Toward the end of the second quarter of the Super Bowl game, Jim Turner of the New York Jets ambled onto the grass to try a medium-long field goal. A Baltimore sports columnist traced a finger down the printed roster, located Turner's name, squinted as he sought to recall if he had ever heard it before and then turned to the man in the next seat.
"This fellow Turner," said the columnist, "he any good?"
"Well, he kicked more field goals this season than anybody in history."
"Oh," said the columnist.
January 27, 1969
A couple of hours later, after Turner's three field goals had been the margin in New York's 16-7 victory over Baltimore in the game that convinced the country that the AFL does indeed play professional football, anybody with the slightest interest in the sport had heard of Jim Turner. Moreover, people with no interest in the sport whatever had heard of the Jets and of Joe Namath. Recognition was overdue. Since its birth in 1960, when games were often played in 50,000-seat stadiums before as few as 2,500 fans, the AFL has steadily improved. For the past two years the league has, in fact, been on a level with the NFL in performance, but it was not until the Jets beat Baltimore—supposedly the NFL's finest team in a decade—that most people were willing to admit it.
Even the AFL's most dedicated employees were somehow unable to believe what their senses told them. In last year's Super Bowl—won 33-14 by Green Bay—it was felt by many AFL coaches and players that Oakland had as good a team as the Packers with one major exception. That exception was the remarkable Bart Starr at quarterback; Oakland had Daryle Lamonica, who was then playing his first full season as a starter. Against the Packers, Oakland got stage fright and lost. Despite a number of injuries, the 1968 Raiders were a much better club than their Super Bowl predecessors. They had better running, better receiving and better quarterbacking—with Lamonica a year wiser—but they had to endure a playoff to win their conference and then were beaten by the Jets in the championship.
Still, the doubt lingered about the strength of the Jets. So much had been proclaimed about the NFL for so long that it was difficult to make a reasonable statement about the Super Bowl game in the weeks of anticipation before the kickoff.
At breakfast on the morning of the game, Al Davis, who has been a coach and AFL commissioner and is now, in effect, general manager at Oakland, was attempting to convince himself.
"I don't know what to think," Davis said. "A lot of it depends on whether the Baltimore rash can reach Namath. Frankly, I don't see how it can. He gets back quick, he throws quick and he has good blocking. Look at the personnel in Baltimore's front four. The only one with really outstanding ability is Bubba Smith. So what about the linebackers? Mike Curtis is a very good one, but is he as good as George Webster of Houston? I feel the Jets ought to beat Baltimore. But consider what the Colts have done this season, all those shutouts. It's very confusing."
Way back last summer Wally Lemm of the Oilers was thinking about his players and comparing them to the group Lemm had coached with the St. Louis Cardinals. Lemm is one of the five AFL head coaches who have held similar jobs in the NFL—the others being Sid Gillman of San Diego and Los Angeles, George Wilson of Miami and Detroit, Paul Brown of Cincinnati and Cleveland and, of course, Weeb Ewbank of New York and Baltimore, the only man ever to win championships in both leagues—and Lemm had been at St. Louis recently enough that the people involved in the comparison were clear in his mind. "The Cardinals have a good offensive line, but the one at Houston is just as good," Lemm said. "Our fullback at Houston would rate in the top two or three in the NFL. Our defensive backs at Houston are as good as you can find on an NFL team." Lemm went on, man for man, and concluded there was not much overall difference between the Oilers and the Cardinals. Houston finished the season with a 7-7 record and St. Louis was 9-4-1.
The Jets were not at all reluctant to enter the argument over which league might be better. Several days before the Super Bowl, Randy Rasmussen, New York's right guard, declared that after an examination of films of four Baltimore games he could not understand what was so special about Colt Left Tackle Billy Ray Smith. "I've played against guys who are bigger and stronger than him," said Rasmussen. After the game Bob Talamini, New York's left guard, who has been chosen on the All-AFL team six times, agreed. "You beat your head in for years blocking some of the toughest tackles in football and no one appreciates it. Well, I'll say this: I've played against a lot of better tackles in the AFL than I played against in the Super Bowl."
It remained for Namath, naturally, to make the most celebrated statement of all when he said he thought there were at least five quarterbacks in the AFL superior to Earl Morrall of Baltimore and that Morrall would be a third-stringer on the Jets. Billy Ray Smith was moved to remark that Namath would keep his teeth longer if he kept his mouth shut. Namath responded by standing up before a luncheon audience and saying, "The Jets will win—I guarantee it."
"You know why Joe is doing all this talking?" confided one of his friends. "He not only wants the Jets to believe the way he does, that they can beat Baltimore, but also he wants to fire up the Colts. Sure, that may sound preposterous, but Joe has watched films, a lot more hours than most people realize, and he knows the Colts can't get to him. He wants to make them so mad that they'll practically commit suicide trying to reach him. That way, when they find out they can't touch him, they'll feel very frustrated and let down. He wants them to throw all their blitzes at him so he can hit the quick passes and make the Colts lose their poise. Joe is not exactly stupid."
Whether or not that was truly the method behind what appeared to be Namath's madness, events worked out according to that very notion. Although his passing led to only one touchdown and he had two near interceptions, one of which could have been disastrous, Namath emerged from the Super Bowl as a sports hero of a stature few have reached. There is still a reasonable debate whether Namath is now the best quarterback in the game, or even the best in the AFL, but what the Jets accomplished against the Colts in Miami has lifted an entire league out of its adolescence.
Lamar Hunt, the man who had the idea of starting the AFL in 1959, thinks the Jets proved without question that the newer league can play on equal terms with the older. "I thought we proved it when we won 13 of 23 of the so-called exhibition games in 1968," Hunt said. "I was surprised there was no value given to that in the stories discussing New York's chances in the Super Bowl. Until the Super Bowl the average fan thought, I believe, that the three best teams in the AFL were about on par with the middle teams in the NFL. The Jets showed this belief is mistaken. The three best teams in the AFL are on a par with the top five in the NFL—that is, New York, Oakland and Kansas City are up there with Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Dallas and Minnesota. Our three worst teams are about as bad as their five worst. The situation has been that way for a while. Our league improved somewhat between the 1967 and 1968 seasons, but the improvement wasn't so dramatic—except maybe with the Jets. I don't think the Jets are necessarily the best team in the AFL, but they're the champs, so you have to hand it to them. Nobody could argue that they're at the very least one of the top eight teams in the game of football."
"The AFL was going to win a Super Bowl game eventually," said Tex Schramm, president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys and the man who met secretly with Hunt to begin talks that led to the merger of the leagues beginning in 1970. "The only thing that was hurt is the pride of the NFL people such as myself who have been in it for a long time. You have a natural pride and jealousy. But now the Super Bowl game of next year will be the greatest single sports event in the country. As a league, the NFL has more strong teams, but the AFL has shown it's capable of beating our best."
Otto Graham, coach of the Redskins, is one NFL man who has always had a high regard for the AFL. "In my first public statement when I came into the NFL three years ago, I said the top teams in the AFL could give any team in the NFL a battle," said Graham. "A couple of guys almost shot me for saying that. But the Super Bowl was no upset. There's very little difference between the leagues. I coached many of the top players in the College All-Star Game. If a player went into the NFL they said he was 'great.' If he went into the AFL they said he was 'not so hot.' "
"The common draft has helped to equalize things," Blanton Collier of Cleveland said. "The quarterbacks in the two leagues are pretty much on a par." Paul Brown said, "The only difference between the AFL and NFL in many cases is just the bounce of a ball in a single game. Don't get the idea the Jets were the only good team in the AFL. They were very happy to get past Oakland."
Harvey Johnson, interim coach at Buffalo last season, admired the Jets' game plan—with a running attack aimed so effectively at Baltimore's right side that Right Cornerback Lenny Lyles led the Colts in tackles, and with Namath throwing short passes against Baltimore's zone defense—but thought that if anything the Jets may have been too cautious. "If Namath had played like he usually does, the Jets would have put more than 30 points on the board," Johnson said.
"The game was won up front by the Jets," is the opinion of Washington Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. "That's where most games are won. If you give one quarterback more time to pass than the other, he's going to win for you."
"Every club in our league that plays an AFL club is going to be ready, now that this has happened," said Elijah Pitts, the Green Bay halfback. "The game means something now, with Joe Namath and John Sample and fellows like that who, ah, express their opinions freely."
"Eight years ago, when I signed with the AFL, I frankly thought I was starting a step down from the NFL," said Kansas City Tight End Fred Arbanas. "I haven't felt that way in two or three years. Green Bay beat us in the first Super Bowl, but they didn't whip us physically and I knew then that the two leagues were virtually equal. The public has been brainwashed. Some writers have bad-mouthed the AFL almost constantly and have influenced people who don't understand football. The Jets-Colts game was no upset. The players know that."
The Colts were no doubt wary of just such an occurrence. Shula worked them hard at their Boca Raton training camp before the game. One night during Super Bowl week Baltimore Halfback Tom Matte was talking to Dallas Flanker Lance Rentzel, who suggested it was unlikely the Jets could score against the Colts. "Don't say that," said Matte. "The Jets have a much better team than you think they have. I'm not kidding. I've seen the films. This is going to be a tough game."
It was even tougher than Matte had anticipated. Baltimore could have won it with a bit more accurate passing, but nobody can say the Jets did not deserve to win. That is an indication of how close the leagues are now—that you can go back in the Super Bowl and pick out a few plays that could have turned the game around and by doing so you are inventing alibis for the NFL rather than for the AFL. With Johnny Unitas, Jurgensen and Starr near the end of their careers—and Namath, Lamonica, Bob Griese and John Hadl among the AFL quarterbacks who are just entering the bloom of theirs—the AFL has now thoroughly established itself, at least until the owners' realignment meeting in March. If Jim Turner leads the AFL in scoring again next season they ought to hear about it even in Baltimore.