A football game earns top spot in Hall of Lame

January 13, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

A QUICK GLANCE at the calendar revealed that yesterday was the 30th anniversary of that day. Yes, it was exactly two score minus 10 years ago that the Baltimore Colts lost to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.

Isn't it time, fellow Balti-morons, that Joe Namath, the quarterback of that Jets team, come clean and make a confession he's avoided for the past three decades? Isn't it time the man ended his 30 years of living in denial?

Super Bowl III has been called an upset. Others have called it a pivotal game in pro football history -- the one that established parity between the older, staid and conservative National Football League and the fledgling American Football League, which embodied the spirit of youthful rebellion.

The game has been called everything but what it was: the greatest fluke in sports history. It didn't prove that the AFL was finally on par with the NFL. Super Bowl IV did that -- when the unquestionably superior Kansas City Chiefs trounced a Minnesota Vikings team that was the best the NFL had to offer -- proving the AFL had arrived.

No. All Super Bowl III did was prove that sometimes great teams -- the 1968 Baltimore Colts, for example -- have bad days on which merely good teams (the 1968 New York Jets) can beat them.

How the Jets pulled off that feat is one of life's mysteries, ranking right up there with how current NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue can have a mind that is both vacuous and tortured at the same time. Several theories prevail:

The Jets were the beneficiaries of dumb, blind, stupid luck.

If the Colts had cashed in on all their scoring opportunities, they would have won by a score of something like 38-16 or 45-16 instead of losing 16-7. The New York Jets didn't beat the Baltimore Colts on Jan. 12, 1969. The Colts beat themselves. The Jets had been equally lucky in their AFL championship game against the Oakland Raiders, who also blew several scoring opportunities and who, like the Colts, were a better team than Namath and Co.

Cheating.

Colt defenders didn't sack Namath once that day. Several Colts, in the book "Sundays at 2: 00 with the Baltimore Colts," said there was a good reason for that. They claim the Jets used a long-cherished football tactic that offensive linemen use to stop good defenses: holding. Officials called not one holding penalty against the Jets in the game.

Tanking.

Did the Colts throw Super Bowl III? To be honest, after the game I was tempted to have bumper stickers printed up that would have read "Honk if you think Earl Morrall tanked Super Bowl III." Morrall was the Colts' quarterback who served up several interceptions that day. One was on a flea-flicker play. Morrall didn't even look at a wide-open Jimmy Orr in the end zone. And Orr was the primary receiver, the first receiver Morrall was supposed to look at.

Morrall didn't tank the game, of course. He probably figured, "Hey, we're playing the Jets of the AFL here. I don't have to look at a primary receiver." That brings us to another theory explaining the Jets' win:

Colts' overconfidence.

The first two Super Bowls ended in blowout victories for the NFL's Green Bay Packers. The Colts had just completed a 13-1 season in which they'd twice beaten an excellent Los Angeles Rams team and a good Minnesota Vikings team, and they crushed the Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship game. They didn't take the Jets seriously. Colts tight end John Mackey said they had played the game in their minds and already won it.

Weird, quirky magic.

This is the most plausible theory. How else to explain the Jets beating the Colts, the New York Knicks sweeping the Baltimore Bullets in the early rounds of the National Basketball Association playoffs and the New York Mets creaming the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series, all in the same year? In all three cases, the New York teams beat better Baltimore ballclubs.

The 1969 World Series proved unusual forces were at work. Mediocre Mets players made spectacular plays they had never made before and never made again. This wasn't black magic. No New York sports fans threw a virgin into a volcano. But they may have dangled one over a cliff and scared 20 to 30 years off her life.

Jan. 12, 1969. It's not a day that will live in infamy. But it will be featured prominently in the Weird Hall of Fame.

Pub Date: 1/13/99

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