- Jeff Miller
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The iconic image from the New York Jets' shocking upset of the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III, played 40 years ago, is of Joe Namath jogging toward the northwest tunnel of Miami's Orange Bowl after the game, wagging his right index finger in triumph.
The Jets' star quarterback was named the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player after the toppling of the 18-point favorites, the American Football League's first Super Bowl win in three tries. The 16-7 upset ended talk among pro football's hierarchy that the AFL teams wouldn't deserve to stay together as the AFC when they would enter the NFL in 1970. Namath had guaranteed the win at a Miami banquet the previous Thursday night, and the Jets delivered.
Winning Super Bowl quarterbacks have been voted the MVP 22 times in the 42 games and were so honored in all four of the NFL-AFL meetings of the 1960s. But with the benefit of 40 years of hindsight, here's another look at the top five outstanding performers in that historic game:
No. 5: Colts running back Tom Matte
After scoring three touchdowns in the rout of Cleveland in the NFL Championship Game, Matte was a bull again in Miami. He rushed for 116 yards on only 11 attempts; his carries decreased in the second half because Baltimore threw more balls in the air as New York's lead grew.
Matte was a part of the Colts' biggest plays of the day. He had a 30-yard catch on a first-half drive following the Jets' only touchdown of the day, but that play ended with Lou Michaels' second missed field goal of the half. Matte made a 58-yard romp to New York's 16 late in the half, negated by the second of Colts quarterback Earl Morrall's three interceptions.
Matte did his part in the infamous flea-flicker on the final play of the half, getting the ball back to Morrall in good position. But he also fumbled on the first play from scrimmage in the second half to begin a dreadful quarter for the Colts. The Jets added two field goals to move ahead 13-0 and held Baltimore to 3 yards in the period.
No. 4: Jets wide receiver George Sauer Jr.
Sauer and veteran wideout Don Maynard gave Namath two deep threats, helping the quarterback set the pro record for passing yards in a season with 4,007 in the 1967 season.
Maynard pulled his left hamstring in mid-December, sat out the meaningless regular-season finale and starred in the AFL Championship Game against Oakland with six catches for 188 yards and two touchdowns. But the injury flared up before the Super Bowl, reducing his role. Namath threw in his direction five times without a completion.
Sauer took up the slack, though he got off to a shaky start with a first-quarter fumble inside the Jets' 15-yard line. He finished with eight catches, five of them for first downs, and 133 yards.
No. 3: Namath
Namath kept excellent control of this game, unlike typical Namath outings that usually featured high risk and reward. When he threw for the record-4,007 yards in '67, he threw 26 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions. And the Jets finished only 8-5-1 that season, giving him a three-year record of 17-16-3 as a starter going into the 1968 season.
In leading New York to its first division title and an 11-3 record, Namath threw 15 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. One loss was at Oakland in the famed "Heidi" game. But the others were to woeful Denver and Buffalo, in which Namath threw a combined 10 interceptions. It could be difficult to determine which Namath would show up.
Against Baltimore, Namath threw no interceptions, had only one completion longer than 14 yards and finished with 208 passing yards. He converted four of seven third-down passes, threw two incompletions and was sacked once. Once the Jets took a 13-0 lead into the fourth quarter, all 16 of New York's plays from scrimmage in the period were runs.
No. 2: Jets running back Matt Snell
Snell went to high school on Long Island and was drafted in 1964 out of Ohio State by the Jets in the first round and the crosstown Giants in the fourth round. (The AFL and NFC held separate drafts in those days.) He was arguably owner Sonny Werblin's first breakthrough signing in raising the Jets to respectability.
With the arrival of Namath a year later, the emphasis of New York's offense was cemented in the passing game. During the 1968 regular season, Snell accounted for the team's only 100-yard rushing performance -- 124 yards in the loss to Buffalo. He and running mate Emerson Boozer nearly split the load during the season in terms of carries (179-143), although Snell gained 747 yards to Boozer's 441.
But Snell was the Jets' workhorse in the Super Bowl, with 30 rushes to Boozer's 10. On the 12-play drive that produced New York's only touchdown, Snell primarily followed the left-side blocking of tackle Winston Hill and guard Bob Talamini six times, including the 4-yard touchdown run. He finished with 121 yards rushing and 30 yards receiving.
Snell's punishing hit on Colts safety Rick Volk on the second play from scrimmage prevented Volk from returning punts that day. And, as a regular on New York's punt team, he made a crushing tackle on Volk's replacement, Timmy Brown.
No. 1: Jets right tackle Dave Herman
Herman's last season at Michigan State was Bubba Smith's freshman season there. They formed the most intriguing matchup of Super Bowl III.
Herman was the Jets' starting right guard for five seasons but was moved to right tackle for the AFL Championship Game. Coach Weeb Ewbank benched rookie Sam Walton, who had appeared to run out of steam as the season wore on and struggled in mid-November against Raiders defensive end Ike Lassiter, a Jets nemesis.
"It's like a lot of rookies," Herman said of Walton. "By the time you got to the championship game all the way from preseason, it was like two college seasons back-to-back." In the AFL title game, Herman neutralized Lassiter, and the Jets benefited from a late Oakland turnover to hold on for a 27-23 victory.
The '68 Colts (13-1) set an NFL record by allowing only 144 points in 14 games, and a big part of that rampaging defense was the pass rush of Smith, a second-year defensive end. Picked first overall in the combined NFL-AFL draft, Smith was an imposing blend of strength and speed. "Kill, Bubba, kill" was introduced to the Colts fan's vocabulary. "He was a 1990s player back in 1969," Herman said.
Ewbank decided to leave Herman at right tackle for the Super Bowl despite giving up 6-7 inches and 30-40 pounds in the matchup. Smith hoped Namath's seven-step drop and deep setup would provide him a better angle. But Namath's quick release, Herman's technique and a New York game plan that often ran to the opposite side kept Smith at bay for most of the game. Smith got his hands on Namath only once when he made a third-quarter sack.
When Herman was informed recently by phone that he had been "chosen" the MVP of Super Bowl III, he didn't seem surprised or overwhelmed.
"I thought that for I don't know how many years," said Herman, 67. "I wasn't the one who got the ball to the receivers or the ball to either the halfback or the fullback. But I was the one that made it possible."
Jeff Miller wrote "Going Long: The Wild 10-Year Saga of the Renegade American Football League in the Words of Those Who Lived it" (Contemporary Books, 2003). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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