Today's my dad's birthday, and much like most Jets fans, sometimes he can be a bit stuck in the past.
A few years ago as a gift, he asked for a tape from a 1970s Jets-Colts game. He claimed it was a game where Joe Namath and Johnny Unitas threw for a combined 2,000 yards and 120 touchdowns in a Jets victory. OK, maybe that's a bit hyperbolic.
But knowing my father — who once went on a day-long journey to buy a nonexistent cell phone he swore was called the "Alligator," "Crocodile," or some sort of reptile — I figured this game probably didn't even exist. And even if it did, it would probably be nothing more than an exaggeration — a peek at the past through rose- (and green-) colored lenses.
As a Jets fan, he hasn't had much to look forward to over the past 40 years or so (and probably not for the next 40, if we're being honest). Well, aside from Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez leading the team to two miraculous AFC Championship Game berths in 2009 and 2010, just before the same old Jets jetted away into extreme Jetsness once again.
So, seeing his face light up when talking about the legendary "Broadway" Joe throwing for like, 1,000 yards and 80 touchdowns in an epic duel vs. "The Golden Arm" made searching for the game too good to pass up. And, after all, I am kind of a decent son at times.
I did a bit of digging about the matchup, and guess what? The game actually happened, and it actually was a pretty damn good one at that. How about that — it wasn't just some old guy mis-remembering it over a Budweiser while reliving Namath's glory days in his head during birthday dinner in a New York bar.
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Sure, Namath's career numbers don't really hold up to today's pass-happy NFL. He has more interceptions in his career (220) than he does touchdowns (173). He ranks 60th on the NFL's career passing leaders list. But for one game in 1972, he had everything working, and the game itself was unlike anything you'd see in the '70s.
Furthermore, NFL defenses in the '70s allowed only 156.4 yards per game through the air on average. In 1972 specifically, defenses only gave up 152.1 passing yards per game.
But in this game, the Jets and the Colts battled to the tune of a 44-34 Jets victory in a gunslinger's high-noon showdown. A fourth-quarter, Namath-to-Rich Caster touchdown opened up the lead for good and gave New York the W. Namath threw for 496 yards and six touchdowns while Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas threw for 376 and two scores.
As a matter of fact, Namath's performance was one of only five 400-plus yard passing games in the 1970s, and the only one with more than 450 yards in the decade. It's one of eight games in NFL history that saw a quarterback throw for 450-plus yards and six scores in a game.
Today's NFL is significantly different, in both offense and defense. Consider this: Of the 66 times quarterbacks have thrown for 450 yards or more in a game, 42 times have come since the 2000 season. Thirteen of the NFL's 20 500-yard passing games have come since 2000. The NFL might as well outlaw defenses now, with the way things are shifting.
Some context for comparison:
Namath went 15 for 28, completing touchdown passes of 65, 67, 28, 10, 79 and 80 yards. He's the only player in NFL history to complete just 15 passes for 450 yards or more, and one of only two quarterbacks to complete 15 passes for 400 yards or more. The other is Sonny Jurgensen, who did it a decade earlier for the Philadelphia Eagles, before the AFL and NFL officially merged.
Namath was injury-riddled between 1970-73, playing in just 28 of a possible 58 games. In 1972, Namath led the AFC with 2,816 yards. In 2016, Jets legend Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 2,710 in 14 games (11 starts). Namath threw 19 touchdowns that year, also leading the AFC. In 2016, 21 quarterbacks threw for 19 or more.
As for Johnny Unitas, his game vs. New York would be his last hurrah as Baltimore's quarterback. It was the last time in his career he would throw for more than 300 yards, and it was the first time he had passed for at least 300 yards since a 1969 game vs. the 49ers. In 208 games, Unitas threw for 300 or more yards 26 times. With Baltimore faltering in 1972, the 39-year-old Unitas would be benched midway through the season and played in just six more games through the end of the season, thus ending his historic career with a fizzle.
Unitas was "bested" by Namath in terms of yardage in their only matchup prior to 1972. In 1970, Namath threw the ball 62 times for 397 yards and a touchdown vs. the Colts. Oh, and he threw six picks in that game, too. Unitas and the Colts came away with a 29-22 victory over the Jets, a game where Johnny U threw for 207 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
The two also met in Super Bowl III in 1969, and, well, we know how that one turned out.
It's pretty bonkers to see a game like this, a complete aberration, take place in the '70s. Sometimes the best games are the ones you aren't even sure actually exist. You probably won't find it on many "best of" DVDs.
So, happy birthday, Dad. Hope you and the rest of miserable Jets fans out there are ready for the Josh McCown era in New York.
The case of Joe Namath vs. Johnny Unitas and their 10,000 yard, 250 touchdown game has been closed.
Next up, the "Alligator."