SI Vault
Edwin Shrake
January 27, 1969
Nine years ago almost nobody watched AFL games, but today the league has full houses every Sunday, some of the most talented quarterbacks in professional football-and the NFL's scalp
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January 27, 1969

Now The Afl Owns The Football

Nine years ago almost nobody watched AFL games, but today the league has full houses every Sunday, some of the most talented quarterbacks in professional football-and the NFL's scalp

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The Jets were not at all reluctant to enter the argument over which league might be better. Several days before the Super Bowl, Randy Rasmussen, New York's right guard, declared that after an examination of films of four Baltimore games he could not understand what was so special about Colt Left Tackle Billy Ray Smith. "I've played against guys who are bigger and stronger than him," said Rasmussen. After the game Bob Talamini, New York's left guard, who has been chosen on the All-AFL team six times, agreed. "You beat your head in for years blocking some of the toughest tackles in football and no one appreciates it. Well, I'll say this: I've played against a lot of better tackles in the AFL than I played against in the Super Bowl."

It remained for Namath, naturally, to make the most celebrated statement of all when he said he thought there were at least five quarterbacks in the AFL superior to Earl Morrall of Baltimore and that Morrall would be a third-stringer on the Jets. Billy Ray Smith was moved to remark that Namath would keep his teeth longer if he kept his mouth shut. Namath responded by standing up before a luncheon audience and saying, "The Jets will win—I guarantee it."

"You know why Joe is doing all this talking?" confided one of his friends. "He not only wants the Jets to believe the way he does, that they can beat Baltimore, but also he wants to fire up the Colts. Sure, that may sound preposterous, but Joe has watched films, a lot more hours than most people realize, and he knows the Colts can't get to him. He wants to make them so mad that they'll practically commit suicide trying to reach him. That way, when they find out they can't touch him, they'll feel very frustrated and let down. He wants them to throw all their blitzes at him so he can hit the quick passes and make the Colts lose their poise. Joe is not exactly stupid."

Whether or not that was truly the method behind what appeared to be Namath's madness, events worked out according to that very notion. Although his passing led to only one touchdown and he had two near interceptions, one of which could have been disastrous, Namath emerged from the Super Bowl as a sports hero of a stature few have reached. There is still a reasonable debate whether Namath is now the best quarterback in the game, or even the best in the AFL, but what the Jets accomplished against the Colts in Miami has lifted an entire league out of its adolescence.

Lamar Hunt, the man who had the idea of starting the AFL in 1959, thinks the Jets proved without question that the newer league can play on equal terms with the older. "I thought we proved it when we won 13 of 23 of the so-called exhibition games in 1968," Hunt said. "I was surprised there was no value given to that in the stories discussing New York's chances in the Super Bowl. Until the Super Bowl the average fan thought, I believe, that the three best teams in the AFL were about on par with the middle teams in the NFL. The Jets showed this belief is mistaken. The three best teams in the AFL are on a par with the top five in the NFL—that is, New York, Oakland and Kansas City are up there with Baltimore, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Dallas and Minnesota. Our three worst teams are about as bad as their five worst. The situation has been that way for a while. Our league improved somewhat between the 1967 and 1968 seasons, but the improvement wasn't so dramatic—except maybe with the Jets. I don't think the Jets are necessarily the best team in the AFL, but they're the champs, so you have to hand it to them. Nobody could argue that they're at the very least one of the top eight teams in the game of football."

"The AFL was going to win a Super Bowl game eventually," said Tex Schramm, president and general manager of the Dallas Cowboys and the man who met secretly with Hunt to begin talks that led to the merger of the leagues beginning in 1970. "The only thing that was hurt is the pride of the NFL people such as myself who have been in it for a long time. You have a natural pride and jealousy. But now the Super Bowl game of next year will be the greatest single sports event in the country. As a league, the NFL has more strong teams, but the AFL has shown it's capable of beating our best."

Otto Graham, coach of the Redskins, is one NFL man who has always had a high regard for the AFL. "In my first public statement when I came into the NFL three years ago, I said the top teams in the AFL could give any team in the NFL a battle," said Graham. "A couple of guys almost shot me for saying that. But the Super Bowl was no upset. There's very little difference between the leagues. I coached many of the top players in the College All-Star Game. If a player went into the NFL they said he was 'great.' If he went into the AFL they said he was 'not so hot.' "

"The common draft has helped to equalize things," Blanton Collier of Cleveland said. "The quarterbacks in the two leagues are pretty much on a par." Paul Brown said, "The only difference between the AFL and NFL in many cases is just the bounce of a ball in a single game. Don't get the idea the Jets were the only good team in the AFL. They were very happy to get past Oakland."

Harvey Johnson, interim coach at Buffalo last season, admired the Jets' game plan—with a running attack aimed so effectively at Baltimore's right side that Right Cornerback Lenny Lyles led the Colts in tackles, and with Namath throwing short passes against Baltimore's zone defense—but thought that if anything the Jets may have been too cautious. "If Namath had played like he usually does, the Jets would have put more than 30 points on the board," Johnson said.

"The game was won up front by the Jets," is the opinion of Washington Quarterback Sonny Jurgensen. "That's where most games are won. If you give one quarterback more time to pass than the other, he's going to win for you."

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