December 18, 2017

Old Pros

Joe Namath is now 70. So is Gale Sayers.

It’s a bit odd to think of these football legends as being the same age. Sayers seems like a generation older than Namath, not a day older.

The memories of Gale Sayers are black and white. NFL highlights of the “Kansas Comet” are of him dancing through the mud at Wrigley Field, twisting, turning and sprinting his way toward another touchdown in a game that his Chicago Bears likely lost and certainly in a season in which they were left home at playoff time.

In Sayers’ seven seasons the Bears notched just two winning campaigns and no postseason appearances.

Namath, however, played in a splash of color, joy and success.

Clad in green with a carefree smile, our image of “Broadway Joe” is him lounging by the pool in Miami before leading the New York Jets to a shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in Miami more than forty-four years ago.

It was his greatest and, some might fairly say, only glory. But it’s not fleeting. Like your girlfriend’s ass, it only grows larger as time goes by.

Namath also lives endlessly in his commercials, broadcasting and, um, acting. Remember him as “C.C. Ryder?” If he and Ann-Margaret had made a baby the kid would either be Queen of England or Prince of Google.

When the Chicago Bears won their first and, to date, only Super Bowl during the 1985 season they honored past Bears players who had never known such success, including Gale Sayers.

But on the day the Bears won that Super Bowl the biggest cheers in the New Orleans Superdome might have been for Joe Namath.

Before Super Bowl XX kicked off the MVP of each previous Super Bowl was honored on the field as a hit song from that year was blasted throughout the dome. The first honoree was Green Bay Packers legend Bart Starr who won the first two MVPs and the song was about as incongruous as a Speedo on a penguin – “The Age of Aquarius.”

Namath was next. The crowd went crazy and the song was as fitting as Namath’s smile was genuine – “Mrs. Robinson.”

Maybe if Sayers had played quarterback he would be remembered for a sunny day in Miami and not muddy days in Chicago.

Both Namath and Sayers began their pro careers in 1965. Namath was drafted by the AFL’s Jets and the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals and, we know, chose the Jets.

Sayers was taken by the Bears whom he chose over the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs who went on to play in the first Super Bowl, win the fourth, and remained a top team through 1971, Sayers’ last season in Chicago.

Namath, always living in the glow of that Super Bowl win, soldiered on with the Jets well into the 70s, enjoying some good seasons but mostly not so good as he battled injuries and played on bad teams.

In 1977, he went to the Los Angeles Rams and, fittingly, made his final appearance on a Monday night, after having played in the very first “Monday Night Football” game seven years earlier. On October 10, 1977 Namath’s Rams lost in Chicago to the Bears. He threw four interceptions including one to Doug Plank on what would be the last pass of Namath’s career.

By ’77 Sayers was already in the Hall of Fame.

Namath was inducted in 1985.

Joe Namath and Gale Sayers never met on the football field. Imagine if they had played on the same team. No. 12 drops back to pass, avoids a sack and zips a screen pass to No. 40 who dodges a tackle and sprints toward the goal line.

Sayers scores and is hoisted on his teammates’ shoulders. Namath kisses a cheerleader.

Such a moment would have played well in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles or Kansas. Joe and Gale live without it, though, likely thankful for the success they did have and the cheers they still hear.

They played football, went to college and made a living. They didn’t have to drive a truck, sling shit or fight in Vietnam.

They were two of the lucky ones. Lucky old men.


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.