Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Football History 101: The AFL and "Broadway" Joe Namath

Our last history lesson ended with “The Game”—the NFL Championship between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants that set football on a path to becoming the most popular sport in America.  For football, it was clearly time to buy, and two millionaires, Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, wanted in—bad.   In 1959, the year after The Game, both submitted applications with the NFL to start their own franchises.  The league, happy with the status quo and their twelve teams, denied their petitions.

Lamar Hunt (left): the AFC Championship Trophy bears his name

The helmet for the Texans
Undeterred, Hunt and Adams convened a summit with several other investors and the American Football League (AFL) was established.  The AFL debuted in 1960 with eight teams:  Boston Patriots, Los Angeles Chargers, New York Titans, Dallas Texans, Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos and Houston Oilers.

As in other industries, new entrants to the marketplace need to find ways to distinguish themselves from the businesses that are already established.  The AFL aimed to set itself apart by (1) making the game more fan-friendly compared to the NFL, and (2) emphasizing the passing game to generate more excitement.  For fan appeal, the AFL enacted the following policies:  adding players’ names to the backs of uniforms; making the scoreboard clock the official game clock; and adding the two-point conversion as an alternative to the kicked extra point.  Of course, we all know that the NFL eventually adopted all of these changes, though some sooner than others.

So, how did the new league try to become more pass-heavy?  As we have learned, the NFL had long embraced the passing game, which opened up offenses and encouraged use of the entire playing field.  However, passes were still being thrown by running backs as well as quarterbacks in the NFL, and NFL teams didn’t yet realize the importance of using the offensive line to protect the passer.  A byproduct of this world view was that NFL teams didn’t keep multiple QBs on the roster, nor were they interested in helping backup QBs, many of whom were very talented, develop their skills and realize their potential. 

In its early days, the AFL did not wish to employ an aggressive personnel strategy that involved stealing away the NFL’s talent.  However, realizing that the NFL was wasting a valuable resource by cutting second- or third-string quarterbacks who hadn’t yet realized their potential, the AFL owners put these players in their recruiting cross hairs.  They didn’t just pick up the NFL’s rejects (including future Hall of Famer George Blanda, Jack Kemp and Frank Tripucka), though; within a couple of years, they were able to steal away college stars that were the top draft choices of NFL teams.    
George Blanda left the Bears when Halas would only use him as a kicker

The biggest feather in the AFL’s cap would be the drafting of University of Alabama star Joe Namath by the New York Jets in 1965.  The signing of Namath would become the watershed moment for the AFL.  Although many of the teams in the league had enough financial backing to withstand a few years of instability and low attendance, the years between 1960 and 1964 weren’t exactly easy for the upstart league.  There were two relocations—the Chargers moved from L.A. to San Diego and the Texans moved from Dallas to Kansas City, where they became the Chiefs; the New York Titans had to be sold and were renamed the Jets; and the ninth planned AFL team—the Minnesota Vikings—defected to the NFL before ever taking the field in the AFL.

So, as you can see, Joe Namath’s decision to play in the AFL couldn’t have come at a better time.  This attractive, charismatic and talented quarterback became the new league’s golden boy and his presence in the nation’s biggest football market (New York City) meant that the AFL had truly arrived.  The timing was also auspicious because one year earlier, the AFL had signed a $36 million television contract with NBC, which gave the league the cash infusion it needed to woo players like Namath away from the NFL.  Plus, Namath’s good looks and cheeky confidence made him ideally suited for the television spotlight.

Back when fur was in fashion, Namath started a trend of players wearing them on the sidelines

Al Davis (right) as AFL Commish
The signing of Namath, which came at a cost of over $400,000, set off a bidding war between the two leagues for the country’s top college stars.  You might even say that the recruiting gloves came off.  When Oakland Raiders owner and general manager Al Davis became the AFL Commissioner in 1966, he began to poach players that were already on NFL rosters—particularly quarterbacks.  Even though the new league hadn’t been shy about luring college players away from the NFL, this marked a radical departure from the mostly hands-off approach it had taken to NFL rosters to that point.  Soon, some NFL owners approached Lamar Hunt in secret to discuss merging the two leagues.  Turns out Hunt was open to the idea; the poaching of players and spiraling salaries being awarded to college talent was taking its toll on both leagues.

On June 8, 1966, the two sides announced the planned merger of the AFL and NFL.  For a payment of $2 million each, the teams of the AFL would join the NFL starting in the 1970 season.  In the interim, a game would be played each winter between the AFL and NFL champions—a contest that would be known as the “Super Bowl.”  In protest to his league’s decision, Al Davis resigned as AFL Commissioner.

Though there was much excitement over the impending merger, there was also apprehension on the part of NFL teams, fueled by the perception that the AFL was an inferior league.  Unfortunately, this perception was not corrected by the AFL’s first two Super Bowl appearances.  The NFL was represented in both of those contests by the Green Bay Packers, the dominant NFL team of the 1960s.  They were stacked with talent at all positions and coached by the indomitable Vince Lombardi (above), widely considered to be the greatest football coach of all time.  Under Lombardi, the Packers went to the NFL Championship Game six times, winning five.  The Super Bowl Trophy was renamed the Vince Lombardi Trophy in 1970.

The unfortunate teams from the AFL to be pitted against the mighty Packers in the first two Super Bowls were the Kansas City Chiefs and the Oakland Raiders.  Kansas City lost Super Bowl I 35-10; the Raiders lost Super Bowl II 33-14, and NFL owners started to get nervous.

Time for “Broadway” Joe Namath to come to the AFL’s rescue once again.  Under Namath’s cocky leadership and howitzer for an arm, the New York Jets soared through an 11-3 season and won the AFL Championship by beating the Oakland Raiders in a close game, 27-23.  The Jets were set to meet the already-legendary Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.  The Colts had only lost one game in the 1968 season and shut out the Cleveland Browns in the NFL title game, 34-0.

The Colts were heavily favored to win Super Bowl III, and the Jets were 19-point underdogs.  Frustrated by the attitude of fans and media that the outcome was predetermined, and provoked by a fan at a public appearance, Namath made a statement guaranteeing that the Jets would win three days before the game—something you are never, ever, supposed to do in sports (the last thing you want is to give your opponent further motive to humiliate you).  Luckily, Namath’s teammates backed him up when the two teams met on the field.  The Jets defense, which allowed the most rushing yards in the AFL that season, kept the potent Colts offense from scoring in the first three quarters of the game. 

The Jets, however, scored sixteen points, off a four-yard touchdown run and three field goals.  The Colts didn’t score until late in the fourth quarter:  a one-yard touchdown run with only 3:19 left in the game.  They recovered the onside kick but couldn’t capitalize, and when the Jets had to punt after their next possession, only eight seconds remained.  Time eventually ran out and Joe Namath and the Jets pulled off the greatest upset of all time.
The iconic photo of Namath after the game

Namath continued to play for the Jets until 1977, when he was released by the team.  He joined the (then) Los Angeles Rams, and played one season for them before retiring; he was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.

Of course, Broadway Joe couldn’t stay out of the spotlight for long; even during his playing days he made appearances in television shows and ads, like this one for Noxema with a then-unknown Farah Fawcett:


Much, much later, in 1997, he was a pitchman for Nike, doing a two-part series of ads called “The Comeback” (keep in mind that, at the time, the Jets the (now) Indianapolis Colts were very different teams; in fact, the Jets had a 1-15 record in 1996, while the Colts had a 3-13 finish in 1997):

This wraps up Naptime Huddle’s “Football History 101” series for this offseason.  I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about professional football’s beginnings and how the NFL came to be the force it is today. 

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