The Second Quarter

On second down, Tom Matte gained seven yards on a sweep to the left. On third down the Colts lined up at the Jets' 6 yard-line in a formation with two tight ends, and the play was in fact a pass to substitute tight end Tom Mitchell. The ploy had clicked for four touchdowns during the regular season. Quarterback Morrall took the snap and fired a quick, too-hard pass into Mitchell's chest, but a Jet linebacker got a fingernail on it, altering its trajectory by about an inch or so, and it bounced crazily off Mitchell's chest/shoulder-pad and up into the air. Not sideways, not into the dirt -- nope, it went almost straight up, hanging in the air like a balloon, and Jet cornerback Randy Beverly twisted around and ran under the ball like a wide receiver, and recorded one of the most incredibly fortunate interceptions in the history of football.

It was a fine effort by Beverly, true, but how many times does such a crazy, game-altering carom occur? (In all the years since SB3, I personally have seen a similar play only once.) And on such a short pass? And in the opponents' end zone, denying the clearly better team its second chance at sure points? How often does one fingertip's deflection turn a certain touchdown pass not into a mere incompletion, but into a miraculous, momentum-swinging interception in the end zone? How often? How often does fantastic luck like this happen in pro football? Not very. In hindsight, the game was over right then and there.

The Colts' were doomed by Fortune that day and they must have suspected it then. "Again we got no points!" they must have thought. "We've outplayed 'em. We're better than they are. What the hell's going on here!?"

Fear, panic, bad luck, all setting in. Call it what you will. The Colts should have led by 10-0 at this point; instead, it was still 0-0.

Against a demoralized Colt team, the Jets rattled off a 12-play, 80 yard, five-minute drive whose longest play was a 14-yard pass. Snell ran six times, mostly left, and scored the touchdown with a four yard sweep. During the drive, Namath proved he could beat the Colts' max blitz with his quick release. More importantly, cornerback Lyles narrowly missed an interception in the flat which could easily have been returned for a touchdown. Instead, Sauer gained 11 yards. Four plays and an extra point later, it was Colts 0, Jets 7.

If they'd merely suspected it earlier, the Colts must have now known for certain they were surely doomed. After the kickoff, the Colts started at their own 28. On second down a pass-and-run to Matte netted 30 yards, but another first down was not forthcoming, and Michaels, a mediocre field-goal kicker, missed a longshot 46-yarder. What would they have to do to score?
After a 35-yard, just-barely-blitz-burning pass to Sauer, two Snell runs picked up another first down at the Colt 35 yard-line, but Namath missed on two passes and took a sack on third down. Jet kicker Jim Turner missed a 41 yard field goal, and the Colts breathed a short, momentary sigh of relief.
A 6-yard sideline pass to Colt flanker Willie Richardson was followed by a shocking 58-yard run by Tom Matte, more proof of the Jets' inferiority, since Matte wasn't much of a breakaway threat -- his longest run of the season had been just 23 yards.

Jet corner John Sample, trailing the play, "accidentally on purpose" stepped on Matte's groin while he lay on his back after being tackled. Sample, who should have been ejected from the game, wasn't even tagged with a penalty! Matte bolted toward Sample, screaming at him, and his facemask accidentally (truly accidentally) knocked out some of an official's teeth. It was well-deserved, especially in light of the many "non-calls" of holding by the Jets offensive line.
One play later, at the Jet 15 yard-line, Morrall threw another interception, inside the Jet five. This one was intercepted, ironically enough, by Sample, who at the last second cut in front of open receiver Richardson, standing alone on the goal line.

Yet again the Colts came away frustrated and empty. Three deep penetrations into Jet territory had resulted in zero points. The bare minimum they should have had by now was three field goals and 9 points. They could have easily had 17, and most of them doubtless believed they should have had 21.
"What the hell is happening here!?" they must have screamed inside their skulls as the two-minute warning sounded.

Three plays later the Jets were forced to punt, from their endzone, and it was nearly blocked. Instead, the Colts took over at the Jet 42 after a short return. After a 1-yard pass, there was time for one last play. Matte took a handoff and ran harmlessly toward his right, then suddenly lateraled the ball back to Morrall, who looked deep downfield for a receiver. Unfortunately, he threw down the middle to covered fullback Hill, where he was intercepted a third time, instead of passing to all-alone Jimmy Orr near the left corner of the end zone. So open was Orr, in fact, that everyone in the stadium realized that a sure touchdown was on its way -- everyone except, of course, Colt QB Earl Morrall.

If anything typified the Colts' horrible luck, and made clear the Jets' obvious inferiority, it was this one play. Leaving a wide receiver uncovered deep on the last play of the half while playing "prevent," allowing a certain touchdown, is inexcusable, embarrassingly amateurish, and often results in a defensive coordinator losing his job.
If Morrall had only thrown the ball to the play's intended receiver -- to the same man, in fact, he'd thrown the ball for a touchdown on the play during the regular season -- how different football history might have been! How probable that this one play -- obvious proof of the Jets' incompetence -- would have been remembered as the turning point of Super Bowl III, as the single play that erased a horribly unlucky half and opened the floodgates to a Colt romp.

For how mind-boggling would the effect of that game-tying play have been? The Colts would have tied the score going into the locker room at halftime. They'd have felt at last that something had at last gone right. They'd have had momentum going into the second half, as well as a new-found belief in themselves after the most rocky, snake-bitten start imaginable.
  As for the Jets, they'd realize with glum acceptance just how inferior they actually were, how stupid they were for allowing such an easy touchdown on the last play of the half. How lucky they'd been to have actually had a lead on so better a team. How lucky they'd need to be in the second half to have even the merest hope of winning.  
Of course, none of this happened. After five scoring opportunities (four of them very solid), instead of being ahead by at least 13-7, or very realistically 20-7, or possibly even 31-7, the Colts trailed 0-7! The oddsmakers clearly had been correct, as the Colts should have been up by at least 13 points at halftime, and well on their way to a blowout. But everything that could have gone wrong... did go wrong. And the Jets were as lucky as hell.

Football images/graphics copyright 1968-1997 National Football League.
Text copyright 1997 by the author. All rights reserved.