Super Bowl III is regarded to be one of the greatest upsets in sports history. So why did the unstoppable Colts break down against the lowly, AFL Jets?
It all started with the reputation of the AFL at the time. This was 1968, the 9th year of the AFL, and NFL teams still thought of them the same way. It’s a pass-happy league, they’re not as good as us. They’re not as tough, the players aren’t as good, and the coaches are high-school level. In the first super bowl in 1966, the Chiefs had gotten whipped 35-10 by Lombardi’s Packers. The next year, the 13-1 Raiders were embarrassed by the same Packer team 33-14. The NFL took the AFL for granted, in terms of talent and how they played.
Baltimore in 1968 really might have been the greatest team ever. People always associate Johnny Unitas with the Baltimore Colts, but he was injured in the pre-season and didn’t play in the ’68 season. Journeyman Earl Morrall had to step in and play, but he filled in extremely well.
The Colts scored the second most points in the NFL, with 402, and considering that scoring over 400 points was still considered to be a very good offense 20 years after that in a 16-game schedule makes it even more impressive. Tom Matte and John Mackey were both threats on offense, with Jimmy Orr as their deep threat, averaging 25.6 yards per catch.
The defense was suffocating, as they only gave up 144 points the entire season, recording 4 shutouts (one in postseason) along the way. Morall played so well, Don Shula kept him in for the playoffs. On the way, they defeated the Minnesota Vikings 24-14, and then crushed the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the NFL title game.
New York (11-3)
New York was a very good team in the AFL, and they won their division (which was extremely weak, with second place Miami only winning 5 games and Buffalo only winning 1), but according to NFL fans, they were nowhere near as good as the Colts. Joe Namath was a “gunslinger” type quarterback.
He had good receivers, and the defense was tough. They actually scored more points than the Colts (419), but critics said it was due to the offense-oriented league and their defensively-challenged division. In the playoffs, they won a 27-23 squeaker over the Oakland Raiders, a team that had beaten them in the regular season. Afterwards, they advanced to the Super Bowl to face the Colts.
The Super Bowl
Before the Jets entered Super Bowl III, Joe Namath had words for the Colts. In fact, he had many. He guaranteed a win at a press conference, after a Colts fan started heckling him. After this, Namath continued to belittle the Colts, after a news reporter asked him how he felt about his guarantee being published in newspapers.
“Well, I feel that if the Colts need to look at newspapers to get information on us, they should be looking more at themselves.”
Ownership and players alike tried to play down Namath’s hot-headed approach, but he stayed headstrong until the game was played.
The thing that is pointed to most is mistakes. The Colts made mistakes, that’s why they lost. But it wasn’t all that.
The Jets were very well-prepared for the Colts, keeping their offense off the field with a grind it out, ball control style of play.
The Colts underestimated the Jets, and were not as prepared or focused as they could have been. Earl Morral threw 3 interceptions, and he was eventually pulled for the now-healthy Johnny Unitas, who accounted for the Colts’ only touchdown in the 4th quarter. The Colts had receivers wide open downfield, and often took sacks or threw the ball away instead. It was well-played by the Jets, and Broadway Joe fulfilled his guarantee at the end with a 16-7 victory that rocked the NFL to its core.