Toward the end of the second quarter of the Super Bowl game, Jim Turner of the New York Jets ambled onto the grass to try a medium-long field goal. A Baltimore sports columnist traced a finger down the printed roster, located Turner's name, squinted as he sought to recall if he had ever heard it before and then turned to the man in the next seat.
"This fellow Turner," said the columnist, "he any good?"
"Well, he kicked more field goals this season than anybody in history."
"Oh," said the columnist.
A couple of hours later, after Turner's three field goals had been the margin in New York's 16-7 victory over Baltimore in the game that convinced the country that the AFL does indeed play professional football, anybody with the slightest interest in the sport had heard of Jim Turner. Moreover, people with no interest in the sport whatever had heard of the Jets and of Joe Namath. Recognition was overdue. Since its birth in 1960, when games were often played in 50,000-seat stadiums before as few as 2,500 fans, the AFL has steadily improved. For the past two years the league has, in fact, been on a level with the NFL in performance, but it was not until the Jets beat Baltimore—supposedly the NFL's finest team in a decade—that most people were willing to admit it.
Even the AFL's most dedicated employees were somehow unable to believe what their senses told them. In last year's Super Bowl—won 33-14 by Green Bay—it was felt by many AFL coaches and players that Oakland had as good a team as the Packers with one major exception. That exception was the remarkable Bart Starr at quarterback; Oakland had Daryle Lamonica, who was then playing his first full season as a starter. Against the Packers, Oakland got stage fright and lost. Despite a number of injuries, the 1968 Raiders were a much better club than their Super Bowl predecessors. They had better running, better receiving and better quarterbacking—with Lamonica a year wiser—but they had to endure a playoff to win their conference and then were beaten by the Jets in the championship.
Still, the doubt lingered about the strength of the Jets. So much had been proclaimed about the NFL for so long that it was difficult to make a reasonable statement about the Super Bowl game in the weeks of anticipation before the kickoff.
At breakfast on the morning of the game, Al Davis, who has been a coach and AFL commissioner and is now, in effect, general manager at Oakland, was attempting to convince himself.
"I don't know what to think," Davis said. "A lot of it depends on whether the Baltimore rash can reach Namath. Frankly, I don't see how it can. He gets back quick, he throws quick and he has good blocking. Look at the personnel in Baltimore's front four. The only one with really outstanding ability is Bubba Smith. So what about the linebackers? Mike Curtis is a very good one, but is he as good as George Webster of Houston? I feel the Jets ought to beat Baltimore. But consider what the Colts have done this season, all those shutouts. It's very confusing."
Way back last summer Wally Lemm of the Oilers was thinking about his players and comparing them to the group Lemm had coached with the St. Louis Cardinals. Lemm is one of the five AFL head coaches who have held similar jobs in the NFL—the others being Sid Gillman of San Diego and Los Angeles, George Wilson of Miami and Detroit, Paul Brown of Cincinnati and Cleveland and, of course, Weeb Ewbank of New York and Baltimore, the only man ever to win championships in both leagues—and Lemm had been at St. Louis recently enough that the people involved in the comparison were clear in his mind. "The Cardinals have a good offensive line, but the one at Houston is just as good," Lemm said. "Our fullback at Houston would rate in the top two or three in the NFL. Our defensive backs at Houston are as good as you can find on an NFL team." Lemm went on, man for man, and concluded there was not much overall difference between the Oilers and the Cardinals. Houston finished the season with a 7-7 record and St. Louis was 9-4-1.