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Team chemistry makes Champions

Long Night of the Sciences in Halle Photo by Hendrik Schmidt/picture alliance via Getty Images

I have been scouting football a long time. I have watched most prospects (I could find tape of) since 1990. I have talked with NFL head coaches to understand the team’s offense. I’ve had conversations with college defensive coordinators about their schemes. I was trying to find the nugget of gold in their candid remarks about what makes a team great.

What I was looking for was the answer - the answer to what makes a team succeed above their collective talents. Sure many (if not all) NFL teams have talent, some with special talent. Some teams have great coaches, historically great coaches, Hall of Fame type coaches. Combined with that great talent some dynasties have formed. Yet many lost with great teams, teams with superior talent. Some won above others because of great preparation plus the value of a team working together on the same page.

Bill Walsh, Tom Landry, Bill Belichick, Vince Lombardi, Chuck Noll were great coaches who had teams working on simple but effective schemes that nearly every player (if not every single player) on the team believed in. They knew what to do and when to do it, and they feared letting their teammates down because of errors of omission from themselves.

One of the greatest coaches all time who doesn’t get the recognition he deserves was George Allen, who coached the Rams and the team from our nation’s Capital. Allen was an eclectic type coach who traded away draft picks for older players. He felt it took too long to develop a player (it was a vastly different era), so he would rather have a competent pro than a young kid. Yet he molded his team into a cohesive unit that was a tough group to beat.

Allen never won a championship, but his teams were always very good. He had a 49-17-4 record in LA (.729 winning %) then went to Washington D.C. and was 69-30-1 (.689 winning %) in a division with the Cowboys and Giants. This after taking over the team in Washington that had a single winning record in the prior 15 years. As a coach in 12 NFL seasons Allen never had a losing record.

His mantra (in an era of much smaller team rosters) was “Just remember, 40 men together can’t lose.” He believed so much in team unity and hard work. Some of his beliefs were “winning is the science of being totally prepared.” “People of mediocre ability sometimes achieve outstanding success because they don’t know when to quit.” “Most men succeed because they are determined to.” “Football games aren’t necessarily won by the best players. It’s won by the team with the best attitude.”

Allen insisted on the team working together. He had drills and team activities that bonded the team as a cohesive unit. It wasn’t just important, it was the ultimate goal. For a team to play together, not as individuals, was the key to success. Everyone wins and loses together, as one.

I found the answer to my question many years ago.

The answer is team chemistry, how players feel about how they are valued in a team setting. Great players can still be great, but they truly appreciate the players who do the dirty work to make them great. Emmitt Smith would never have been the NFL all time rushing leader without his offensive line, and the work of Moose Johnson, his fullback. Johnson is probably three inches shorter now after constantly running full steam, then placing his head into the chest of a linebacker. He was an unsung hero of those great Cowboy teams.

Look at the New York Jets Super Bowl win, where the Jets were 18-21 point underdogs. The Jets were a high flying, throw it deep team who the press felt were going to be destroyed by a vaunted Baltimore pass rush.

The reason (in my mind) that Joe Namath won the Super Bowl MVP was not on the field. Matt Snell did that. Namath did so pool side in Miami when reporters asked him who would win the game. The writers (for the most part) where smiling at Joe. They felt he had no chance to win. So they asked Joe to put him on the spot, make a fool out of him afterwards. Joe didn’t hesitate. He said the Jets would win. He paused, then saw the smiles of the reporters in an “I got you” moment, so he repeated that the Jets would win, then said he guaranteed it.

The Jets coaches were besides themselves, because Joe just gave the Colts some amazing bulletin board material, like they needed more of an edge. What the coaches didn’t realize was that Joe was the undisputed leader of the team. When he proclaimed the Jets would win he opened himself for huge ridicule if he was wrong. He would have been lambasted in the press as a fool had the Colts won.

The Jets players as a team realized this, they know that Joe was no fool. If he was willing to put himself out there on the line then he must think the Jets could win. The Colts were considered one of the best teams in NFL history coming into the game. They had a 13-1 record coming into the playoffs, with their only loss coming against the Cleveland Browns (30-20). The Colts rectified that in the playoffs by beating the Browns 34-0 (NFL championship game) on their way to the Super Bowl.

Joe Namath thought the Jets would win, and the team bought into that mindset that day. That’s when the Jets won the Super Bowl. Joe Namath won the MVP award, but the offensive line handled the Colts’ NFL best defensive line, and Matt Snell ran his butt off for his team.

That mindset wasn’t just some bar room boast by some prima donna. Joe believed it sincerely.

Super Bowl III was in Miami, but it was a different place than it is today.

Back then ball players would go out when on the road to the first watering hole they could find and have a good time. There were no cell phones, no video games, and the TV in the room probably got three channels, so there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot to do at the hotel. You can’t just work on football 18 hours a day, you need to unwind, take a load off.

Back in the 60’s there were a lot of bars in Miami, but not nearly as many as there are today. Eventually players from opposing teams would find each other in the same bar. This is what happened with Lou Michaels and Joe Namath.

Namath was out with strong safety Jim Hudson having something to eat and imbibing a little when Lou Michaels (big Baltimore all purpose player and field goal kicker) comes up rather impudently and says “Lou Michaels” as a way of introducing himself. Joe just kept to himself. Michaels added “You’re doing a lot of talking.” Lou Michaels was also the brother of Jets defensive coordinator (and future head coach) Walt Michaels.

Joe replied “There’s a lot to talk about. We’re going to to kick the hell out of your team.”

Michaels was starting to feel the anger well up inside him. He said “Haven’t you heard of the word modesty Joseph?”

Jim Hudson didn’t like the way the conversation was going so he grabbed Joe and shuffled him over to a table so they could have some dinner and defuse the situation. But Michaels was not done with Joe yet. He sat down at the same table, uninvited, along with teammate Dan Sullivan.

Joe just looked over at Lou and said “You still here?”

Michaels responded “Damn right I’m still here. I want to hear all you got to say.”

“I’m going to pick you apart” said Joe.

“I never heard Johnny Unitas or Bobby Layne talk like that” Lou responded. He then added “Even if we were in trouble we’d send the master in,” referring to Johnny Unitas.

Namath just looked at Michaels then smiled a huge smile and said “I hope you do because that will mean the game is too far gone.”

“Too far what!!?” shouted Michaels.

Joe looked over at Michaels, wiped his mouth with a napkin and said “Excuse me a moment, I have to say hello to a few friends.” With that Joe got up and left.

Jim Hudson quickly chimed in (as he saw Lou Michaels was now fuming) “Don’t pay attention to what Joe says, you have to understand him.”

Joe came back to the table and sat back down a few minutes later with Michaels still enraged by the conversation. Michaels then leaned over closer to Joe and said

“Suppose we kick the hell out of your team; just suppose we do that. What then Namath?”

Joe glanced back over to Lou Michaels, smiled and said “I’ll tell you what I’ll do; I’ll sit in the middle of the field and I’ll cry.”

Joe stared at Michaels and Michaels stared back at Namath and the whole table erupted in laughter. Joe had found a way to say what he thought but still defuse a hostile situation.

They all sat there until the bill came and Namath paid the check with a $100 bill, one of many he had in a roll in his pocket. “You got a ride back to the hotel?” Namath asked Lou.

“No, but we’ll jump in a cab” said Michaels.

Namath replied “Don’t be silly, I’ll drop you off.”

Namath and Hudson rode along with Lou and Dan Sullivan, then dropped them off at the Statler Hilton where the Colts were staying. They thanked Joe for the ride, then they all waved goodbye.

“He’s a helluva guy” Lou Michaels said.

Michaels went on to miss two field goals in the Super Bowl, of 27 and 46 yards.

Joe Namath was always Joe cool, he never got rattled. He took things in stride without worrying about what might happen. People didn’t realize that Joe was also a tough guy. He wasn’t afraid. He once had his jaw broken on a cheap shot by Ben Davidson of the Oakland Raiders, but Joe went back and finished the game because he wasn’t going to allow Davidson to succeed with his dirty play. His teammates knew this about Joe, he would stand behind his boasts without regards to the consequences.

The Jets won Super Bowl III even though their best receiver and Hall of Fame player Don Maynard injured his hamstring early in the game and couldn’t run. He still stayed in the game despite his injury as a decoy, but he never caught a pass. The Jets used George Sauer (8 receptions 133 yards) and Matt Snell (4 receptions 40 yards) in the passing game, in addition to a ground game that chewed up 143 yards on 43 carries. The short passes with the persistent run game wore down the Colts great defense.

The Jets offensive line held back the famed Colts pass rush plus Joe directed multiple scoring drives for the win. To a man, the outrageous boast by Joe Namath gave his players the belief that they could win. They knew in order to do so they had to win as a team, so that’s exactly what they did. Joe, whether intentional or not, galvanized the team like no one thought possible. The Jets were a close team in 1968 but what Joe did was make that closeness into a powerful bond.

That’s what team chemistry can do for a team.

They can become champions

Let’s hope the Jets find some chemistry that leads to a championship.

I think they have a decent shot.

What do you think?