to Maynard in the end zone. Within 31 seconds the Jets were in front again, 27-23.
The Raiders had two more chances to win. They moved to the New York 26, spurned a field goal and tried a pass on fourth and 10. Jet Right End Verlon Biggs faked to the inside, leaped around a blocker and hit Lamonica for a loss. With slightly more than two minutes to play, Lamonica found Biletnikoff and Warren Wells for two long completions, and a penalty moved the ball to New York's 24. Lamonica faded back again. Three receivers were covered, so he threw a safety-valve pass to Running Back Charlie Smith. The ball was behind Smith, who himself was behind Lamonica, making it a lateral rather than a forward pass. Jet Linebacker Ralph Baker grabbed the ball and the Jets survived the final two minutes—thus placing Ewbank in the unique position of being the only coach to have won championships in both leagues.
"I pulled the big boner of the game when I threw that lateral," said Lamonica. "I recognized right away that it was a lateral, but Baker got there ahead of me." Smith, a rookie, had become confused. "I didn't think it was a lateral so I didn't bother to chase it," he said.
"It was simply a bad throw to a secondary receiver," Oakland Coach John Rauch said. "He let the ball go a little too soon. On that play the pass should always be a forward pass, not a lateral." It was Rauch who decided to go for a touchdown rather than the field goal that would have put Oakland one point behind with six minutes left in the game. "I certainly thought about the field goal, but I wanted seven points," he said. "I had doubts about us being able to get back into position for another field goal later on. We made too many mistakes, and the Jets took advantage of them."
Lamonica and Namath each broke the old championship-game record for passes attempted, and Lamonica broke the record for yardage with 401. With the wind in gusts up to 35 miles per hour, the Jets had not intended to throw the ball so often. "But when Joe had success passing on that first series, he stayed with it," said Mathis. The Jets' offensive line gave Namath excellent protection. In the previous game with Oakland this season, Raider Left End Ike Lassiter was in the New York backfield almost as much as Namath. For this game the Jets shifted Right Guard Dave Herman to right tackle, put Randy Rasmussen at right guard and used Bob Talamini, formerly an All-AFL guard at Houston, at left guard. Herman might as well have been wrapped in barbed wire for all the luck Lassiter had in trying to get past him. "Dave doesn't care where he plays," said Jets Offensive Coach Clive Rush. "He sure did a job on Lassiter." Afterward, peeling the cellophanefrom a cigar in the locker room, Herman allowed himself a smile. "I had never played tackle before in my life except a little bit against Oakland out on the Coast," he said. "I looked upon it as a challenge because Ike is big, strong and tough. He beat me to the inside a couple of times early in the game, so I moved in a little and tried to steer him outside when he charged. One time he told me to quit holding him. I said, 'Ike, you know I don't hold people.' "
Sample, a talkative fellow who played for Baltimore's 1959 champions, was benched for a while because of Biletnikoff. "We got him out until he could make up his mind not to let Biletnikoff get open inside on him," said Ewbank. "I died a death on that bench," Sample said. "I was burning. I hit Biletnikoff out of bounds and he complained. I said, 'Kid, you better get used to it because you're gonna get hit all day long.' "
Just then, in the raucous quarters of the Jets, someone poured a bottle of red champagne over Namath's head. "That's all! That's all!" Namath yelled. That is all, at least, until January 12 in Miami.