Today we have Super Bowl III, the Third AFL-NFL World Championship Game, between the NFL champion Baltimore Colts and the AFL champion New York Jets. This game was played on January 12, 1969, at the Miami Orange Bowl.
As discussed last week, Super Bowls II & III are the only Super Bowls played back-to-back at the same stadium.
Read the whole story or listen to the podcast episodes below.
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Lombardi Memories is a show that takes you back in time, into January or February, to the greatest one-day spectacle in all of sports. This is the every-other-Tuesday podcast that looks back at each and every one of the 50-plus Super Bowls and tells the story of who won and why. Tommy A. Phillips is your host on this Super Journey. He’s an author of multiple NFL books. You can purchase below.
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Prelude to Super Bowl III
The NFL champion Baltimore Colts were completely and utterly dominant entering Super Bowl III. They lost just one game in the regular season, a ten-point loss to Cleveland. Without that loss, we’re talking about the league’s first-ever 14-0 team. As it was, the Colts entered the postseason at 13-1.
They shut out two opponents in the regular season, and another in the postseason. Baltimore beat Minnesota 24-14 in the first round before winning the NFL Championship Game 34-0 over the Cleveland Browns. Quarterback Earl Morrall, who took over for an injured Johnny Unitas, was named NFL MVP. To put it plain and simple, the Colts were a juggernaut.
As for the Jets, they finished 11-3 in the regular season. Two of those losses, though, were very close ones – a 37-35 loss to Buffalo, and a 43-32 loss to Oakland in the infamous “Heidi Game” where the Raiders scored two touchdowns after NBC had switched its feed to the movie Heidi, missing the exciting ending to the 43-32 game. The Jets got revenge in the AFL Championship Game by beating Oakland 27-23.
But the Jets were giant underdogs entering the Super Bowl. Sure, quarterback Joe Willie Namath was outstanding. But the AFL hadn’t proven much in the first two Super Bowls. It was still considered a Mickey Mouse league. The Colts were installed as eighteen-point favorites over the Jets for this Super Bowl.
That was when Namath stood up at the Touchdown Club in Miami and said something to the effect of “We’re going to win, I guarantee it.” The actual words he spoke are somewhat a mystery. It’s like how everyone thinks Captain Kirk said “Beam me up, Scotty” in Star Trek when he actually never said those words. Namath’s exact words are recorded differently in every source you read.
Here’s what’s important: Namath gave his opponents a lot of motivation by guaranteeing a victory, while he also gave his own team a lot of motivation as well, as they wanted to back up his words.
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The Jets won the coin toss and chose to receive. Returner Earl Christy took back the opening kickoff to the 22. The Jets shifted on the very first play, something that surprised NBC announcer Curt Gowdy. All the shifting was for a four-yard run by running back Matt Snell. Snell ran on the next play as well, getting a first down at the 34.
He also caught Namath’s first pass near the 40, but then he was tackled on a draw in the backfield for a loss by defensive tackle Fred Miller. The Jets were forced to punt, and after an offside penalty on Baltimore that didn’t give the Jets a first down, they kicked it down to the Baltimore 27.
The Colts moved the ball right downfield. Morrall threw to tight end John Mackey for a first down at the 46, then he pitched to running back Tom Matte, who picked up a first down at the Jets 44. Running back Jerry Hill took a carry, and he gained seven more yards. He’d pick up the next first down at the 31. Morrall then found tight end Tom Mitchell, and he got a first down at the 19. From there, though, the Colts couldn’t move the ball on their next three plays.
Morrall threw two incompletions, and Jets linebacker Larry Grantham tackled Morrall for no gain on third down. Kicker Lou Michaels tried a field goal from about 27 yards out – remember, the goalposts were on the goal line at the time – but his kick was wide to the right, no good.
Namath completed a pass to fullback Bill Mathis for a first down at the 35, but the Jets were soon forced to punt. Baltimore took over at the 42. They went three-and-out, and they got a wobbly punt that turned out great from punter David Lee.
It bounced down to the 3-yard line, forcing the Jets into bad field position. On third down, Namath threw a pass to receiver George Sauer, who caught the pass but then had the ball knocked out of his hands by defensive back Lenny Lyles. Linebacker Ron Porter recovered the loose ball at the Jets 12, as the first quarter came to an end with the game still scoreless.
Matte took a pitch and got down to the 5. Morrall then went to the end zone, but he had the pass tipped by Mitchell and intercepted by defensive back Randy Beverly. The Jets got the ball at their own 20 after the touchback. Snell ran it three times, and he got a first down at the 33.
He then took a fourth run on a draw, and he got another first down at the 46. Namath dumped it off for Mathis, and he got past midfield to the 48. Namath then hit Sauer on back-to-back plays, getting two first downs, moving the ball to the 23. He then threw to Snell for a first down at the 9. Snell ran it twice from there, scoring off the left side from four yards out, and giving the Jets a 7-0 lead.
Kicking woes would plague both teams on their next drives. Morrall threw to Matte, and he slipped a tackle and got a huge gain to the Jets 42. Matte would then run to the 37 before the drive came to an end on an incompletion. Michaels tried a 46-yard field goal, but he missed wide to the right. Namath got the Jets going with a pass to Sauer for a first down at the Baltimore 44. Snell ran it twice, getting a first down at the 32. But Namath’s next two passes were incomplete, and he got sacked on third down by linebacker Don Shinnick. Kicker Jim Turner tried a 41-yard field goal, but he missed this one wide to the left.
The Colts began their next drive with a six-yard pass to receiver Willie Richardson. Matte then ripped off a long run, cutting back and bursting through a hole. He ended up going 58 yards all the way to the Jets 16, with defensive back Bill Baird saving the touchdown. That proved to be a huge tackle, because two plays later, Morrall threw an interception to defensive back Johnny Sample at the 1-yard line.
Baltimore forced a New York punt, and the Colts got the ball back at the Jets 42 with 45 seconds left in the half. After a short pass to Hill, the Colts called timeout with 25 seconds left. Here came the biggest play of the game. Morrall handed it off to Matte, who lateraled it back to Morrall. Receiver Jimmy Orr broke wide open for an easy touchdown, but Morrall didn’t see him. Instead, he threw a pass that was intercepted by defensive back Jim Hudson. The Colts went to the half trailing 7-0 when they should have been tied at seven.
On the first play of the second half, linebacker Ralph Baker forced a fumble from Matte, and he recovered Matte’s fumble. The Jets moved deep into Baltimore territory, with Snell rushing for a first down at the 11.
Then things started going bad. Running back Emerson Boozer lost six yards on a run, tackled by defensive back Lenny Lyles, and Namath was sacked by the defensive end, Bubba Smith. He then almost threw a pick-six on third down, which defensive back Jerry Logan should have had. The Jets settled for a 32-yard Turner field goal, going up 10-0.
The Colts went three-and-out, and the Jets got it back at their 32. Namath threw to Sauer for a first down at the 47, then he fired a third-down pass to tight end, Pete Lammons, for a first down at the Baltimore 38. He’d go to Snell for another first down at the 25. That set up a 30-yard field goal by Turner, and the Jets took a 13-0 lead.
Now Baltimore head coach Don Shula put Unitas into the game for an ineffective Morrall. But he didn’t immediately help; the Colts went three-and-out again, and the Jets took the ball back after a punt at their own 38. Namath hit Sauer for a first down on a third-down play, getting to the midfield stripe. He then aired it out, and Sauer hauled it in for a first down at the 9. The Jets couldn’t punch it into the end zone, but they got a nine-yard field goal from Turner, which was just as good. They had a 16-0 lead as the fourth quarter got underway.
With Unitas in at QB, Matte ran a sweep for a first down at the 38, the first new set of downs for Baltimore in the second half. Unitas threw to Richardson for six yards, then Matte ran for a first down to the Jets 37. Hill further took the ball to the Jets 26 for another first down. But Unitas was picked off in the end zone by Beverly, and it was a touchback for New York.
Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank got conservative at this point, knowing that all he needed to do was run out the clock. Boozer got a first down on a pitch to the 30, then Snell made it to the 40 and had fifteen yards tacked on by a personal foul. Snell went over 100 yards as he helped set up a 42-yard field goal attempt by Turner. This was Turner’s fifth field goal attempt of the game, but it was also his second miss, as the kick sailed wide to the left, keeping the margin at 16-0.
Unitas quickly led his team 80 yards for a touchdown. However, the Jets stiffened at the goal line, forcing the Colts to run it three times from inside the 2 to get a touchdown. Finally, Hill scored a one-yard touchdown with 3:19 to play. Now the special Super Bowl rules came into play. Baltimore must have wished they had played in the AFL because the AFL allowed two-point conversions. However, the two-point option was not in effect for the Super Bowl. That meant that the Colts had to kick the extra point, so they still trailed by two possessions, 16-7.
The Colts went onside kick, and Mitchell fell on top of it for Baltimore. Suddenly, the comeback was on! Unitas threw to Richardson to get to the Jets 37, then he hit Orr for a first down at the 24. Unitas found Richardson for five more yards, and he got out of bounds. But just as the Colts were about to score again, Unitas threw two incompletions, setting up fourth-and-five. They needed nine points, so it would have made sense for Shula to send on Michaels for a field goal to cut the deficit to six.
Instead, Shula sent out the offense, maybe because he didn’t believe in Michaels’ leg. Unitas had his pass tipped by Grantham, and it fell incomplete. The Jets were then able to run out almost all the clock, and after a pair of Unitas passes, the game was over. New York had pulled off the most stunning upset in sports history, a 16-7 win over the mighty Colts.
Super Bowl III Awards
Joe Willie Namath was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl III. However, the stats don’t back up this choice. He completed seventeen of 28 passes for 206 yards, but no touchdown passes. That is the answer to today’s pop quiz. Namath is the only quarterback in Super Bowl history to win Most Valuable Player without throwing or rushing for a touchdown. His passer rating was only 83.3. Did he deserve to win MVP? Many people question that pick to this day.
Who was the next-best player on the winning team, the man who should have won MVP if not for Namath? I’m going with running back Matt Snell. He ran it thirty times for 121 yards and a touchdown while catching four passes for forty yards as well. Those are numbers that are much better than Namath’s. If we’re being honest, Snell deserved MVP and not Namath.
The Least Valuable Player, who was it? Easy choice here. Baltimore starting quarterback Earl Morrall, the NFL MVP for 1968, was absolutely horrendous. He completed only six of seventeen passes for 71 yards, throwing three interceptions. He also missed a wide-open Orr at the end of the first half on a play that would have tied the game. Morrall cost his team the game with his poor play, on a day where being even average may have been enough to win over a Jets team that scored just one touchdown.
Who was the Most Valuable Player on the losing team? That goes to backup quarterback Johnny Unitas. When Unitas came off the bench, he gave his team a spark. He led them on an eighty-yard drive, which ended in a touchdown, and he nearly led them to another score. If Shula kicks the field goal, maybe the Colts recover another onside kick and come back to win. You never know.
The biggest play of the game? I’m going with the obvious choice – the interception at the end of the first half by Hudson. If Morrall finds Orr for a touchdown, we’re talking about an entirely different game, and perhaps an entirely different history of pro football. Instead, Morrall threw the interception to Hudson, and the Colts remained scoreless. A tie game would have changed everything.
How about the biggest play that no one remembers? Tom Matte broke off a 58-yard run, but he was tackled by Bill Baird. If Baird doesn’t make that tackle, Matte might score, and the Colts tie the game. Instead, the Colts ended up throwing an interception on that drive. That play may have been the difference in this game.
Who was the best player in this game that you’ve never heard of? I’m going with defensive back Randy Beverly. He had an interception off Morrall early in the second quarter. Beverly played only five seasons in pro football, three with the Jets and two with the Patriots. He intercepted twelve passes in his career, returning one for a touchdown. However, no interception was more important than the one he got in this game.