He guaranteed it

General Published on : 1/1/2005

Joe Namath made the Super Bowl truly 'Super'

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When Namath returned to the hotel, he called cornerback Johnny Sample, the Jets' defensive captain, in his room.

"Joe told me, 'I said something tonight that's gonna be all over the news tomorrow,'" Sample says. "I asked him: 'What the heck did you say?' He told me he guaranteed we'd win the game. I said, 'Man, you didn't say that.' He said yeah, he did.

"The thing was, we all thought we'd win the game. We had studied film on the Colts and we were really confident. But a guarantee? Joe said, 'Well, we're gonna win, aren't we?' I said, 'Yeah, Joe, we're gonna win, but you shouldn't have said it.'"

Jets coach Weeb Ewbank knew nothing of Namath's comments until the next day when he awoke to find the "guarantee" bannered across the front page of the morning paper. He was absolutely furious. He had instructed his players to lavish praise on the Colts and, if possible, make them even more overconfident. Namath's outburst, he feared, jeopardized everything.

"I asked Joe what possessed him to do such a thing," Ewbank said. "I said, 'Don't you know Shula will use this to fire up his team?' Joe said, 'Coach, if they need press clippings to get ready, they're in trouble.'

"I could have shot him for saying it. But Joe always had a way of delivering. He didn't mind pressure. It seemed to make him play better. I figured, if he said it, he would just have to back it up."

Playing before a capacity crowd at the Orange Bowl, with millions more watching on television, Namath coolly dissected the mighty Colts. He exploited the right side of Baltimore's defense, where age had slowed end Ordell Braase (36), linebacker Don Shinnick (33), and cornerback Lenny Lyles (32).

With his quick release, Namath beat the Colts' blitz with quick passes to split end George Sauer (8 receptions, 133 yards). The brash 25-year-old quarterback proved to be every bit as good as advertised -- and much better than the Colts bargained for.

"We studied the film [of Namath], and we knew he could throw the ball, but we felt we could pressure him," Shula says. "Our blitz dominated the NFL that season. We put eleven people on the line, and sometimes we'd send them and other times we'd drop into coverage. We never thought Namath, facing that for the first time, would handle it as well as he did."

"We had a system called 'check with me,' which meant I called most of the plays at the line," Namath says. "We got in and out of the huddle in a hurry so I'd have more time to look things over. If you look at the films, you'll see how many times I made a call, saw something [in the defense] and changed off. It looks like we're up there over the ball forever. But that's where we made our calls.

"Another thing you'll notice is, I kept my hands under center the whole time. I wanted to keep the pressure on the defense. I wanted them to think the ball could be snapped at any time. It was a subtle thing, but it was one more thing to keep them off balance. If they had a blitz on, I'd see the linebackers and safeties edging up, trying to get a jump, getting frustrated.

"I felt we had an advantage because the Colts were in a Catch-22 situation. They had this defense that had killed the whole NFL that season. Why should they change for one game against a nineteen-point underdog? So I knew they were going to stick with the same fronts, the same coverages, the same blitzes. It was like having all the questions for an exam two weeks before you actually take it. By the time we played, I knew those guys inside-out."

Namath directed the Jets' offense with patience and precision. He mixed his passes with the powerful runs of fullback Matt Snell (30 rushes, 121 yards) as the AFL upstarts took control of the game.

The Colts could not generate any points with quarterback Earl Morrall. By the time Shula brought sore-armed Johnny Unitas off the bench in the third period, the Colts trailed, 13-0. The Jets were in such complete command, Namath did not have to throw a single pass in the fourth quarter. He simply ran out the clock.

The Jets brought the AFL its first Super Bowl victory and the stature needed to validate the merger of the two leagues, which was agreed upon in 1966 and finally completed in 1970. It was a watershed moment in the history of pro football, and Broadway Joe's star power put the Super Bowl at the top of the American sports marquee.

Namath's numbers were unspectacular by his standards (17 completions in 28 attempts for 206 yards), but he was such a commanding figure that he was voted the game's Most Valuable Player. Through the first 34 Super Bowls, 18 quarterbacks have been named Super Bowl MVPs, but Namath is the only one to win the award without passing for at least one touchdown.

As Sample says, "Everything that happened that day revolved around Joe."

Indeed, everything about that game still revolves around Joe. It was his stage, his moment. It defined his career. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985 almost entirely on the impact of that game. It hardly matters that he had only three winning seasons with the Jets, or that his career interception total (220) far exceeds his number of touchdown passes (173). What matters is the image of Broadway Joe trotting off the field, waving his index finger in the Orange Bowl twilight, and reminding everyone that the Jets were number one.

Today, Namath is 57 and married with two daughters, living in Tequesta, Flo., 80 miles north of the Orange Bowl. He appears regularly on the Classic Sports Network and writes a weekly online sports column. The once notorious bachelor now relaxes by fishing for snook and flounder in the Loxhatchee River, which flows past his back door. Sometimes when he is alone on the deck, basking in the sunshine, he can almost hear the echo of the fans chanting "A-F-L, A-F-L" from that glorious day 30 years ago.

"We touched a lot of people's lives," Namath says. "I can't tell you how many times I have had people tell me they used our win as a motivating force. Teachers, coaches, everyday people. The moral is the same: If the Jets did it, you can do it.

"We sent a message to all the underdogs out there. If you want something bad enough and you aren't afraid to lay it on the line, you can do it. It's an important message because if people don't have hope, really, what do they have?"

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