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

JetsFix regular KillerOnFire has been deep into the history books to look back on a great Jets team of the past in this outstanding guest post. Part one, which we ran here back in February, is here if you missed it or would like to re-read. Here's part two.

The Jets began the second half of the 1972 season on a roll. They were 5-2 on a three game winning streak, all within the division. The offense trailed only the mighty Dolphins and was first in passing. Even so, the Jets had a balanced attack, including two excellent running backs and multiple deep threat receivers. And Joe Willie was back. After missing the better part of two seasons, he had proven that he could still sling it better than anyone, but he had improved in his ability to read defenses and take would the defense gave.

The defense was shakier, to be sure, but they’d closed the first half with a good game. Game 8 would be a test. They’d face the eventual NFC Champions, the Washington Redskins led by Larry Brown, then a top running back outpacing even OJ Simpson. Brown would ultimately lead the league in total yards from scrimmage. The Jets would need to key on Brown to have a chance of keeping the Redskins in check. This game would tell us a lot.

It didn’t start well. The strategy to blanket Brown and force the shaky Billy Kilmer to throw backfired immediately. Kilmer hit Roy Jefferson for a 45-yard TD to put the Skins up.

The Jets snapped right back with two long sustained drives. Riggins pounded it in from the one-yard line and a short Howfield field goal had the Jets up in the second quarter. But then, the wheels came off.

The strategy backfired again as Kilmer heaved a 70-yard TD to Charley Taylor, putting the Redskins up. And then Namath tossed up one of his three interceptions on the day for a pick 6. In the first half of the season, the pass protection had been excellent. But the Redskins line was the toughest the Jets had faced, and it gave Namath problems all game. He was sacked three times for the first time all year.

I remember listening to the game on my radio in the front yard, thinking that all wasn’t lost. Eleven points was nothing for our offense. Joe would figure out the Redskins defense at halftime. When the Redskins first drive started from their own 11, I thought it was a good sign. But it was not to be. The Jets adjusted at halftime. There’d be no more long passes. But old Billy adjusted too, foreshadowing another old geezer who would . . . well, let’s not reveal the lede just yet. On the Redskins first drive, Kilmer hit Brown on a swing pass, almost a lateral. And Brown started breaking tackles, stopping only when he hit the end zone. It was 28-10.

In the third, the Jets couldn’t get anything going. But neither could the Skins. Then, Namath led the Jets on another good drive, hitting Maynard for a 15-yard TD. It was a two score game. Joe could pull it out, right? Looking back on the game, there were just those three bad plays. The defense had held Brown under 50 yards and just 3 yards a carry. He’d been averaging over 100. And aside from those three TD passes, Kilmer hadn’t hit on a pass over 10 yards. A miracle win was possible.

No it wasn’t. Adding insult to injury, former Jet defensive end from the Super Bowl team, Verlon Biggs returned a fumble 16 yards for a touchdown, putting the game out of reach. In the end, it looked like a bad loss. But it was just three plays. Otherwise, the defense did a good job. It just wasn’t Joe’s day. And the Jets were 5-3.

Luckily for the Jets, the 2 and 6 Bills were up next, though they had played the Dolphins tough a few weeks before. It was no contest. The defense had 4 take aways and held the Bills to just 3 points. Meanwhile, Namath masterfully mixed up the pass and run, taking advantage of field position and running up the score. Boozer and Riggins had good days. Namath hit Caster for a 26-yard TD. By the 4th quarter, Namath was on the bench when Bob Davis hit Barkum on a 9-yard TD to cap a 41-3 win. The Jets were back in business with the Dolphins up next. Although catching the Dolphins wasn’t likely given their 9-0 start, the wildcard was within reach. And beating the Dolphins would give the Jets a huge psychological advantage on the rest of the league. But could they do it?

Bob Griese had gone down with a fractured ankle in game 5. His replacement? None other than the Baltimore Colts starting quarterback in Super Bowl III, Earl Morrall. The old man was 38, and his first game as a starter almost ended in disaster. He threw for just 91 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception as the lowly Bills made it a one-point game. After a shaky start, though, old Earl turned things around, leading the Phins to 23-0, 30-16, and 52-0 wins over the Colts, Bills and Pats. Not exactly NFL royalty in 1972, but still.

At this point, the Dolphins were the only team with a more potent offense than the Jets, though they relied primarily on a tremendous running game with three top running backs, two of whom were also excellent pass catchers. Unlike the Jets who were middle of the pack on defense, the Dolphins were also number 1 there. It wasn’t going to be easy. And it didn’t help that the Jets receiving core was depleted. Both Bell and Barkum would miss the game. Caster would have to step back outside and backup tight-end Wayne Stewart was slotted to see his first significant action. As for the Dolphins, Paul Warfield, their all-pro receiver was sidelined.

The game didn’t start well. Morrall drove the Dolphins in for a quick score on a 14-yard pass to Howard Twilley, a real Jet killer back then. But the Jets came back fast. Namath led a long drive making effective use of his backs on short passes and handing the ball to Riggins who would punch it in from the one to tie the score.

On their first drive of the second quarter, Namath would hit Caster for a 29-yard TD. Joe Willie was making the Dolphins vaulted defense look like swiss cheese despite being down two receivers. A hold and another impressive drive ended in a field goal putting the Jets up 17-7. How about that?

Of course Morrall engineered a late drive for a score, leaving the Jets up 17-14 at halftime.

As the second half got underway, Morrall again drove the Dolphins down the field. But this time, it looked like the Jets had them stopped. Stymied at the Jets 31, Morrall was chased out of the pocket for what looked to be a big sack that would have left Garo Yepremian with a long field goal. But then, it happened. As if the Kilmer killing of a couple of weeks before was not bad enough, Morrall escaped the grasp of the Jets’ linemen, and his 38-year-old legs somehow took him 31 yards for the score. The Dolphins were up 21-17.

Unfazed, Namath led the Jets on a methodical drive down the field. Aside from one 41-yarder to Maynard, there would be no long passes on this Sunday. Instead, Namath would hit Riggins and Boozer nine times for 78 yards, again figuring out what the defense would give him. Riggins also grounded out 83 on the ground. And as the quarter ended, Joe Willie hit Wayne Stewart for a 4-yard TD, and the Jets were back on top, heading into the fourth quarter against the undefeated Dolphins. Wow.

All they had to do was hold the line for one quarter, and the Jets would be the toast of the NFL. Well-positioned for the wild card, and the only team that appeared capable of handling the Dolphins. It was a brutal back-and-forth fourth quarter. Of course, you know the ending. Mercury Morris capped a huge day in which he gained 107 yards with a 14-yard TD run. The Phins would pull it out, but by the skin of their teeth, 28-24.

Disappointing as it was, the Jets had shown something. If not for Morrall’s incredible 31-yard TD scamper, they probably would have won the game. No other team had come close all season, except for Morrall’s first game against the Bills. And no other team would come close for the rest of the season. That was, of course, small consolation. And the Jets would have just three days to prepare to meet the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

The Lions, like the Jets, entered the game at 6 and 4. Of course, they were used to playing on Turkey Day. And they had a quarterback, Greg Landry, who was in the midst of doing something extraordinary for that time. He was running the ball as a planned part of the offense, averaging over 6 yards a carry. Scheming for something so unusual would be tough. Too tough for the Jets on this day, leading to the low point of the season.

For the Jets part, Bell was back, but Boozer was out. Still, the offense was humming on the ground. Riggins was his usual dominant self, racking up 105 yards on 24 carries with a TD and a 12-yard reception. The big surprise, though, was Cliff McClain who filled in admirably for Boozer picking up 121 yards on only ten carries and hauling in a 44-yard pass. Joe even picked up a first down on a quarterback sneak. After that tough game against the Redskins, the offensive line had re-anchored. Namath was not sacked for the third week in a row. So what went wrong?

The defense couldn’t stop the run and couldn’t get any takeaways. It was a quiet first quarter with the only scoring a Lion’s drive that ended in a field goal. As the second quarter began, Namath drove the Jets in as Riggins powered in from the one. But the Lions came right back as Landry hit Larry Walton for a 34-yard TD. On the next drive, Landry ran it in from the one. The teams exchanged field goals, and it was 20-10 at the half.

The third quarter was all Jets. A long drive ending in a FG, and then a 33-yard Namath to Caster TD tied the score. As the clock turned to the 4th quarter, the tide turned quickly to the Lions. A field goal; another TD run by Landry; and then a 38-yard breakaway by Altie Taylor put the game out of reach. At 6 and 5, the Jets looked dead. But they did have 10 days to get ready for the Archie Manning led Saints.

The Saints were bad, coming into Week 12 at 2-8-1. But they had Manning. Archie wasn’t Peyton, or even Eli. But he was pretty good. They had no running game, though, which kept their offense as well as their defense in the bottom third. Particularly with the game at Shea, the Jets should win this one. Still, everything would have to break right to keep their playoff hopes alive.

It was an unusual game. Namath would throw 40 times for the first time all season. But for no touchdowns and two interceptions. Still, he was able to keep the drives going for the most part. Howfield kicked field goal after field goal. But Manning managed to get the Saints into the end zone twice. An eight-yard pass to Bill Butler to open the fourth quarter put the Saints up 17 to 9.

The Jets season hung in the balance as three times Namath would drive the Jets down the field and three times the defense held so the Jets settled for Howfield field goal attempts. The final attempt was a 42-yarder. Howfield drilled it and the Jets pulled it out 18-17. And everything else broke right! The Steelers crushed the Cleveland Browns 30-0, putting the Browns at 8 and 4, clinging to the final wildcard spot. The 7 and 5 Jets held the tie breaker and would meet the Browns in week 14. They would control their fate.

But first things first. Week 13 would take the Jets to Oakland for the Monday night game against 8-3-1 Raiders. The Raiders offense was ranked 3rd in the league, just behind the Jets, who were number 1 in passing offense. Though Namath led the league in interceptions, he also led the league in passing yards by over 600. The Raider defense, though, was in the top 10, and with an excellent secondary. Amazingly, 10 of the 11 defense starters had an interception. The Jets, by this point, were last in pass defense. It shaped up as a great game. We all hoped that the extra day would help the Jets get healthy and that Namath would have a big day. We didn’t know it then, but it would be big the last big game the Jets would play in Joe Namath’s career. But oh, what a game it would be.

As the game approached, things looked bleak. Riggins had to undergo minor knee surgery and was out. Boozer had missed two weeks with a hyperextended knee. Cliff McClain had filled in well. Now, McClain was no hurt too. Boozer was not 100%, but agreed to give it a try. The Jets receivers were healthy, though, and they had the added incentive that Don Maynard, a 14-year veteran who already held the NFL record for most receiving yards, was just seven catches away from catching the great Raymond Berry for the all-time reception record.

For the Raiders part, they had clinched their division. But they still needed the win to avoid playing Miami in the first round. In those days, two teams in the same division could not meet in the first round. So, if the Jets won the wild card, the Raiders would have to face the undefeated Dolphins. John Madden, the Raiders young coach, took nothing for granted. When asked how he prepared to face Namath and the Jets, he replied “prey that Joe shows up hung over.”

As the game approached, Namath came down with flu. “He was taking some kind of pills when I saw him in the locker room,” Howard Cosell reported. There was speculation that he wouldn’t play. As they did the opening, the announcers didn’t know. In typical Namath fashion, he hung back as all the other captains assembled for the coin toss. Then, he jogged out to join them.

Glen Campbell, who had starred in Namath’s first movie, Norwood, sang the national anthem. Amazingly, you can watch this entire game (almost) on Youtube here.

The Jets got the opening kickoff, and Namath came out throwing. The first pass was nearly a pick six intended for Maynard. On second down, Namath hit a wide open Caster in the flat, but the ball bounced off his hands, the first of many drops to come. On third, down Namath hit Boozer, but he came up a foot short of the sticks.

The Raiders came out running with Marv Hubbard churning out yards. He carried on the ball on 6 of the first 7 plays. Ironically, Hubbard had previously been released by the Jets, though in fairness a lot of teams had passed on him before he found success with the Raiders. He’d run for over 60 yards in the first half, crossing the 1000-yard mark for the season. The Jets pass defense, by contrast, started off surprisingly well, defensing Darryl Lamonica’s first target of Fred Biletnikoff. But 45 year-old George Blanda drilled a 46-yard field goal.

On the Jets second drive, a first down run produced no gain. But then Namath hit Boozer on a short pass. Downfield throws to Eddie Bell and then two to Don Maynard had our boys moving. Namath’s cadence also drew the Raiders off-side twice. The throws were all perfect, drawing praise from Howard Cosell and Don Meredith. A facemask penalty then put the Jets at the 6. After a short run, and 6-yard loss when Steve Harkey fell down and couldn’t take the handoff, the Jets were 3rd and goal. Namath dropped back and slung a pass to Eddie Bell running a slant route. All-pro corner Willie Brown stiff-armed Bell right in the helmet as the ball was in the air, knocking Bell off his route. The ball fell right into Brown’s arms for an interception. Although Meredith said that it was a good defensive play – “not an infraction of the rules” - the replay showed Brown hit Bell while the ball was in the air. Even in the heyday of bump and run, that should have been pass interference. There were no automatic first downs in those days. But still, the Jets would have had another shot from the 2 yard-line. Namath protested. To no avail. No replay review in those days.

The Raiders had to start from their own 2, and went 3 and out. A bad kick gave the Jets the ball at the Raiders 39. After a short run, the Jets came out with a 3 wide receiver set. Gifford called it a “four-end offense,” which was unusual in those days. The Raiders blitzed, sacking Namath for an 11-yard loss, only the 8th sack of the season. It was a big one. What a letdown, right?

Let’s pause here for a second. Take a guess at what Namath could call on 3rd and 21 from the 50? Remember, Namath called his own plays. After just being sacked, today you’d expect a draw or a short pass, maybe. Field goal range was 10 yards deeper in those days because the goal posts were at the goal line. At least, they could pin the Raiders deep and play field position. Or maybe, throw for the first down, but keep blockers in to protect. Namath sent everybody out, “five men in the pattern” we used to call it. The Raiders rushed only 3. With plenty of time Namath rifled it downfield to Caster who caught the ball at the 30. Don Maynard threw an amazing block, springing Caster who took it in. A 50-yard TD.

The Raiders next drive ended on a John Elliot strip sack of Lamonica. It appeared that Gerry Philbon had a clear shot at the ball. But somehow it squirted away, and the Raiders recovered. Another what-could-have-been moment in a game with plenty. So, let’s take stock. First, if the pass interference on Eddie Bell had been called, Namath would have had first and goal at the 2, the spot of the foul. If they Jets had scored, it would have been 14-3. And if they had recovered the fumble, at which they had a clear shot, they would have been at the Raiders 30 with and 11-point lead. One more score, and the Raiders might have buckled. Remember, they had already clinched the AFC West. Playing the Steelers in Pittsburg would be no picnic, to be sure. And they’d have to beat the Phins at some point. So, it didn’t matter that much.

That didn’t happen though. The Raiders got to punt, and the Jets got the ball back on their own 22. Cosell prophetically pointed out that the Raiders were a great 4th quarter team. Letting them stay close, was not a recipe for success. The Jets went 3 and out. Namath hit Caster on third down, but he came up a yard short. Cosell displayed his best talent, saying something articulately that someone else told him. This time, Meredith’s point that quarterbacks shouldn’t rely on the receiver to get the first down.

The tide turned quickly, though. On first down, Lamonica went for a long one to Biletnikoff. It was horribly underthrown and picked off by Phil Wise who returned it to the Raiders 40. After two decent Boozer runs, it was third and 2. Namath saw that Bell was one-on-one again with All Pro Willie Brown. Possibly looking for pay back, Namath decided to go for it all. And Bell did his part. A great double move got separation from Brown. But Namath underthrew it, and Brown picked it off. Luckily, Brown couldn’t come down with both feet in bounds. Howfield missed the 40-yard field goal, and you could feel it. The Jets were up. But they were letting the Raiders stay too close.

On the next drive, Lamonica hit Biletnikoff on a perfectly thrown 40-yard bomb. The Jets got good pressure; coverage wasn’t bad. Biletnikoff had just a step on Steve Tannen. The throw had to be perfect. It was. And to make it worse, Tannen hurt his knee. The Raiders were up 10-7, and Cosell reported that Tannen had a strained knee ligaments and wouldn’t return. A few minutes later, the announcers reported that Tannen would try to return in the second half.

After a good kickoff return by Chris Farosopolis, who was leading the league in return yards, Namath came out firing. Four completions – two to Maynard putting him just 3 catches away from the record – had the Jets at the 20 when the drive stalled. Howfield hit the field goal to tie it up. Maybe the momentum would swing?

The Raiders had two minutes left in the half when they lined up. And Steve Tannen came out on the field! Men were men in those days. If Joe could play with the flu, Tannen, the Jets best corner charged with covering Biletnikoff one-on-one, wasn’t going to let strained knee ligaments keep him out. On first down, Lamonica hit running back Charlie Davis near the first down marker. He came down with just one foot in bounds, maybe. I mean, one foot was clearly out. The other one was close. The officials missed it, calling it complete, because, of course they did. A few plays later, Lamonica threw to Biletnikoff again. This time, though, Biletnikoff’s feet had slid out from under him. As the ball was in the air, he had to put his hand to the ground to balance himself to keep from falling over. Somehow, he managed to catch his balance and straighten up just as the ball arrived. He caught it. Damn that guy was good.

The camera showed Namath and Maynard sitting together on the sideline. Joe looked terrible. On the next play, Lamonica threw another bomb this time to Raymond Chester. The Jets were ready though, blanketing the big tight end. Tannen almost made a great interception, but he dropped it. And this time, he couldn’t get up. It looked really bad as he was helped off the field. With just a minute left, backup Rich Sowells came in for Tannen. Lamonica went after the rookie immediately, and Sowells came up big, picking off the pass! To be fair, it looked like a miscommunication. Biletnikoff was open, but must had cut the wrong way. Lamonica threw it right to Sowells. Still, he had to catch it!

With a minute left, Joe came out firing. He hit Bell at mid-field. On the next pass, he passed up a wide open Boozer in the flat and rifled it to Bell 30 yards downfield. Bell had to jump. The pass was catchable. But the 5’ 10” Bell couldn’t bring it down. Drop number 2. The drive stalled at mid-field, and the Jets punted.

Cliff Branch called for a fair catch. The ball went through his hands and the Jets recovered at the 23 with 13 seconds to go and 2 time outs. Curiously, the Jets didn’t run a play. Howfield came out and hit the 30 yarder. Maybe Namath had already gone to the locker room to get buffed up for the second half? Rumor had it that Namath’s knees were drained of excess fluid at half-time. And then there was the flu. Maybe Eubank didn’t want to take a chance that Joe wouldn’t be able to resist trying to thread the needle and get picked off. Who knows? The Jets took a 3-point lead into half time. Namath had thrown for 194 yards. But Cosell repeated during halftime just how good of a second half team the Raiders were...

What would happen in the second half? We'll have the third and final part for you soon.

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