Guest Post: The Second Super Bowl season ... that wasn't (Part One)

JetsFix regular KillerOnFire delves deep into the history books to look back on a great Jets team of the past in this outstanding guest post.

If you didn’t live through it as a 10-year-old, or maybe even if you did, you probably now think of the 1972 Jets season as just another meh .500 year. But bear with me. It was so much more than that, and oh, what it could have been. If only ...

First, let’s set the stage. After the Super Bowl win in January 1969, the Jets went 10-4 the next season, easily winning the AFL East. But in the first round of the playoffs, they lost to the Chiefs in a close game. In 1970, the AFL and NFL formally merged, and everything went south for the Jets, finishing 4-10. Matt Snell was injured in game 3 and out for the year. Namath broke his wrist in week 5 and never returned. But they were 1 and 4 at that point.

Had their star faded? Were they now a bad team? We all waited for the the start of the 1971 pre-season. And then, in the first preseason game, Joe Willie blew out his knee – get this – trying to make a tackle on an interception return. You can’t make this stuff up. Speculation grew that Namath’s career was over ... at 28.

But then, something amazing happened. Before the opening Monday night game of the '71 season, Joe showed up on crutches and in a full leg cast. But he was ready to talk. Is he retiring, is this it for Broadway Joe? We wondered. “F--- that,” Namath as much as said. “I’m coming back this year!” He didn’t say, “I guarantee it.” But there was that twinkle in his eye.

As Week 11 approached, Joe announced he was ready to return. The team was 4-6. The defense had been decimated by injuries. Why not sit out the season and get ready for next year? Because Joe Willie liked to play football. The opponents were the 49ers in the midst of a good year – 6-4 at that point – with a strong defense, leading the NFC in sacks.

Not knowing if Namath could hold up for an entire game, Weeb Ewbank, who coached the Jets to their Super Bowl victory and still ran the team, started Bob Davis. He planned to bring in Namath for the second half. The game plan was to run on the 49ers. But on their first two possessions, the Jets gained only 5 yards on the ground. And three minutes into the second quarter, Davis went down with a leg injury.

Namath trotted onto the field. His first pass went harmlessly into the ground, and his next pass fell incomplete as well. It looked like the rust was going to be hard to shake off as Joe kicked the turf in frustration as he walked off the field.

On the next series, Namath – who called all his own plays – begun with the run, handing off to rookie sensation John Riggins who had taken over for the Super Bowl hero Snell. Like Namath, Snell had suffered another injury. But unlike his quarterback, Snell would sit out the entire year.

Finally, after missing 20 consecutive games, Namath hit Emerson Boozer perfectly in stride for 25 yards. All was good with the world again. Until it wasn’t. On the next play, Namath underthrew Don Maynard and was picked off. The 49ers ran it back to the Jets 2 yard-line. But the defense stood tough and the 49ers couldn’t pound it in. Still, Namath wasn’t looking good.

The Jets got the ball with 2 minutes left in the half, and Namath got hot. Hitting a couple of passes and bringing the Jets to the one-yard line. Then, a fumble through the end zone, ended the hopes of a late Jets score. I know, right! You really can’t make this stuff up. The Jets went into half-time down 10-0. And an early 3rd quarter touchdown put 49ers up 17-0. It was over. And Joe’s return was at best an encouraging whimper. But wait . . .

On the next drive, Namath hit Rich Caster for a 57-yard touchdown. Without Namath for much of his first two years, the highly touted Caster looked like a bust. He was dropping everything and had lost his confidence. With his mentor back on the field, though, perhaps the young wideout’s fortunes would turn? Spoiler alert – they would.

On their first drive of the 4th quarter, the 49ers scored again, taking a 24-7 lead and again putting the game presumably out of reach. On the next drive, you can imagine Namath in the huddle. “Ok boys, let’s have some fun and see what happens.” He hit Caster again for a 20-yard TD. After the 49ers 3 and out, the Jets blocked the punt. On the first play, Namath hit Eddie Bell for a 22-yard score. And suddenly, it was 24-21. The defense held, and the Jets had a final chance with a minute to go.

Namath hit passes to Caster and Bell, putting the ball at the 49ers 40. But then, disaster struck ... another interception. The game seemed over, but an offside penalty nullified the pick. A Boozer run put the ball at the 19 with 30 seconds to go. A field goal could tie it. And field goals from there were chip shots in those days. The goal posts were on the goal line rather than the back of the end-zone. Would they run it up the middle to set up the tying score? Of course not. No overtime in those days. Namath was going to rifle one into the end zone. Everyone knew it, and another interception ended the game. You can see the highlights here

Any thoughts that happy days were here again for the Jets were quashed the next week when the Cowboys opened up a 28-0 lead in the first quarter. Namath was getting roughed up by the Doomsday Defense and threw another interception. Ewbank wisely pulled him, and let Davis take the lumps.

Namath won the final two games of the season, relying mostly on the running game. Though there was a tantalizing 75-yard touchdown to Maynard in the final game. Something to look forward to.

As the 1972 season approached, fans were optimistic. And why not? The core of the Super Bowl team was still largely intact. Four of the five offensive lineman were still playing at a high level. Namath and Matt Snell would be back after missing most of the previous two seasons with injuries. Maynard was still going strong at wide receiver, and Caster and Bell had proven themselves to be capable deep threats. The Jets first round pick, Jerome Barkum, looked like a perfect possession receiver to replace the retired George Sauer. The plan for ’72 was to move Caster to tight end, giving the Jets an amazing set of deep-threat receivers. At a time when 3 wide receiver sets were rare, the Jets lineup was unprecedented. And the running game was excellent too. Boozer was still in his prime. Though he’d lost a step, he remained an excellent receiver and blocker in addition to a smart runner. And Riggins, the prior year’s first round pick, had shown great potential.

On defense, the linebacker core from the Super Bowl – Larry Grantham, Al Atkinson, and Ralph Baker – remained intact, and Paul Crane had filled in admirably when Baker was injured in 71. On the line, Gerry Philbin and John Elliott were back and still playing well. John Little and Mark Lomas were quick and capable. The secondary was the weak link. But they had some talented young players and the experienced WK Hicks.

I remember watching the first pre-season game with great excitement. They opened with Boozer and Snell lined up behind Namath, just like the Super Bowl. Snell carried on the first play. It was one for memories, though. Everyone knew that Riggins would start over Snell. And backs didn’t rotate much in those days. Snell would not get a single carry and would sadly end his carrier blocking in the wedge on kickoff returns where he would tear his ACL in the 5th game with just one 14 kickoff return on a short kick to show for his final season.

The Jet-Giant preseason game was played at the Yale Bowl in New Haven. And it was a big affair in those days. And this would be one for the record books as the two teams would combine for 862 yards of total offense. The Jets started Davis. Coach Ewbank said that they planned to establish the run and wanted to see what sort of defenses the Giants would play. Namath came in on the second series and played the rest of the game! Can you imagine?

The New York Times praised the Giants offence as “varied, well executed, complete. The Jet offense, in contrast, was simplistic. Namath was like a man chopping down a tree with an ax. He’d go back, get time, throw long – and either connect or be intercepted.” This actually wouldn’t be a preview of the Jets regular season offense that would indeed be quite varied and balanced. But it sure was fun for one day. Namath hit Maynard for 87-yard and 22-yard TDs. On another drive, he hit reserve tight end Gary Arthur for 45 yards, and then Bell with a 35-yard touchdown strike to go along with 3 interceptions. The game ended in a 31-31 tie.

As the regular season approached, teams began thinking about how to deal with a re-positioning of the hash marks closer together. The Baltimore Colts had devised a defensive scheme called the zone defense, which was uncommon in those days. Namath and Ewbank had a counter-plan. Relying on an excellent offensive line and pass blocking running backs, they decided to flood the deep zones with multiple receivers. They would visit the Colts in week 2. So, they decided to keep their scheme under wraps.

The season opened on September 17 against the then-lowly Bills who the Jets had beaten twice the year before without Namath. It would be a 41-24 blow out. Namath would throw the ball just 14 times and complete just 5 passes, including a 12-yard TD to Boozer. The running game was all they needed as Riggins racked up 125 on 26 carries. Boozer got 50 on 13 carries and two rushing TDs to go along with his TD catch. On defense, the Jets held OJ Simpson to 41 yards, although the Juice threw and completed two passes, including one for a TD to JD Hill. It was “OJ to JD for a TD.” The game was actually more lopsided than the score indicated as Buffalo put up ten meaningless points in the 4th quarter after the game had been decided.

Week 2 would be the most extraordinary game of Namath’s career, and perhaps by any quarterback ever. In 1970, the Colts had been Super Bowl champions and they were a strong play-off team in 1971 going 10-4. This would be the Jets first challenge of the season. With Boozer out with an injury, and the Colts would be keying on Riggins after his big opening game. Running wasn’t going to work. But Ewbank and Namath had their plan to attack that zone defense. Namath came out firing. On the first series, he hit Bell for a 65-yard TD.

At that point, the offensive temporarily stalled, and Johnny Unitas threw a 40-yard TD pass and led the Colts to two field goals. But in the second quarter, Namath got hot. He hit Riggins on a 67-yard catch-and-run TD. After the Colts returned the kickoff for a touchdown, Namath quickly drove the Jets down the field and hit Maynard on a 28-yard TD, and another 10-yarder to Caster as the half ran out with the Jets up 27-20.

The third quarter was relatively quiet with just a short Bobby Howfield field goal to put the Jets up 10. But early in the 4th, Unitas drove the Colts to the one, and Don McCauley punched it in. It was a 3-point game. Colts fans had been saying that this game would show how the Super Bowl would have gone if Unitas had been able to play the whole game. Could the old man pull it out?

Well, let's just say got interesting. On the first play of the next drive, Namath hit Caster for a 79-yard TD. But Unitas came right back, hitting Tom Matte for a touchdown, again cutting the Jets lead to 3. Time was running down, could the Jets run out the clock? Namath had other ideas. After a touchback, Joe Willie sent everybody out for a long one, flooding the Colts zone coverage one more time. And Namath connected with Caster in stride for an 80-yard TD. The defense would hold and the Jets were 2-0.

In the end, Namath had completed 15 of 28 passes for 496 yards and 6 touchdowns. Caster had 204 receiving yards and three TDs. Bell had 197 yards. Riggins even racked up 87 yards on the ground. You can see the highlights here.

The Jets were looking good. Only 4 teams had started the year 2-0. The Cowboys and Redskins and the Dolphins and the Jets. Week three would be against the lowly 0-2 Houston Oilers. The game started off well with the Jets going up 10-0 in the first quarter. Namath hit the rookie Barkum for his first career touchdown. But Boozer was out again, and Bell was hobbled as well, though he caught one 32-yard pass. In the second quarter, the Oilers would score twice to take the lead. A late Howfield field goal cut it to a one-point game at halftime. Surely, the Jets would pull it out in the second half. But no, the Oilers got 3 field goals in the third putting them up 10. In the 4th, Namath hit Caster for a short TD, cutting the lead to 3. But the Oilers came back with a FG, and Namath couldn’t get the Jets in for one more score.

The Jets were 2-1, but Namath was on a pace to throw for over 4200 yards, which would have broken his own record. Hopefully, the Oilers game would be just a bump in the road. Unfortunately, game 4 was against the Dolphins who had been in the Super Bowl the year before and would ultimately go 17-0. Still, things started well. Namath drove the Jets down the field and guard Randy Rasmussen recovered a fumble in the end zone to give the Jets the early lead. But the No-Name Defense was too tough on this day. Boozer was back in uniform, but not at full strength, and Bell didn’t play. With his weapons limited, Namath had a bad day. He hit only 12 of 25 passed for 156 yards with an interception, suffering a sack (just the second of the year). Riggins got 50 yards on only 10 carries. But it wasn’t enough. Larry Csonka ran for over 100 yards, and Bob Griese threw for 220. The Dolphins won easily 27-20 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.

The Sport Magazine cover that week had the title Joe Namath and his jittery Jets. Unstoppable when the offense was at full strength, the author wrote. But less potent when Namath lacked all his weapons. And the defense, well, it wasn’t 1968 anymore. It wasn’t terrible, but had proven susceptible to the pass.

Week 5 would get the Jets back in the win column in another extraordinary game, demonstrating that Namath had become much more than a passer. Bell and Boozer were back at full strength, and the Jets would blow out the Patriots 41-13. It was an extremely windy day. So Namath changed up the game plan, amazingly throwing only 8 passes, though one would go to Caster for a 27-yard TD. It would be the fewest passes ever attempted by a Jets quarterback. By contrast, Riggins and Boozer would carry the ball 50 times for 318 yards between them. Riggins got 168 yards on 32 carries, and Boozer 150 on just 18 with 3 touchdowns. I can find no other game in which two running backs on the same team each rushed for 150 yards. After the game, Namath was asked about throwing so few passes. “When you’re out there doing your job, you don’t keep statistics too much,” he said.

Next up, the Colts came to Shea. By this point, the recent champs were in disarray. At 1-5, they’d just fired their coach, been struck by injuries, and benched Unitas in favor of the 25-year-old Marty Domres. Given the result the last time, it looked like easy pickings. But the Colts defense had figured out the Jets offensive scheme. And our boys weren’t clicking.

Joe tried to recreate the running success against New England. But the Colts bottled it up, though Riggins did get 90 yards on 21 carries. But Boozer had just 29 on 9. While Namath hit some longs ones: a 49-yard TD to Boozer and passes of 49 and 26 to Caster and Maynard, respectively, Joe Willie had three interceptions on just 16 attempts and only 4 completions. Still, the Jets clung to a lead heading into the 4th quarter.

With time running down, the Colts pulled out a trick play. Domres hit kicker Jim O‘Brien for a touchdown to give the Colts their first lead. With little time left, Namath needed a miracle. A poor kickoff return left the Jets at their own 17 with little time remaining. Given the day Namath had had to that point, most quarterbacks would have lost their confidence. Joe Willie just kept calling for the long ones that fell incomplete. Until, he dropped back, felt some pressure, and heaved it down field. Luckily, I was listening on the radio. Home games were blacked out in those days. It was lucky because I couldn’t see what was about to happen. Namath had overthrown Bell. By a mile. The closest player to the ball was a Colts defender. It appeared to be a sure interception that would end the game and essentially the Jets season. But then, the ball bounced off the Colts defender and ... into Bell’s hands! He caught it on a dead run, scampering into the end zone for an 83-yard TD. And the Jets were 4-2. Back in business. You can see it here at 16:05.

The Patriots came to Shea for week 7, and the Jets, with a more balanced attack this time, dominated. The two teams traded field goals. But then, the Jets rolled off 31 straight points. Boozer ran for 3 touchdowns, his third game in the first 7 in which he scored three times! Namath threw for 203 yards on 12 of 24. He was sacked twice for the first time all season, and by the 4th quarter, he was done for the day. Bob Davis handed off to run out the clock and sneaked in a 14-yard TD to Caster. Riggins was injured, but Boozer ran for 91 and Cliff McClain and Steve Harkey combined for 93.

At the turn, the Jets were 5-2 and looking strong. The offense consisted of an impressively balanced attack that was stronger in every way than the Super Bowl winning team from ’68. Although Snell had gone down in week 5, Riggins was better than Snell had ever been, and Boozer had matured into an intelligent back who could do it all. Namath too had matured. He still threw into tight coverage too often, leading to more interceptions than touchdowns. But he’d become a master at using his running game. And when he was hot, and the Jets had their full complement of receivers, there was no stopping them.

The defense was another story, particularly against the pass. But perhaps they had turned a corner, holding New England to just 128 net passing yards with 2 sacks and 3 turnovers. There was certainly reason to be optimistic. Their only bad loss had been to the mighty Dolphins, and in the end, they only lost that game by one score.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Thanks again to KillerOnFire for the post and we look forward to part two soon. Remember, if YOU want to write a guest post for JetsFix, we'll consider almost anything. E-mail if you're interested.