The pro football championship of the world was rather definitely decided on a mushy field in Cleveland on Dec. 29 when the Baltimore Colts crushed the Browns 34-0 for the NFL title, but the Colts will have to ratify that claim in Miami this Sunday when they play the New York Jets, AFL champions, in the third annual Super Bowl. In the first two Super Bowls the Green Bay Packers methodically destroyed the Kansas City Chiefs (35-10) and the Oakland Raiders (33-14). The AFL representative improved by four points in the second game, but it is most unlikely that this explosive growth will continue this year.
The major reason it won't is Baltimore's magnificent defense.
"Offense sells tickets, but defense wins championships," a coach said not long ago, and Baltimore has what may well be pro football's best defense of the last decade. Against more polished, more cohesive offenses overall than those in the AFL, the Colts allowed only 144 points in 14 regular-season games, and a total of 158 for the entire year, including the conference playoff and the championship game. The Jets, on the other hand, gave up nearly twice as many points in regular-season play, 280. They scored 419 to Baltimore's 402.
What small chance the Jets do have of defeating the Colts rests upon the talented arm of Joe Namath. Namath is an excellent quarterback, with a quick release, a strong, accurate arm and the ability to locate second and third receivers when his primary target is covered. In the AFL, when he is given time, he is phenomenal. But against the bristling pass rush of the Colts, he may not get the requisite three to four seconds to find his very good receivers.
January 13, 1969
He has three of them. George Sauer, Don Maynard and Pete Lammons are all blessed with good hands, good moves and rare speed. Along with the Jet offensive line and Namath, they hold the key to the Jets' minimal chances. Namath and Maynard combined on a 52-yard pass play to set up a Namath-to-Maynard pass for the winning touchdown in the Jets' victory over the Raiders, and it is plays such as this that Baltimore must stop.
The pattern Namath used against Oakland for the bomb was something the Jets call a "go" pattern. The Colts, incidentally, have much the same set and used it often and successfully against Cleveland. It is called a "wing-right opposite" and, like the "go" pattern, it places both wide receivers to the wide side of the field, hoping to force the defense into man-to-man coverage.
"I would get Maynard in this set," said Bobby Boyd, the All-Pro cornerback of the Colts, as he looked over a diagram of the play last week. "Of course, we could be in a number of different defenses—blitz, straight 4-3, weak-side zone or a strong-side zone. In any case, I would play Maynard normal, or about eight yards off."
In a blitz or straight man-to-man, Boyd would protect the deep area, where Maynard caught the long pass on rookie Defensive Back George Atkinson. Running the pattern against Oakland, Maynard faked toward the middle as he began his route, then took off.
"I certainly wouldn't commit myself on the fake unless I was sure the quarterback had thrown the ball," Boyd said. "I have to watch the quarterback as well as the man I'm guarding and I wouldn't take that kind of chance unless he was already rid of the ball. I'd have to be certain it wasn't just a pump."
On man-to-man coverage, Boyd said he likes to funnel the receiver to the inside where there is apt to be help. In the Colt zones Boyd gets help either from Mike Curtis shallow, or from the strong safety, Rick Volk, deep.
From watching Maynard on television, Boyd admires him. "He knows what he is doing," Boyd said. "He reads defenses very well. He and Namath seem to have every pattern timed, like Jimmy Orr and Earl Morrall."
In evaluations of the two teams, most experts, for unfathomable reasons, have conceded the Jets an edge at quarterback. Both Namath and Morrall were selected Most Valuable in their leagues, but Namath certainly can claim no clear-cut superiority over Morrall.
Morrall finished first in the NFL, Namath third in the AFL. Namath threw 380 passes, completed 187 for a 49.2 percentage, 3,147 yards, 15 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Morrall threw 317 passes, completed 182 for a completion average of 57.4, 2,909 yards, 29 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. His receivers—Jimmy Orr, Ray Perkins, Willie Richardson and John Mackey—are in every position as good or better than Namath's and his offensive line gives him good time to throw. So does Namath's, but the Jet offensive line may find the Baltimore front four more difficult to handle than AFL front fours.
Given a much better secondary than the Jets, better linebackers, a better defensive line and a more cohesive defense, the Colts could win with only an adequate offense. But their offense is far more than that, as the Jets are likely to discover.
As usual, the AFL players base part of their hopes for victory on the rather tenuous claim that, since football is a game of emotion, they will outemotion the NFL. But Las Vegas bookmakers, a group not known for emotional display, figure the Colts to be 17 points better than the Jets, which is probably conservative, though the Jets themselves disagree.
"I don't think any team in pro football can be called a 17-point underdog, especially in the Super Bowl," says Larry Grantham, underdoggedly. Grantham, a 200-pound corner linebacker who calls defensive signals for the Jets, is faced with the unpleasant prospect of meeting the rugged Colt running attack and containing pro football's best tight end, 220-pound John Mackey, at the line of scrimmage. "Football is an emotional game, and the Super Bowl is the most emotional game of all."
Herein is the false premise which has been, as much as anything, at the root of the optimistic reasoning of AFL adherents. In any emotional match-up, the Colts must be given the edge, and the reason is simple. Because the AFL had to compete with the NFL for the best of the college seniors during the first five years of its existence a kind of natural selection worked against the new league's acquisition of players with the self-confidence and desire to excel against the best. Time and again the two leagues met head on in competition for the services of a college star. More often than not, the money offered by the two leagues was about the same. The player who chose the NFL team did so for the same reason that O.J. Simpson recently gave for not wanting to play for the Buffalo Bills, who will have first shot at drafting him.
"I just prefer the NFL," O.J. said. "I'm from an NFL city, San Francisco, and I grew up following the NFL. I'm kind of brainwashed, I guess. I know the AFL will be as good as the NFL in a few years, but I still feel the NFL is stronger and I want to play with the best."
The rest of the AFL players in those formative years came over from the NFL. They were mostly athletes who preferred to switch rather than fight for their positions in the NFL.
This situation, of course, no longer applies. With the common draft of the last two years, the AFL is getting its share of the truly competitive, gung-ho athletes and it will soon achieve parity with the NFL. But that parity has not yet been reached, and the Colts should demonstrate this with an authority that may shock Jets' fans. The Colts want to win even more badly than did the Packers of 1968. That was a team that had won three NFL championships and one easy Super Bowl victory, and it was sated with success.
"This is the hungriest team I ever saw," said Mackey after the victory over Cleveland. "And we're still hungry. Real hungry." Undoubtedly, the Jets are also hungry. But, as was the case with the midget at the boardinghouse table, their hunger may well exceed their reach.