Milestone Games, the most significant NFL game of each decade: the 1960’s

Milestone Games, the most significant NFL game of each decade: the 1960’s
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The 1960’s Milestone Game: Super Bowl III

Selecting the ‘Milestone Games’ gives us an opportunity to look back over the 100 year history of the NFL and select the most meaningful match-up of each decade.

We started with the Galloping Ghost in the 1920’s, and the first playoff game in the 1930’s. Then onto the popularization of the T-formation in the 1940’s, and latterly the ‘greatest game ever played’ in the 1950’s.

We will be moving all the way to the 2010’s and will explore the games that made the NFL what it is today. Now we have reached the 1960’s. An era of competition for the league that ultimately strengthened it through expansion.

With that in mind, our game of the decade is one of the greatest upsets of all time – Super Bowl III.

This is all very subjective of course, and you may well disagree. If you do, let us know in the comments below, or contact us at Ninety-Nine Yards.

Some Key Games in the 1960’s

I honestly don’t think you could make a convincing argument for another game in the decade being more important than this one. The first two (retrospectively named) Super Bowl games did not sell out. No NFL title game since this one has failed to do so.

All that being said there were some games that are regarded as pivotal moments in league history.

The Frozen Tundra

The Ice Bowl, played December 31st 1967, between the Green Bay Packers & Dallas Cowboys on a frozen Lambeau Field deserves a mention. The temperature at kickoff was -15 degrees F (-26 degrees C), with a wind chill factor running around 44 to 48 below zero. The under-soil heating broke down and the field was like glass.

The Packers would win on a 1 yard Bart Starr QB plunge. Green Bay won their third straight NFL title ensuring they dominated both of the first two Super Bowl games. NFL fans said it highlighted the superiority of the senior league. AFL fans noted that nobody in the NFL was beating the Packers for a title either.

We could also have gone with Super Bowl I. Originally called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The Green Bay Packers won that first game, 35-10, against the Kansas City Chiefs on January 15th 1967.

The game was symbolic as after the AFL and NFL agreed to merge this was their first joint title game. There were no surprises here though and it didn’t rock the establishment like the Jets win would do 2 years later.

Heidi makes an appearance

Finally what about the ‘Heidi Game’? Played between the Jets & the Oakland Raiders on November 17th 1968. The Jets were leading 32-29 with 1:30 on the game-clock. NBC cut away from the game to show their scheduled film “Heidi”.

NBC were overwhelmed by complaints from football fans, and to top it off the Raiders made a comeback. This was a milestone game because it convinced networks to air games until their conclusion, whether or not the game ran over the allotted three hours. 

But for me, because of the impact it had, and how it still resonates down the years, Super Bowl III was the milestone game of the 1960’s.

The Arrival of the AFL in the 1960’s

Rival football leagues had been and gone before. Ultimately they all disappeared. The AFL would surprise the NFL by arriving and then thriving.

Texan oil millionaire Lamar Hunt decided to form his own league after being rejected by the NFL in a bid to purchase a franchise with them. Hunt got fellow Texas oilman Bud Adams on board and they ultimately created a league that would begin playing in 1960. The new American Football League was officially named on August 22nd in Dallas.

Like their predecessors, the AFL was given little chance to succeed. Much to the dismay of NFL stalwarts however, the AFL prospered and even broke down the control the NFL had over its players. Higher salaries were one way the AFL could entice the better players to cross over. In 1965 NBC’s $36 million television contract to the AFL intensified a bidding war.

The Merger

When Al Davis became AFL commissioner a year later, he declared war on the NFL and encouraged AFL owners to sign as many players as possible away from the older league. Joe Namath was perhaps the biggest name to benefit, receiving what was then a massive $427,000 salary from the Jets.

The NFL owners gradually realized the upstart league wasn’t going away. As fiscal control over players slipped away and costs rose, they decided it was in everyone’s best interest to come to a settlement.

Lamar Hunt held talks in secret with Tex Schramm, the president of the Dallas Cowboys. Talks began in March 1966 and an agreement was reached on June 8th that year.

A joint statement was issued, “The NFL and AFL today announced plans to join in an expanded major professional football league. It will consist of 26 teams in 25 cities with expectations of additional in the near future.”

Because of the existing commitments for the individual leagues, a four year transition period was put in place. Our Milestone Game – Super Bowl III, was the third title match of that interim period.

New York Jets 16 Baltimore Colts 7, January 12th, 1969

Orange Bowl, Miami Florida – attendance 75,389

Super Bowl III was the third iteration of a championship game between the NFL & AFL champions. It was also the first game to be called a ‘Super Bowl’.

The Baltimore Colts who had been founded in 1953 were a two time NFL Champion (1958,1959) & were now a part of the NFL establishment. The Jets who had been founded in 1960 & played as the Titans until 1963 were a founder member of the AFL.

Under the tutelage of Head Coach Weeb Ewbank, who arrived in 1963, and who had previously led the Colts to their titles, the Jets had been gradually improving. Now an 11-3 season had seen them claim their first AFL title.

By contrast from 1964-68 the Colts had gone 55-12-3. That had netted two NFL title games (a 27-0 loss to Cleveland in 1964 & a 34-0 win over the same opponents in 1968).

The Colts won the NFL title in 1968 following a 13-1 regular season. In the playoffs they beat the Vikings 24-14 and the Browns 34-0. Some observers were arguing they were the greatest team ever.

Baltimore went into Super Bowl III as 17-21 point favourites. Former NFL QB Norm Van Brocklin joked this would be “Namath’s first professional football game”. Broadway Joe would have the last laugh.

The Guarantee

Aside from it being one of the biggest upsets in American sporting history, audacity also plays a part in this game being so well remembered.

Broadway Joe Namath was pure box office for the AFL from the start. He had been selected 12th by the St Louis Cardinals and 1st by the Jets in the NFL & AFL drafts respectively. He asked for a then record $200,000 per year contract & a Lincoln convertible car from the Cards. In the end he signed a three year $427,000 contract with New York & they threw in a new car.

New York was the perfect place for his glamorous lifestyle to make headlines. The Jets investment proved beneficial from a media standpoint for the younger league.

In 1967 he made headlines by being the first QB to throw for over 4,000 yards (4,007) & made national headlines again.

It was no surprise then that a lot of the media coverage in the week leading up to the big game centred around Namath.

The apex of it all came on the Thursday before the game. Namath was presented with the Professional Football Player of the Year Award. The first AFL player to be honoured in that way.

During the speech he was heckled and responded “You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about. We’re going to win Sunday, I guarantee it.” That guarantee made national headlines. It certainly intensified interest in the game, and arguably got under the skin of some of the Colts players.

The 1960’s Milestone Game itself

You wouldn’t call it a masterpiece. It even started to the script the experts predicted. The Jets had the ball first and only managed to go 17 yards in 6 plays picking up a lone first down along the way.

The Colts by contrast received the ball for the first time on their own 27 yard line and started fast. A short pass from Earl Morrall to tight end John Mackey went for 19 yards. That was followed by a 10 yard run from HB Tom Matte and a 7 yard run by FB Jerry Hill.

It took the Colts just 8 plays to get from their 27 to the Jets 19 yard line. Those odds were looking good based on the opening salvos.

The Missed Chances

Then the Jets D stiffened. 2 incomplete passes and a rush for no gain from Morrall brought out the Field Goal unit. Kicker Lou Michaels missed from 27 yards out. In his autobiography Morrall would single this moment at the end of a 12 play 5 and a half minute drive as a moment the Colts deflated and the Jets rose in confidence.

A moment that changed the feelings of the players on either side of the game.

After an exchange of punts another turning point occurred. The Colts were once again in prime position. On third and goal from the 6 yard line Morrall was picked off in the End Zone. Now the Colts had thrown away the chance for anything between a 6 and 14 point lead.

The fact that the Jets had rolled with the punches and were still hanging on at 0-0 after more than a quarter of the game had passed affected both sets of players. The Colts started to realise they were in for a contest and the Jets continued to grow in confidence.

The Jets Score

The new found confidence seemed to inspire the Jets O. Their next drive went 80 yards in 12 plays and was capped by Matt Snell running in from 4 yards out.

This was the first time ever that an AFL team had taken the lead in a Super Bowl. Jim Turner tacked on an extra point and the Jets led 7-0. A lead that must have been quite unsettling for a 21 point favourite Colts team that hadn’t trailed in any game since November.

Both teams then had drives that ended in missed 40+ yard Field Goal attempts before Morrall was intercepted again close to halftime. When Morrall missed a wide open receiver on a flea flicker that could have tied the game up Colts fans must have had a sinking feeling about the game.

Few halftime scores can have seemed as stunning to the NFL establishment.

The Second Half – the Jets take over

Baltimore’s first drive ended in a turnover when the ball was fumbled away. The Jets converted that into 3 more points with a Field Goal from Turner. Now it was 10-0 to the underdogs.

A colts three and out was then followed by a 10 play Jets drive resulting in another Turner Field Goal. The 21 point underdogs were now 13-0 ahead with just over 4 minutes of the third quarter left.

Coach Don Shula brought Johnny Unitas on to try and spark the Colts to life. However all they got was another three and out. The Jets responded by making it to the Colts 3 before coming away with another 3 points. 16-0 to the underdogs.

On the next series the Baltimore offense got moving. They went from the Colts 33 to the Jets 25 only for Unitas to be picked off .

A final flurry

With the Jets leading 16-0 and 5:55 to go in the game the Colts faced 4th and 10 from their own 20. Unitas hit Jimmy Orr for a 17 yard gain. That ignited something and a 15 play drive saw the Colts score on a 1 yard plunge by Jerry Hill.

With 3:19 on the clock the Colts then recovered an onside kick. Would this be the comeback? No. An incomplete pass on 4th and 5 from the Jets 19 effectively ended their chances.

The 16-7 win would have long lasting implications for the league and that is why it is our Milestone Game of the 1960’s.

Aftermath

There had been challengers to the NFL before. The AFL 1 and AFL 2 iterations, and more successfully the AAFC. Even the latter however was disbanded and only saw three teams merged into the senior league.

Merger talks between the NFL & AFL were much more readily accepted once the younger league showed its worth. Namath’s guarantee & the Jets win were icing on the cake for the AFL. Not only would they merge with the NFL with all the teams intact. But they would also do so with a sense of equality because of it (especially after the Chiefs won Super Bowl IV to even the score 2-2 in title games prior to the full merger).

In the 54 year history of the Super Bowl it has been won 17 times by teams that originated in the AFL. The biggest win of them all for the AFL however arguably remains our 1960’s milestone game – Super Bowl III.

Another area of fall out from this game would affect the NFL in the next decade too.

The relationship between Colts owner Caroll Rosenbloom and Head Coach Don Shula would never get over the loss and they soon parted ways.

Still that led to one of the key moments of the 1970’s as Shula led the Dolphins to a perfect rarity a 17-0 Super Bowl winning season.

Banner Image from newyorkjets.com

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