NFL throwback: Five things you may not know about Jets’ stunning Super Bowl III upset of Colts

Joe Namath just couldn’t help himself. Three days before his Jets, an 18-point underdog, would face the NFL champion Colts, Namath, who was never one to be shy in front of a microphone, chose not to ignore a heckler who proclaimed the Colts would kick his team’s “rear end” in Super Bowl III.

“We’re gonna win the game,” Namath said to the heckler, “I guarantee it.”

Namath’s guarantee, proclaimed at the Miami Touchdown Club, wasn’t taken too seriously by the Colts. Baltimore, after all, had just stormed through its NFL season nearly unscathed, going 13-1 during the regular season before defeating the Vikings and Browns in the playoffs by a combined score of 48-14. Conversely, the Jets, who went 11-3 during the regular season, needed a late touchdown pass from Namath to Don Maynard to defeat the Raiders in the AFL title game.

On January 12, 1969, the Jets, in front of a packed Orange Bowl crowd, changed the face of pro football forever. Led by Namath, a bruising running game and a defense that forced five turnovers, New York shocked Baltimore, 16-7, to become the first AFL team to defeat an NFL team. As he ran off the field in victory, Namath lifted his index finger high above his head to signify what he and his teammates had just accomplished.

While Namath’s guarantee has become folklore, there are several facts from Super Bowl III that have been forgotten over time. With the Jets and Colts facing off this Sunday, we decided to take a look at five facts that you may not know about the greatest upset in pro football history.

1. The game included several coaching legends

The Colts were led by Don Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history. Shula, who was just 33 years old when he took over as the Colts coach in 1963, posted a gaudy record of 71-23-4 during his seven seasons in Baltimore. He later reached even greater heights in Miami, leading the Dolphins to an undefeated season in 1972. In all, Shula led his teams to six Super Bowls, a feat that remained unmatched until Bill Belichick passed his tally in 2017.

Before he led the Jets to the Super Bowl, Weeb Ewbank led the Colts to back-to-back NFL titles in 1958-59. Despite his success, Ewbank’s time in Baltimore ended on an unceremonious note, as he was ousted after the Colts failed to post a winning record in 1962. After being replaced by Shula in Baltimore, Ewbank resurfaced in the AFL, where he endured four non-winning seasons with the Jets before finally posting a winning record in 1967. The next season, Ewbank led the Jets to their first — and only — world championship, a win that came against many of his former players in Baltimore.

Both teams also featured assistant coaches that would go onto lead future teams to Super Bowl glory. The Jets’ defensive line coach for Super Bowl III was Buddy Ryan, who later served as the mastermind behind the 1985 Bears‘ vaunted 46 defense. Baltimore’s defensive coordinator was Chuck Noll, who shortly after the game would become the Steelers‘ head coach. Noll, who is ninth all-time in career victories, would lead the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins in a six-year span during the1970s. Shula, Noll and Ewbank have each been enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

2. The game featured two 100-yard rushers

Only twice has the Super Bowl had two 100-yard rushers. The first time occurred in Super Bowl III, when New York’s Matt Snell and Baltimore’s Tom Matte both rushed for over 100 yards. The Super Bowl would not have two 100-yard rushers in the same game again until Super Bowl XXV, when Thurman Thomas and Ottis Anderson rushed for 135 and 102 yards, respectively. Matte, a productive player who enjoyed a 12-year career with the Colts, rushed for 116 yards on 11 carries in Super Bowl III. His 58-yard run in the second quarter served as the Super Bowl’s longest run until Marcus Allen scored on a 74-yard run in Super Bowl XVIII. Matte’s third-quarter fumble, however, set up the first of three field goals by Jim Turner, as New York extended its lead to 10-0.

Snell, the great uncle of current Steelers running back Benny Snell, rushed for 121 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries against Baltimore’s stout defense. Snell also caught four passes for 40 yards while serving as Namath’s safety valve out of the backfield. Both Matte and Snell played their college football at Ohio State. Matte finished seventh in the Heisman voting in 1960, while Snell helped Woody Hayes win his third national title in 1961.

3. A marching band may have contributed to key turnover

With 25 seconds left in the first half, the Colts were down 7-0 and trying to get on the board before halftime. Looking for a spark, Baltimore called a trick play that featured Matte taking the handoff and sweeping right before throwing the ball back to quarterback Earl Morral. The play worked to perfection against the Falcons in the regular season, with Morrall hitting receiver Jimmy Orr for a touchdown. 

But in Super Bowl III, after not being able to find Orr downfield, Morral threw an intermediate pass that was intercepted by Jim Hudson. Orr, who was waiving his hands to try to get Morrall’s attention, suspects he was 37 yards from the nearest Jets defender.

“What else could I do? Yelling wouldn’t have done any good,” Orr told the Baltimore Sun four decades later. “Maybe Earl thought the Jets’ safety had followed me downfield. Or maybe I blended in with the band members crowding inside the fence before halftime.”

Orr, at a charity golf tournament 20 years after the game, decided to ask Morrall what happened on that fateful play.

“He said, ‘Jimmy, I just didn’t see you,’ ” Orr recalled.

4. Namath did not throw a pass in the fourth quarter

Namath, who went 17-of-28 for 206 yards during the first three quarters, spent the final quarter of Super Bowl III handing the ball to Snell, Emerson Boozer, and Bill Mathis. Snell rushed for 36 of the Jets’ 48 yards during the quarter, as New York extended its lead to 16-0 on Turner’s fourth field goal of the game.

While his fourth quarter was uneventful, Namath more than put his stamp on Super Bowl III during the game’s first three quarters. Namath, in order to avoid the Colts’ ferocious pass rush, shortened his drop back. He also got rid of the ball substantially quicker than he did during New York’s previous games. Namath also used Maynard, a Hall of Fame receiver, as a decoy while instead throwing to George Sauer, who caught eight passes for 133 yards. A pair of Namath completions to Sauer set up Snell’s second quarter touchdown. Namath’s 35-yard completion to Sauer on the Jets’ next drive served as New York’s longest play of the afternoon.

Namath also called a brilliant game, as he consistently kept the Colts off-guard with a perfect mix of runs and passes. Namath, to the chagrin of Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Curtis and the rest of the Colts’ defense, called several draw plays that caught Baltimore’s defense by surprise. The result was a New York offense that tallied more first downs and more total yards than Baltimore.

5. Johnny Unitas entered the game as a backup

The NFL’s best quarterback during the league’s first 50 years was Johnny Unitas, who led the Colts to back-to-back championships during the 1950s. Unitas’ status as an NFL legend was cemented on December 28, 1958, when he led the Colts to a win over Frank Gifford and the Giants in the NFL title game. The ’58 championship, the first NFL game ever decided in overtime, helped pro football leapfrog over baseball as America’s No. 1 pastime.

A decade later, fresh off of his third MVP season, Unitas suffered an injury to his throwing arm during the final game of the ’68 preseason, prompting him to miss most of the season. With Unitas on the bench, Morrall, a career journeyman to that point, enjoyed a breakout season that saw him earn MVP honors after leading the NFL in touchdown passes. Morrall struggled in Super Bowl III, however, throwing three interceptions — including two in the red zone.

Trailing 13-0 in the third quarter, Shula replaced Morrall with Unitas, who quickly drove Baltimore to New York’s 25-yard-line before throwing the Colts’ fourth interception of the game. After another Jets field goal, Unitas willed the Colts to their only touchdown, as his 17-yard completion to Orr on a fourth and 10 play helped set up Jerry Hill’s 1-yard touchdown.

The Colts, after recovering the ensuing onside kick, threatened to make it a game with 3:14 left. But after three straight completions got the Colts in the red zone, Unitas was unable to muster any more magic, throwing three straight incomplete passes while giving the ball back Namath and the Jets. Snell and Boozer killed most of the clock before giving the ball back to Unitas, who completed one last pass before meeting Namath at midfield after the clock had expired.

In a twist of fate, it was Morrall who was came in to replace an injured Unitas in Super Bowl V, as he helped the Colts defeat the Cowboys by a field goal. Two years later, Morrall led the ’72 Dolphins to 11 straight wins before Shula replaced him with Bob Griese during the AFC title game. Morrall would serve as Griese’s backup during both of Miami’s Super Bowl championship teams.

“When I look back on my coaching career and all the quarterbacks that I’ve coached, I’ve got Hall of Famers in Johnny Unitas, Bob Griese and now Dan Marino,” Shula told NFL Network back in 2006, “but Earl Morrall is in my personal Hall of Fame.”

As good as Unitas and Morrall were, they were unable to prevent the Colts from falling to Namath and the Jets, whose victory is one of the main reasons why the Super Bowl — and pro football — has become the spectacle that it is today.

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