We are just 49 days away from Super Bowl Sunday! Let’s look back on the iconic third Super Bowl featuring the NFL’s Baltimore Colts and the AFL’s New York Jets. Super Bowl III was played at Miami’s Orange Bowl.
Over the course of history, we have known some great teams that did not win the Super Bowl. The 2007 Patriots, 1998 Vikings and 2001 Rams jump off the page in that regard. But, before all those teams were conceived, there was one obvious candidate – the 1968 Baltimore Colts.
That Colts’ team did not have Hall of Famers across the field like Lombardi’s Packers. They did not possess any flair like the great AFL teams of the era. But, they did have Don Shula. And, Shula brought to that organization his signature toughness on defense. Hence, the Colts pummeled everything in their path on the road to Super Bowl III.
The Colts finished the regular season at 13-1. They scored over 400 points on the season while surrendering just 144. In the playoffs, they pushed around the Vikings and punished Cleveland giving them their first NFL title since 1959.
One of the most interesting tidbits about this incredible unit is they did it without Johnny Unitas. Unitas was injured during the preseason, so Shula turned to the venerable Earl Morrall. Morrall proceeded to have the best season of his twenty-year career, winning the NFL MVP award.
If their offense was good, their defense was fantastic. Led by Bill Arnsparger and Chuck Noll, the Colts pounded all but one regular season opponent. The defense was excellent at all three levels and featured all-world defensive end Bubba Smith.
Their opponents in Super Bowl III were the New York Jets. The Jets had the most popular player in professional football on their team; the eccentric Joe Namath. Namath took New York city by storm and it didn’t all have to do with his performance on the field. He resembled the counter-culture of the time with his long hair and white shoes.
Namath was a good football player, not great. But, for his time, he was a gunslinger. And, that brand of football was only found in the AFL. Led by Namath and a great receiving corps with the likes of George Sauer and Don Maynard, New York went 11-3 over the regular season. They then stunned the defending-AFL champion Raiders in a classic 27-23 to earn their first title and the trip to face the Colts in the Super Bowl.
The Colts were overwhelming favorites. Consequently, in some circuits, Vegas posted the Jets as 20-point underdogs. However, the cocky Namath guaranteed that his team would win. Subsequently, that prediction became the main story of the day and should have been bulletin-board material for Baltimore.
The Jets held one crucial advantage. Their head coach was former-Colts head man, Weeb Ewbank. Ewbank called a superior game on offense. The Jets known for their loose passing game went conservative. Indeed, the numbers bear that running back Matt Snell was the work horse on the day. When Namath did pass, he focused on the possession-minded Sauer. A nice mix of pass and run allowed New York to strike first. They led 7-0 at the half.
On defense, the Jets’ defense could not prevent the Colts from moving the ball, but they could prevent them from scoring. Morrall tossed three first half interceptions, all deep in Jets’ territory. One of the picks occurred late in the half on a gadget play where Morrall failed to see the intended receiver (Jimmy Orr) running wide open in the post.
After a slew of missed opportunities, Shula turned to Unitas. But, he could only briefly rekindle his magic. Trailing 16-0, Johnny U led the Colts on a late TD march. But, it was too little and too late. Hence, New York pulled off the improbable upsetting the Colts, 16-7.
This was not just a victory for the Jets, it was a victory for professional football. There were serious doubts that AFL teams could actually compete with NFL 49 years ago. The Jets did not just win this game. They implemented a strategy that allowed them to CONTROL the game, especially the second half.
The loss sent shockwaves throughout the football world. Shula only coached one more season in Baltimore. He left for Miami and helped build a dynasty there. Without Shula, the Colts won Super Bowl V.
The Jets, to the day, have not returned to the Super Bowl. Namath remained the sport’s most popular player until the emergence of OJ Simpson. But, by the 70’s, Namath was never the same.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about the Super Bowl from 48 years ago and see if the AFL evened up the series!
Brandon Fazzolari is a Super Bowl expert…@spot_Bills