Joe Namath, Overrated Or Underappreciated?

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Storyline: If you want to go by stats alone, I admit that I can’t give you a lot of reasons why Joe Namath is in the NFL Hall of Fame. But I can tell you this: in his prime, no coach or defense slept well the night before facing “Broadway Joe.” 


Is Joe Namath overrated? I was involved recently in a debate about that question.

My opinion: No.  My friend’s opinion: Yes.

Courtesy: The Morning Call

My friend offered the same argument I’ve heard many times before.

–Namath had 173 career touchdowns and 220 career interceptions.

–Namath only had a 50% completion percentage and a 65.5 passer rating.

–The only reason Namath is in the NFL Hall of Fame is because of that history-making Super Bowl III win over the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts.

Let’s deconstruct that argument starting with the interceptions, the not-so-good completion percentage, and low passer rating.

Namath played from 1965-1977 when football was very different from the game you see today. It wasn’t an era when QBs built-up great stats.

Namath played the first part of his career in the AFL and AFL QBs weren’t conservative in play calling. They were riverboat gamblers, routinely throwing 40, 50, and 60 yards down field. Pass interference wasn’t called as often. Receivers were getting bumped all the way down the field (there wasn’t a 5-yard rule back then). And Namath called his own plays.

AFL QBs favored the long pass. That’s very different from today’s game with its dink-and-dunk and pitch-and-catch mentality. Today’s QBs build-up great stats with an assortment of short passes. No so back then.

Let’s also remember that Namath didn’t play on a very good team for most of his career. The Jets had only three winning seasons from 1965-76. And only one other Jets’ player made it to the Hall–Don Maynard–Namath’s favorite receiver. (John Riggins made it, too, but that accomplishment had more to do with the 9 years Riggins spent with the Redskins).

Namath in 1973 (courtesy, Outside the Beltway, AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Say what you will about Namath’s reputation–relishing of the spotlight, guaranteeing the win against the Colts, spending late nights with the ladies, wearing those white shoes, having long hair, and wearing mink coats.

But when it came time to play, nobody took it more seriously.

Nobody cared more about winning.

Nobody was tougher.

Just how tough was he? He tore his ACL during his senior year at Alabama. There was no surgery back then to properly repair an ACL injury. Yes, there was an operation, but the key was resting, rehabbing, and hoping. So Namath was already at a disadvantage–with damaged knees–at the start of his pro career

He signed with the Jets for an unheard of figure–$427,000. They put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated and tagged him with the nickname, “Broadway Joe.”

No one in pro football at that time was making anywhere near that kind of money or getting that kind of attention. That made many players jealous. It also put a bulls eye on Namath’s chest. There were no special rules to protect QBs back then, and Namath took hit after hit from every defense in the League.

Namath continued playing despite being the target of numerous cheap shots, including having his jaw broken in a 1967 game against the Oakland Raiders, a team known for aggressive play. But Namath didn’t miss a single game in the first five years of his career.

Namath on the cover of Sports Illustrated

In fact, he excelled during those years. He was voted Rookie of the Year in 1965. He was AFL MVP in 1968 and 1969. And he led the Jets to their first and only Super Bowl victory–a game in which he was named MVP.

But the incessant punishment took its toll. Namath was plagued by numerous injuries and concussions for the rest of his career. In 1970 he broke the wrist on his throwing hand and was able to play in only five games. The next year he played in only four games because of yet another knee injury. It was perhaps his worst injury of all.

It happened on August 7 1971 in a pre-season game against the Detroit Lions. Namath handed off to seldom-used running back Lee White. White fumbled the ball to Detroit Lions’ MLB Mike Lucci. As Namath tried to tackle Lucci, an OLB named Paul Naumoff speared Namath’s knee with his helmet. That hit resulted in Namath’s fourth knee surgery. When asked why he attempted the tackle in a meaningless pre season game, Namath replied, “It’s the only way I know how to play.”

Although he missed most of that 1971 season, Namath played for another six seasons on knees that were so damaged and swollen that he often had to have them drained at halftime just to be able to continue playing.

Courtesy: AZ Quotes

He occasionally showed flashes of his former brilliance. Take, for example, what happened on September 24, 1972 vs. the Baltimore Colts. In what was perhaps the greatest game of his career Namath passed for six touchdowns and 496 yards on just 28 attempts.

But those days were far and few between. In 1973 he suffered a shoulder injury and played in only six games. In 1975 and 1976 the Jets went a combined 6-22 and Namath threw a staggering 44 interceptions.

His best days had long since passed. Namath played one more season with the Los Angeles Rams, appearing in just four games, before retiring.

If you want to go by stats alone, I admit that I can’t give you a lot of reasons why Joe Namath is in the NFL Hall of Fame. But I can tell you this: he was one of the best pure passers the game has ever seen.

Ask those who played against him.

Ask the Baltimore Colts defense that had no answers against Namath that sunny January afternoon in 1969.

Ask former coach and football analyst, John Madden, who said: “There is no quarterback I respected more and feared coaching against more than Joe Namath.”

Say what you will about his stats but, in his prime, no coach or defense slept well the night before facing “Broadway Joe” Namath.

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About Mark C. Morthier

I grew up in Northern NJ as a fan of local sports teams–the Yankees, Knicks, and Rangers. But it was different in football: I was a Dallas Cowboys fan. In sports, I played high school football, competed in Olympic-style weightlifting (1981-1989), and I’m engaged currently in powerlifting (2011- forward). I’ve participated in nearly 60 weightlifting/powerlifting competitions and currently hold several New York State & New Jersey State records in the 50-54 (Masters Division) age group. I’ve also served as a weightlifting/powerlifting coach. In addition to competing I’ve always enjoyed writing, even though I don’t have special training in either journalism or sports writing. Writing is an avocation for me, an adjunct to my day job. For years I worked as a forklift operator. Now I’m a school bus driver in Upstate New York, I’m really honored to be a contributor at The Sports Column. My favorite topics are football, weightlifting, and 1970’s NFL.



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Comments (2)

    Dani Wolters wrote (04/26/17 - 6:42:09AM)

    I loved this article on Joe Namath! I was one of those junior high girls in the mid 70s who wore a green and white cotton jersey with 12 on the back, because I had a huge crush (and still do!) on Joe Namath. What a pure athlete. I used to hear my dad talk about what a great athlete “Broadway Joe” was and what respect he had for his game playing. And the devotion Mr. Namath showed I think was and is rare. I haven’t thought about my junior high crush for a long time, so this article was a joy to read!! Thanks

    MARK C MORTHIER wrote (07/24/17 - 10:02:47AM)

    So glad you enjoyed the article Dani.