Fifty years ago this autumn New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath passed for 4007 yards. Today that number sounds pedestrian. Fifty years ago it was revolutionary.
4007 yards was a new single season passing record in 1967. The previous record had been set six years earlier by Redskins Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, who threw for 3723 yards in 1961. Joe Namath blew that record away. The record Namath set in 1967 helped the Jets throw off their sad sack reputation. Those 1967 Jets started the season with a 7-2-1 record and seemed primed to challenge for a spot in Super Bowl II. But star running back Emerson Boozer suffered a devastating knee injury in week 8 against the Kansas City Chiefs and the 1967 Jets would never be the same. Prior to suffering the injury Boozer led the league in rushing touchdowns with 10 and in all purpose touchdowns with 14. It is a measure of how great Boozer was that year that, though his season ending injury was incurred early in week 8 of a 14 game season and Boozer was thus limited to just slightly more than half a season of play, he still went on to lead the league in touchdowns in 1967. Without Emerson Boozer the Jets lost in Kansas City in week 8 and went on to lose four of six games, eliminating them from playoff contention. Nonetheless the upstart Jets posted the first winning season of their history in 1967 behind Namath's record setting heroics and served notice they would henceforth be a force to be reckoned with. A year later the Jets were Super Bowl champions.
Fifty years is a long time. In 1967 Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were still alive. The Beatles were still together and making albums. Nobody had yet set foot on the moon. There were no personal computers, no cellular phones, no portable music. Color television and central air conditioning were still something of a novelty. Japanese cars and electronics were considered cheap knockoffs, and fresh milk was still delivered daily to your home in glass bottles by the milkman, with the cream floating on top. That's how long ago 1967 was, and that's how long it's been since the Jets had a 4000 yard passer.
The NFL rules have been changed countless times to favor the passing game as the years have gone by. Passing has gone from being viewed with deep suspicion by many of the old time coaches to being viewed as essential to winning in the modern game. Namath's record was so revolutionary it stood for 12 long years and was only broken by Dan Fouts of the San Diego Chargers after the NFL changed the schedule from 14 to 16 games a year. Namath's record for a 14 game season was never and will likely never be broken.
Fouts' record stood for only one year, as he broke it and re-broke it in 1980 and 1981. The 1981 Fouts record was broken by Dan Marino with 5084 yards in 1985. Marino's record was even more long living than Namath's, as it stood for more than a quarter of a century before Drew Brees broke it in 2011, and that record was broken again in 2013 by Peyton Manning with 5477 yards, which stands as the current single season passing record.
Since Namath set the NFL and Jets single season passing record in 1967 all 31 other NFL teams have set new single season team passing records. More than half of the 32 NFL teams have set their single season passing record in the last six years. All but three teams have set new records since 1991, and every team other than the Jets has set their single season passing record since 1980. Joe Namath's record persists, in splendid isolation, both a continuing tribute to the greatness of Joe half a century ago and a silent indictment of how wretched the Jets passing game has been since Joe left the Jets.
In 1967 a 4000 yard season was nearly miraculous. In today's game it is passe'. Thirteen NFL quarterbacks exceeded 4000 yards passing in the 2016 season alone. Yet no Jets quarterback has ever returned to Joe's hallowed ground. Two NFL teams, the Chicago Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, have never produced a 4000 yard passer. The other 29 teams have all surpassed Joe Namath and the Jets long ago. In today's NFL you don't need a 5000 yard passer to succeed, but if you don't have an offense capable of putting up 4000 passing yards over a 16 game season you are at a severe handicap. Super Bowls can still be won with a great defense and running game, but without the quarterback everything else has to be nearly perfect. The Jets have been searching for that quarterback ever since Namath left. They've gotten a few good seasons here and there with Ken O' Brien, Vinny Testaverde and Chad Pennington, but for the most part Joe Namath still stands in splendid isolation, the only real franchise quarterback this team has ever had.
4007 yards. Fifty years and counting. Joe Namath is no doubt pleased he still holds the team record. He also must be bemused all these years later, 14 game seasons changing to 16 game seasons, rules forever becoming more friendly to the passing game, passing records falling ever more frequently, yet his record still stands, a living monument to the most iconic Jet of them all.