August 24, 2017

Joe Namath Becomes First 4,000-Yard Passer in a Season (1967)

The New York Jets finished the 1967 season against the Chargers at San Diego Stadium on December 24, winning 42-31. Third-year QB Joe Namath completed 18 of 26 passes for 343 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. With his second consecutive 300-yard passing game (he threw for 370 yards in a loss at Oakland the previous week), he finished the year with 4,007 yards, a new AFL record (Washington’s Sonny Jurgensen bested his own NFL record with 3,747 yards that same season).

Namath thus became the first 4,000-yard passer in either NFL or AFL history, and the only one to do so in a 14-game season (the record was first broken by San Diego’s Dan Fouts in 1979). Including the Chargers game, he had six 300-yard performances and one of 400 yards during the season. In addition to passing yards, he also led the AFL in pass attempts (491), completions (258), yards per attempt (8.2) and, on the negative side for the second year in a row, interceptions thrown (28). His 26 touchdown passes ranked second.

Overall, the season was a disappointing one for the Jets. After getting off to a 7-2-1 start, New York appeared to be cruising toward the Eastern Division title, but three straight defeats, including a stunning loss at home to the lowly Broncos, knocked them out of contention. Injuries to running backs Emerson Boozer and Matt Snell had a significant effect, forcing the team to over-rely on Namath’s passing and, thus, setting the stage for damaging interceptions as a result. There were also weaknesses in both the defensive line and backfield.

Namath, naturally, was the focus. A celebrity as well as a much-hyped passer out of college, he couldn’t help but draw attention, and his skills were outstanding. At 6’2” and 195 pounds, he had size, plus a strong and accurate arm that was made all the more potent by his quick release. He read defenses well, was a charismatic team leader, and stood tough in the pocket while taking many a hard shot from opposing defensive linemen. At the same time, Namath was not yet a seasoned quarterback, and while he could put up big numbers, he could also be erratic and try to force passes into coverage. In a tie against Houston, he passed for 295 yards but gave up six interceptions.

Namath came into pro football with one bad knee, injured in college; it required surgery before he ever played for the Jets, and again in 1966. Following the ’67 season, he underwent surgery on his left, or “good”, knee. The resulting limitation on his mobility made him all the more prone to taking hits, yet he never missed a game because of injury in the five seasons prior to 1970 (after which time missed due to wear and tear increased significantly).

It helped that he had two excellent receivers to throw to: veteran flanker Don Maynard, who caught 71 passes for a league-leading (and career-best) 1,434 yards and 10 touchdowns, and third-year split end George Sauer, who led the AFL in pass receptions with 75 and accumulated 1,189 yards with six scores.

New York ended up at 8-5-1 and in second place in the Eastern Division, a game behind the 9-4-1 Houston Oilers, who succeeded with a solid ground game and strong defense. Head Coach Weeb Ewbank, who had built a championship team in Baltimore over the course of five seasons in the 1950s, took some heat for the late collapse by the Jets, but all would be forgiven the following season.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on December 24, 2009.

 

Broncos Stun Lions in First Preseason Game Between AFL-NFL Teams (1967)

The merger between the NFL and AFL, that was agreed to in 1966, was implemented in phases. In the first phase, following the ’66 season, a game was played between the champions of the two leagues (now known as Super Bowl I). For 1967, there was a common draft of college talent between the two leagues, and while they would still play separate schedules until 1970, interleague preseason games could be scheduled. While at one level the contests were mere exhibition games that counted for nothing in the standings, to the participants they meant a great deal. In particular, the AFL players were determined to prove their mettle against the clubs from the older NFL.

Such was the case as the AFL’s Denver Broncos hosted the NFL’s Detroit Lions at University of Denver Stadium on August 5, 1967. The Broncos, a club that had never produced a record above .500 in any season and had gone 4-10 in ’66, hardly seemed likely to fare well against any NFL team. Under new Head Coach Lou Saban, who had led Buffalo to back-to-back championships in 1964 and 1965 before coaching for a year at the University of Maryland, the team was in the process of being revamped. Gone were key veterans that Saban deemed unfit for taking part in a rebuilding effort like split end Lionel Taylor, safety Goose Gonsoulin, and guard Jerry Sturm. Most notable among the newcomers was the rookie first draft choice out of Syracuse, halfback Floyd Little. Denver had lost its first preseason game against the second-year Miami Dolphins by a score of 19-2.

The Lions also had a new head coach in Joe Schmidt, at age 35 and only two years removed from his Hall of Fame career as a linebacker. Detroit had gone 4-9-1 in 1966 and was also in transition. Defense had long been the team’s strong suit, and they still had a strong veteran core of defensive tackles Roger Brown and Alex Karras, linebackers Mike Lucci and Wayne Walker, and safety Dick LeBeau. Veteran QB Milt Plum was recovered after missing half of the season due to injury and was being challenged by Karl Sweetan, who had performed creditably as a rookie in his absence. Their top three picks in the draft had added HB Mel Farr from UCLA, CB Lem Barney of Jackson State, and Tennessee LB Paul Naumoff.

There were 21,288 fans in attendance for the Saturday evening contest. Neither team was able to mount much offense in the first half. Playing inspired football, the Broncos defense kept the Lions offense out of the end zone; the closest Detroit penetrated was to the Denver 36 yard line. Safety Lonnie Wright made two big plays, intercepting a Sweetan pass at his own 20 and then batting down a long Detroit pass in the end zone to stop another drive.

Following a 56-yard pass play from QB Scotty Glacken to flanker Al Denson, Errol Mann kicked a 35-yard field goal that staked the Broncos to a 3-0 lead (while Mann failed to make it to the regular season with Denver, ironically, he eventually ended up kicking for the Lions for 7 ½ years).

The key play of the game occurred on a 4th and 11 situation at the Detroit 44 in the third quarter. Denver punter Bob Scarpitto ran instead of kicking and picked up 28 yards and a first down at the Lions 16 yard line. Six plays later, FB Cookie Gilchrist bulled into the end zone from a yard out and the Broncos led by 10-0.

Detroit finally scored in the fourth quarter as Plum threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to WR Bill Malinchak. That was it for the Lions, and Mann’s second field goal of the game from 32 yards out capped the scoring at 13-7 in favor of Denver.

On the bus after the game, Roger Brown of the Lions moaned “The Denver Broncos…it didn’t happen!” But Coach Schmidt summed up by saying, “I want to pay tribute to the Denver team. And, if the other AFL teams show as much desire, there will be many other surprises in the preseason inter-league competition.”

While the Broncos went on to defeat the Vikings, 14-9, and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs thrashed the Chicago Bears by an astounding score of 66-24, the NFL teams won the remaining contests and had an overall record of 13-3 in the 1967 interleague preseason games.

For all of the excitement and heightened expectations, the Broncos still ended up at the bottom of the AFL’s Western Division with a 3-11 record. Detroit finished the ’67 regular season with a 5-7-2 tally that ranked third in the Central Division of the NFL’s Western Conference.

 

Keith Yowell runs the blog Today in Pro Football History where this article was originally published on August 5, 2010.