Most football fans have experienced memorable moments, championships, games, and even bitter losses in the postseason over the last 87 years. But, many people only remember the champion or the runner-up in the last game of the NFL season, the NFL championship or Super Bowl. The December 18, 1932 playoff game featuring the Portsmouth Spartans (now known as the Detroit Lions) and the Chicago Bears was a memorable event as the NFL’s first postseason game with the Bears winning 9-0. In this special 32 part series, I will analyze each NFL team’s best championship season and the one season where they finished just short of claiming the NFL’s ultimate prize. The third team to be analyzed is… the NEW YORK JETS!
The 1968 Jets: Weeb Ewbank’s Last Championship
When Weeb Ewbank was named the head coach and general manager of the AFL’s New York Jets in 1963, he had already been an NFL head coach for nine years with the Baltimore Colts and won two championships in 1958 as well as 1959. However, after Baltimore’s owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, fired Ewbank following a 7-7 season in 1962, Weeb was hired by the new owner of the Jets franchise, Sonny Werblin, to turn their team around after the New York Titans filed bankruptcy with three disappointing years in the American Football League.
In Ewbank’s first three years in New York, the Jets struggled on the field and finished with a 5-8-1 record each season, but Weeb used the AFL Draft to build the Jets into a playoff contender by drafting future AFL All-Stars Dave Herman (offensive lineman, 27th round pick in 1963), fullback Matt Snell (1st round pick in 1964), defensive end Gerry Philbin (3rd round pick in 1964), Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath (#1 overall pick in 1965), and defensive end Verlon Biggs (3rd round pick in 1965). After drafting running back Emerson Boozer (6th round pick) and tight end Pete Lammons (8th round pick) in 1966, the Jets finished with a 6-6-2 record before adding one more key addition in defensive tackle John Elliott (7th round pick) before the 1967 season.
With these draft picks, Ewbank led the Jets to their first winning season in franchise history with an 8-5-1 record in 1967, but missed the playoffs by one game to the Houston Oilers. As the 1968 offseason began, Ewbank upgraded his team by acquiring AFL All-Pro left guard Bob Talamini from Houston, right tackle Sam Walton (3rd round draft pick), and 1964 AFL passing champion quarterback Babe Parilli from Boston to serve as Joe Namath’s backup. Despite becoming the first quarterback to throw for 4,000 yards in a season in 1967, Namath also threw 28 interceptions and Parilli’s experience helped Namath to become the new face of the AFL in 1968.
In a season with high expectations, the 1968 Jets dominated the AFL’s Eastern Division and finished with an 11-3 record. With Parilli as his mentor, Joe Namath was named AFL MVP and led a dynamic Jets offense with AFL All-Star running back Emerson Boozer and AFL All-Star wide receivers Don Maynard as well as George Sauer leading the charge. The Jets also had one of the AFL’s best defenses in 1968 and was led by AFL All-Pro defensive end Gerry Philbin, AFL All-Star linebacker Al Atkinson, and AFL All-Star defensive linemen John Elliott as well as Verlon Biggs.
Despite winning the AFL Eastern Division by four games, the Jets still had a tough challenge ahead in their first AFL Championship Game hosting the defending AFL champion Oakland Raiders. After throwing a first quarter touchdown to Maynard, Namath’s Jets took an early 10-0 lead before Lamonica’s Raiders cut into the lead before halftime. With a 13-13 tie early in the third quarter, Namath threw his 2nd touchdown to tight end Pete Lammons to retake the lead before the Raiders scored 10 unanswered points to take a 23-20 lead midway through the fourth quarter. But, Namath and the Jets offense immediately responded with a quick scoring drive that ended with Namath connecting with Maynard again to make the score 27-23. After retaking the lead, the Jets defense slowed down the Raiders offense for the rest of the game as Weeb Ewbank won his first AFL Championship by the score of 27-23.
However, despite winning their first AFL Championship, the 1968 Jets still had one more challenge in Super Bowl III against Ewbank’s former team, the 15-1 NFL champion Baltimore Colts. But, Joe Namath and the Jets were ready for the Colts as their defense shut down Baltimore’s offense led by the NFL’s league MVP quarterback Earl Morrall. The Jets secondary had four interceptions and held the Colts scoreless until the fourth quarter while Namath as well as Matt Snell controlled the clock for most of the game and took a 16-0 lead late in the third quarter. After winning his last championship in 1959 with Baltimore and his termination following the 1962 season, Weeb Ewbank won his only Super Bowl against his former team as Joe Namath earned Super Bowl MVP honors with the Jets upsetting the Colts by the score of 16-7 in Super Bowl III.
1968 JETS OFFENSE
AFL All-Star Selections: QB Joe Namath (AFL MVP, AFL All-Pro), HB Emerson Boozer, WR Don Maynard, WR George Sauer (AFL All-Pro), LT Winston Hill, RG Dave Herman
Strengths: Passing attack and lack of turnovers. After throwing over 4,000 yards and 28 interceptions in 1967, Joe Namath changed his game by averaging only 27 pass attempts per game in 1968 (8 less than in 1967), but still led the AFL’s 3rd best passing attack and led the league with three 4th quarter comebacks. Despite completing under 50 percent of his passes and throwing 15 touchdowns, Namath still had one of the AFL’s best receiving duos with George Sauer as well as Don Maynard combining for 123 receptions for 2,438 yards and 13 TD’s during the regular season (10 TD’s for Maynard).
The 1968 Jets also had the 3rd fewest turnovers in the AFL (28; 19 interceptions, 9 fumbles lost) after committing 19 turnovers in their first seven weeks. The Jets offensive line, led by AFL All-Star left tackle Winston Hill and AFL All-Star right guard Dave Herman, played a big role in Joe Namath’s MVP season as well by giving him great protection and allowed only 18 sacks (fewest in the league).
Weaknesses: Rushing offense. Despite having the AFL’s 2nd ranked offense in 1968, the Jets rushing attack was ranked 8th in the league, but they led the AFL with 22 rushing touchdowns. With AFL All-Star running back Emerson Boozer as well as fullback Matt Snell leading the way, the 1968 Jets did not have a prolific running attack as they averaged only 3.4 yards per carry, but played a ball control style of offense with 467 carries during the season (3rd most in the league).
Before Matt Snell rushed for 121 yards in Super Bowl III, the Jets used their two-headed backfield effectively in the AFL Championship against Oakland as Boozer and Snell combined for 30 carries for 122 yards to complement the Jets passing attack.
1968 JETS DEFENSE/SPECIAL TEAMS
AFL All-Star Selections: DE Gerry Philbin (AFL All-Pro), DT John Elliott, DE Verlon Biggs, MLB Al Atkinson, K Jim Turner
Strengths: Overall defense and takeaways. After playing as a linebacker under Hall of Fame head coach Paul Brown in Cleveland, Jets defensive coordinator, Walt Michaels, had the AFL’s 2nd ranked passing defense and No. 1 ranked rushing defense in 1968. Led by his AFL All-Star defensive line coached by Buddy Ryan, the 1968 Jets allowed the fewest yards in the league while recording 43 sacks (3rd most in the AFL) and held their opponents to 20 points per game (4th in the AFL).
The Jets also had the 2nd most takeaways in the AFL in 1968 (43; 28 interceptions, 15 fumble recoveries) and forced five turnovers in Super Bowl III. Led by their experienced secondary (Johnny Sample, Jim Hudson, Bill Baird, and Randy Beverly), the 1968 Jets held opposing quarterbacks to a rating of 52.4 during the season (4th best in the AFL) and held Earl Morrall to a rating of 9.3 in the Super Bowl.
Weaknesses: Overall special teams. Despite having the AFL’s 2nd ranked offense and 4th ranked defense, the 1968 Jets had some struggles with their special teams unit, but kicker Jim Turner led the league with 145 points scored to earn an AFL All-Star selection. The Jets punter, Curley Johnson, also finished with the 3rd highest yards per punt average in the AFL (43.8 yards on 68 punts), but the Jets lacked a solid returner in 1968 with backup defensive back Earl Christy splitting kick return and punt return duties with starting safety Bill Baird as well as backup wide receiver Bake Turner.
UP NEXT… THE STORY OF THE 1998 NEW YORK JETS!