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The New York Jets Top All-Time Player

Joe Willey

Super Bowl III - New York Jets v Baltimore Colts

We are down to the ultimate Jet, the one who above all others was the difference maker for the franchise. The player who personifies the Jets, Jets culture, the team standard bearer. An imperfect human who intrigued fans in numerous ways and brought the Jets to near iconic status with an improbable, franchise and league changing win.

There will be those out there that will disagree with me on this choice. That’s okay, everyone has an opinion. Yet when you look at his impact on the Jets, the game, and the league, it is hard to argue against Joe Namath being the single best New York Jet.

Joe was the right player at the right time for the Jets franchise and the AFL.

With the addition of Joe and the brilliance of new owner Sonny Werblin the Jets were the engine that drove the league into legitimacy. When Werblin bought the Jets in 1963 the Jets were broke. They averaged only 5,165 fans a game in the previous year. The league itself averaged only 20,487 fans that year as well. The Buffalo Bills and the Houston Oilers were the only solvent teams because they led the league in attendance and they both had very wealthy owners. Lamar Hunt (Buffalo) was a rich oilman who inherited his fortune from his dad, who was an acclaimed wildcatter and the man who inspired the J.R. Ewing character on the long-running TV series “Dallas.” Bud Adams (Houston) made his money in natural gas. They both had to lend money to other teams (including the Jets) to keep the league afloat.

Sonny Werblin was a very intelligent man who knew nothing about football, but he knew how to market a product to the masses. His first year Werblin almost tripled the attendance to 14,710 fans a game. After signing Matt Snell in 1964 along with some other players he created a buzz with the Jets, and attendance soared to 42,710 in 1964.

When Werblin signed Joe Namath in 1965 to a record 3 year, $427,000 contract he knew he had the player he could market to the fans. The contract drew amazing interest across the world. People who didn’t even know what American football was were talking about the Jets. Werblin introduced Joe to all the big celebrities. With his personality Joe did the rest. Joe had that little boy shy type smile and when he talked he just attracted people. Even today when Joe goes to a celebrity autograph signing where there are dozens of players from all sports, Joe has the majority of the crowd around him.

From the day Joe signed his contract he has been a walking, talking endorsement for the New York Jets.

Joe Namath has always been the biggest Jets booster no matter what the team does on the field. He has become an icon who is the only Jet famous enough that nearly everyone knows him. You can’t help but think of the Jets when you see Joe. Namath also became so famous that he changed the AFL/NFL with his play and his personality.

In 1965 the NFL had a stranglehold on pro football. The Giants that year were a mere 7-7 team yet they drew over 62,000 fans to every game. What is interesting about that is the game was watched almost exclusively by men. Those men were a mirror image of the game itself. The brand of football was brutal. They ran the ball more than 55% of the time. They averaged only 174 passing yards a game. The opponents play was similar to the Giants play, they ran it first then threw it. The Giants opponents had 18 passing TDs and 16 INTs on the season. It was a smash mouth, boring type of game that appealed to a small portion of the population.

Joe Namath helped change that. He was a celebrity while also being a football player. He was seen dating Hollywood stars like Raquel Welch, Christa Helm, Kim Basinger, Mamie Van Doren, Randi Oakes and a host of others. Joe at the time was a long haired bohemian type who was a reflection of the times in the 60’s. This inspired women’s interest in football. Namath also sparked an interest in young sports fans to become Jets fans. Those fans would likely have become Giants fans without Joe.

With Namath on the team the Jets averaged 54,877 fans a game in his first year. Namath was a celebrity but he also was a football player and the fans knew it. He was tough as nails. Namath once had his jaw broken by a cheap shot from Ben Davidson of the Oakland Raiders (no penalty was called). Joe went to the sideline, put his helmet back on and went back into the game. He didn’t want the Raiders to profit from their misdeed. He wouldn’t give them the satisfaction.

Namath had numerous injuries. He had two operations on each knee, separation of the right shoulder, fracture of the navicular bone in his throwing hand, a dislocated right thumb. He went right back into the game after the team doctor pulled the thumb back into place.

When Namath was signed in 1965 he was examined by Dr. James Nicholas (in the men’s room of a night club) who was a renowned orthopedic surgeon. He had reconstructive knee surgery two weeks later, a surgery that was far more traumatizing than it is today. He came back 8 months later to play in the team’ first preseason game. Namath won 3 of the last 5 games that year once he was named starter and was named Rookie of the Year with 18 TD passes.

The fans were well aware of Namath’s injuries, especially his knees. They would rise when Namath went back to pass, knowing a majestic pass could soon come their way. There was also the possibility it could be his last drop back. He was not unlike a gladiator where every game could be his last because of all the trauma his body had suffered. Yet he still played like he never had an injury, even running for a first down on occasion.

It’s hard for those too young to have seen Namath play to realize the excitement that Joe brought to a game. If you weren’t there it is difficult to understand that it felt like Babe Ruth came to bat. When Namath entered the game the crowd would stand and roar when he dropped back to pass. Those who traveled with the team said it was the same on the road. He had a mystique not unlike Muhammad Ali, where you felt something historic could take place at anytime.

Namath helped usher in the vertical passing offense that was as exciting as it was graceful. Other AFL teams also used the same concepts which made the NFL look old and outdated in comparison. Namath had a rocket arm. You could actually hear the ball coming receivers would say. Even Matt Snell (a fullback) said he could hear the pass coming. It had a whistling sound as the ball cut through the air.

Players like Don Maynard, who retired as the NFL’s all time leading receiver, would make game changing plays like this 87 yard TD perfectly thrown by Joe Namath. It put fans on the edge of their seats because every time Namath went to pass it could be a splash play you would remember for the rest of you life. It’s why you sit in the stands to see it in person. 1966 was the first year the franchise known as the Jets had a .500 season, going 6-6-2. That year Namath threw a pro football record 471 times. He followed that up with 491 passes the next year and led the Jets to their first winning season at 8-5-1. He was the only 2nd year player invited to the Pro Bowl and of course he was named MVP of the game.

Other AFL players like Lance Alworth followed, making acrobatic plays to delight fans. Alworth was nicknamed “Bambi” because he was so graceful in the air as he went up for a reception. This brought a sense of elegance to the game that was far different than the 3 yards and a cloud of dust of the NFL. For this reason the AFL began to flourish, especially in New York, where the Jets began drawing huge crowds. In 1967 the Jets averaged an AFL record of 62,433 fans which coincided with Joe Namath becoming the first player in pro football history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season. That was a 14 game season, and the 4,007 yards stands to this day as a New York Jets record for passing yards in a single season.

Namath’s celebrity had a helping hand to opposing teams as they would often see record crowds when the Jets came to town. Hundreds of fans would crowd outside the Jets entrance to their locker room just to get a glimpse of Joe. This made for some difficulties. Werblin’s plan to make Joe Namath a celebrity was working well - almost too well, as Joe was nearing cult status around the nation.

The Jets’ traveling secretary at the time was John Free. He had the unenviable job to do all the travel planning, as well as taking care of Joe Namath. By taking care of Namath I mean getting him from point A to point B safely. By this time Joe had become so famous there were at times hundreds of people waiting outside the locker room for him. This was not a problem at home because the Jets had security barriers and precautions in place to handle such a problem. On the road it was a different story, since no other team had the same problem as the Jets with a full blown celebrity.

Everywhere the Jets traveled they had a police escort, usually a couple of motorcycle cops who were paid $25 to clear the way and guard the rear. When the police were hanging around waiting for the Jets they said it was like working for a Hollywood producer with all the excitement.

Sometimes Free had to improvise. As he tells it. “We were playing at San Diego and the locker room opened onto a tunnel and I looked down to the end of it and I can see hundreds of people waiting by the buses. I knew there was no way I could get Namath out there. I saw a van loading towels and I said to the driver I’ll give you $10 if you drive this gentleman (Namath) out of the stadium.” The driver looked at Free and said, “That’s Joe Namath; Okay.”

So the driver took Joe and put him in the back of the van. But then he realized his girlfriend was sitting in the back of the van. The driver stopped Joe from getting in, then told his girlfriend, “Come up front with me, Namath can sit in the back with the towels by himself. I don’t want you sitting back there with him.” The driver obviously knew of Joe’s wild bachelor lifestyle. Namath was whisked away by the van out of the stadium onto the road a few hundred yards away. When the buses drove by one stopped, Namath got out of the van and into the bus.

The AFL was starting to see much better crowds and the NFL had taken notice. The NFL teams all played in huge stadiums but the AFL usually played in much smaller venues. In 1965 the Jets had recently moved into Shea Stadium from the Polo grounds but other teams weren’t so lucky.

Still by 1970, when the AFL/NFL merger occurred, the AFL had made major strides in attendance. In 1960 (when the AFL first started) the NFL had a total average attendance of 40,106 fans per game. In 1970 (only 10 years later) the AFL averaged 40,620 fans in attendance.

The merger was in no small part due to the celebrity of Joe Namath and the fans he attracted. The NFL had no player like Namath who drew such interest from non sports fans. It attracted a new and much more diverse crowd to the game. The NFL had to adopt the AFL teams or they soon may have been passed by the new league. It had developed an attractiveness which led to the strong and growing attendance of the AFL. The AFL was becoming the “cool kid” on the block and fans wanted to be a part of that.

On the field and as a leader is where Namath did his best for the Jets. He was the straw that stirred the drink and became the true leader on the team when he was voted team captain. Namath was always the guy who could easily converse with all the players on the team, which was not always the case back in the radical 60’s. He could be seen eating lunch with the offensive linemen and then the next day with the defense. Namath was never afraid to speak his mind and he never thought they would lose a game.

What was easy to see by teammates was the true talent Namath had. He had a rifle arm and a release that seemed to be going in warp speed. He could flick his wrist to fire a laser beam of a throw 40 yards downfield. He could throw it in a tea cup from that distance. Here is a dime to Don Maynard that shows the release, like it was shot from a cannon.

With Namath’s help Don Maynard retired the leading receiver in NFL/AFL history.

Of course the legendary status of Namath comes from his Super Bowl guarantee. It was something that was not done back then. You never would guarantee a victory, especially when you were 17 point underdogs. The only team to beat the 15-1 Colts in 1968 was the Browns, and the Colts got their revenge on them in the NFL championship game 34-0. Former NFL star player and then coach Norm Van Brocklin said “I’ll tell you what I think about Joe Namath on Sunday night (Super Bowl) after he has played his first pro game.”

Three days before the Super Bowl Namath was to attend the Miami Touchdown Club’s annual banquet to accept an award. Weeb Ewbank worried about the talkative Namath and told him “keep your big mouth shut.” The thing is Joe never meant it to come out the way that it sounded; he said that he was “tired of answering questions about the big, bad, Colts.” He found it ridiculous that they were 17 point favorites. He went on to add, “You can be the greatest athlete in the world, but if you don’t win these football games then it doesn’t mean anything. We’re going to win Sunday. I’ll guarantee you.” Namath stated.

“Those words I guarantee you were all I said and the only time I ever said it. I didn’t mean to sound like such a wise guy, and I never thought that would turn into a historical statement; especially coming from me, you know the brash Broadway invader from Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania.” Namath said.

Namath was confident. He felt deep down that the Colts were no better than a handful of teams from the AFL. His confidence oozed into every member of the team. The Jets players read the newspapers with all the reports they would get killed by the Colts. Tom Maule, the top football expert at Sports Illustrated, predicted the Colts would win 43-0, and Cameron Snyder of the Baltimore Sun had the final score 47-0, Colts. Two weeks before the game the betting line was 17 points. When a sportswriter told him of this Namath was shocked. He said “17 points? If I were allowed I would put $100,000 on this one. I might sound like I’m boasting and bragging and I am. Ask anyone who played against us in our league. The Colts are good but we’re good too.” Namath’s steadfast belief that the Jets would win touched every member of the team. “Joe was the leader of our team,” said Ralph Baker, a starting linebacker who later became a captain. “If he was so confident, I felt there was no reason I shouldn’t be, too.”

In the Super Bowl Namath was steady, with decent stats (17-29 for 209 yards), but he made no mistakes, which was the key to victory. He picked his spots and made key completions when needed like here on a 3rd down and 7 facing a huge blitz.

Hitting George Sauer on a near perfect pass while falling backward kept the Jets moving. Namath played most of the game with a bruised throwing hand thumb that hurt like hell when he threw the ball. He also had to find a way to win with Don Maynard, his all-world receiver, injured with a pulled quad muscle. Namath only sent 3 passes Maynard’s way all game with the all time great catching zero passes. Maynard was used as a decoy.

Namath always called his own plays, and he kept the Colts guessing by calling 41 running plays and only 29 pass plays. Winston Hill was dominating his man on the left side, so every time the Jets needed a yard they went that way. George Sauer stepped up and had a great game with 8 receptions for 133 yards, including this 39 yard play to put the Jets in scoring position.

This pinpoint pass set up another Jets score in their 16-7 upset win over the highly favored Colts. Namath was voted MVP, although Matt Snell or Winston Hill or the entire Jets defense that had 5 takeaways could have captured the prize themselves.

All those players to a man say that they played like they thought they were going to win because of their leader Joe Namath. The ground breaking, pro football changing win would have never happened if not for Joe Namath with his belief and his cool demeaner under great pressure. Namath put his name on the line and won. That’s how heroes are born.

Namath had another great season in 1969 but the Jets lost to the Chiefs (who won the Super Bowl) in the playoffs. Many of those Chiefs were some of the first people to greet Namath and thank him at the Super Bowl. It was the win that got the monkey of the AFL’s back. The Chiefs used that win to develop confidence that they could win the big game as well, which they did.

Up until 1970 Joe had numerous surgeries. His body was slowly breaking down but he never missed a game due to injury. From 1970 to 1976 he fought a myriad of injures playing in 61 of a possible 98 games but he gave it all he could.

Joe finished his career with lesser numbers than you might expect but still is the all time Jets leader in passing yards, touchdown passes and yards per attempt of all passers who threw more than 70 passes. He did all that with an assortment of injures and almost no ability to move.

Joe Namath: the Super Bowl winner, the leader, the league changer, he was a man who helped change the game for the better and the guy who did it all with style. He was a superior athlete (he had an offer from the Chicago Cubs to sign a contract for $50,000 out of high school) who was a warrior barely able to jog when he finished his career. He later had both knees replaced.

Joe Namath has been an ambassador for the Jets franchise since 1965 and is the one person who you think Jets as soon as you mention his name. He is a Ring of Honor inaugural enshrinee and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. #12 Joe Namath is the #1 Jet on our list.