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Article:Joe Namath: Pro football's 26th-best quarterback....ever

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There are few players in sport history who can be referred to as a “case study” in much of anything.  Two in modern football that immediately come to mind are Warren Sapp and Jeremy Shockey.  Both are true case studies in how being a loudmouth at a relatively obscure position allows large groups of people to actually believe that said loudmouth is actually a better player than they are.  Sapp hasn’t had a good year since 2000 but still is considered to be an elite level player at his position because he doesn’t shut up.  Shockey has never been among the top 10 tight ends in the NFL, but because he talks a lot and the players who are legitimately better don’t, his name gets more exposure than it should.  I can throw an aging Joey Porter into the mix as well; his talking is directly inverse to his level of play.  The more he talks, the more apparent it is that he’s a loudmouth who is well past his prime.

The beauty of playing defensive tackle and tight end is that it’s entirely possible to play poorly week in and week out and most people will be none the wiser.  If Sapp talks a big game and then registers one tackle 8 yards downfield, the defense is “I occupied blockers all game and let my teammates pick up the numbers.”  If Shockey calls Bill Parcells a “homo” and then gets shut down in the passing game, his defense is “My blocking allowed our running backs to get going.”  This is a defense that a quiet player at either position would never get.  Overall ability is reflected in actual on-field production.

The ultimate case study throughout the history of quarterbacking is one Joe Namath.  Everyone knows Namath’s name and some of his various exploits.  These include being drafted 12 th overall in the NFL draft in 1965, then being selected 2 nd overall by the New York Jets in the AFL draft.  The Jets got Namath on the field by signing him to a contract in excess of $400,000, widely considered outrageous for any player but especially for an unproven rookie.

Namath, of course, went on to brashly (although he would later say it was just a reaction to a heckler) guarantee a win in Super Bowl III over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts.  The Jets won 16-7 and Namath was named the game’s MVP, cementing his legend.  He was a notorious playboy off the field as well.  Known for his free-flowing hair and full-length fur coats that passed for sideline attire, Namath also claimed in a commercial that he wore women’s tights during games.  He was a heavy player on the nightclub scene and also was an investor in numerous such establishments.

What this did was fuel a cultural phenomenon.  From the moment he arrived in the AFL, Namath caused a stir everywhere he went and with everything he did.  It kept his name in the papers and on the TV and radio no matter what his on-field fortunes were and no matter what the Jets’ on-field fortunes were.  But what this has done is obscure, if not overwhelm, what his actual play and production was.

One enormous aspect of this project was to look back over AFL and NFL history (and AAFC, for that matter) and try to figure out exactly at what point a quarterback went from “quarterback” to “great quarterback”.  Once someone becomes widely known as “great”, it takes a lot to knock him from that level.  It basically requires failure of epic proportions to plummet from the upper echelon.  Someone like, say, Kurt Warner was dominant to a historical extent at the beginning of his career; he injured his throwing hand, played poorly, his team suffered, and most wouldn’t put him in the top 100 (even though, after three years, he looked like a Hall of Famer).

From what I can establish, Joe Namath’s AFL and NFL legend is built on three separate factors that are actually related to the game of football in some way.  I say this to emphasize the fact that “He brought female fans around” or “He was a larger-than-life character” have absolutely zero bearing on how great someone is.  The three factors are:

1) A $400,000 rookie contract from the Jets.

2) Having the first 4,000-yard season in pro history.

3) Making a guarantee about one of three playoff games he ever participated in, and winning a Super Bowl MVP award in the process.

The contract was widely considered to be obscene.  Cleveland’s Frank Ryan stated publicly (having just won an NFL championship himself, over a heavily-favored Baltimore Colts team, no less) that “If Namath is worth $400,000, then I’m worth a million.”  Of course, the notorious prankster Ryan later told owner Art Modell privately that, “I was only kidding about a million.  I’ll settle for half a million”.

I’m not sure what’s considered notable about 4,000 yards, except that it was something that had never been reached.  Of course, I’m not sure if there was a big celebration over Johnny Unitas hitting 3,000 in 1960 or Sonny Jurgensen hitting 3,500 in 1961.  As best as I can gather, the hoopla over 4,000 was less over setting a record and milestone and more over the pro-Namath media pointing to it as validation of the contract.  After all, no one else had demanded $400K, but no one else had passed for 4,000 yards.

What’s odd about his 4,000-yard 1967 season is that, using the PG system, Namath is actually the second-best passer in the AFL.  Daryle Lamonica, a backup to Jack Kemp to that point, generated more points in spite of throwing for 800 fewer yards.  Lamonica had 30 touchdowns to 20 interceptions, compared to Namath’s 26:28 ratio.  Lamonica also ran the ball into the end zone four times to Namath’s zero.  On pure passing in 1967, Namath was better (but not by much), but since PG measures total offensive production this is irrelevant.

It is worth pointing out that injuries deprived Namath of prime years; looking over the records, however, it can be reasonably extrapolated that his numbers of 1970 (5 games) would have been far below average, although 1971 (4 games) and 1973 (6 games) would have looked a lot like 1972 when he was fairly productive.  Of course, 1970-74 were fairly poor quarterbacking years in the NFL.  Top-10 quarterbacks in the league for those years weren’t exactly a group of legends in their prime; it was a lot of guys who were fortunate that the old guard was aging and retiring and the next crop of great passers had yet to develop.  Who was Namath 3 rd behind in 1972?  Greg Landry and Archie Manning; neither came close to the top three after that year (Landry had been 2 nd in 1971).

Whether Namath was worthy of the Super Bowl MVP award is debatable, particularly considering that he didn’t account for a single touchdown and the Jets’ running game of Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer was terrific.

What we do know is that Namath was a moderately productive but generally inefficient quarterback.  Yes, he was the first player to throw for over 4000 yards in a season (4007 in 1967).  Yes, he ended up with degenerating knees that hampered his play to some extent.  I believe this to be overblown a bit; the generally accepted idea is that flawless Joe was betrayed by injuries.  In reality, he never was particularly mobile.  He was decent at eluding pressure and getting a pass off, but his running ability was negligible.  He had one season of 42 rushing yards and one of 33 but never topped 19 yards outside of that.  That his knees left him unable to scramble for additional yards is inaccurate because he’d never done it much to begin with.

As for the passing, Namath had the huge year in 1967.  That season marked one of two times that he broke 20 touchdown passes in a season (in 1974 he had exactly 20).  By modern standards, his -47 TD:INT number looks atrocious, but it’s important to note that it’s really in the modern era that top-level quarterbacks began to have an overall ratio of 1:1, rather than 173:220.  Here’s where it gets sticky.

Namath had a ton of passing yards but has the 3 rd -lowest career TD:INT ratio among quarterbacks who are cast in bronze.  The two who are behind him are Bob Waterfield and Arnie Herber.  Waterfield retired in 1952, Herber in 1945.

I’ve tried to find a compelling case to put Namath around where most have him ranked (which is generally anywhere from #5 to #20 among quarterbacks) but I honestly can’t.  I don’t know if I’m missing something that everyone else sees (unlikely) or if the off-field madcap adventure of Joe Willie combined with the New York media produced a legend whose actual level of play didn’t come close to his celebrity.  I lean more toward the latter.

Among New York quarterbacks, he’s near the top.  Among AFL quarterbacks, he’s near the top, which honestly isn’t saying much.  Among New York Jets quarterbacks, he’s near the top if not at the top.  Among quarterbacks who played primarily in the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, he’s near the top.  But to put him actually at the top of any of these lists would be inaccurate.  Among quarterbacks during his own career span, I can’t even make a compelling case for being in the top five.

I believe that Namath, ranked where he is right here, is squarely where he belongs in the tapestry of NFL history.  Remove the off-field exploits, the long hair, the outrageous character, and you’re left with a decent but not great quarterback.

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