Cleveland Browns Flashback: First Monday night game vs. Joe Namath’s Jets

CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 29: A Cleveland Browns helmet and footballs are seen in a ball bag during a game between the Brown and the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on August 29, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Browns defeated the Bears 18-16. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - AUGUST 29: A Cleveland Browns helmet and footballs are seen in a ball bag during a game between the Brown and the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on August 29, 2013 in Chicago, Illinois. The Browns defeated the Bears 18-16. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) /

The Cleveland Browns play the New York Jets on Monday night, 49 years after the two teams introduced America to Monday Night Football September 21, 1970

The Cleveland Browns pay a visit on Monday to MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Jets,  some 49 years after the two teams introduced America to Monday Night Football September 21, 1970. The Jets were an obvious media choice, with Super Bowl III hero Joe Namath headlining the offense. The Jets had lost to the Kansas City Chiefs in the divisional playoffs of the American Football League the year before.

Nevertheless, Namath was still in his prime, as judged by both sportswriter and Hollywood starlets alike.  The Browns were runners-up to the Purple People Eaters of Minnesota, who had dominated the NFL only to get pulverized by the Chiefs. But the real reason the Browns were in Monday Night Football is that Art Modell was one of the main visionaries behind Monday Night football and helped to create the TV package.

Football-wise, Modell did some horrible things that year, especially trading future Hall of Fame receiver Paul Warfield to the Miami Dolphins. He also traded starting defensive lineman Jim Kanicki, and future All-Pro halfback Ron Johnson to the New York Giants for washed-up receiver Homer Jones, who was to replace Warfield. And replace him he did, with a grand total of ten catches for the year, and then he retired.

The end result was that the Browns were able to draft Mike Phipps, a handsome strong-armed quarterback from Purdue who would be Modell’s Namath. Phipps was a decent quarterback who eventually won more than he lost over his career, but he was not worth Paul Warfield.  To put this in today’s perspective, it would be like Jimmy Haslam III trading Nick Chubb, Sheldon Richardson, and Odell Beckham, Jr. for Brandon Weeden.

The Modell trades are worthy of the Hall of Infamy. and arguably cost his team a Super Bowl or two.  But give the Devil his due. Modell contributed to the creation of Monday Night football and creating the relationship between television and the NFL.

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At the time to many people, it seemed impossible that pro football could be played on a Monday night. Why young fans would not be able to see the game because it is a school night!  Others argued that the players would get rigor mortis if they have to recuperate in six days rather than the normal seven.  Not only that, but the format was crazy, with inexperienced ABC trying to feature three announcers.

The highly respected Keith Jackson was fine as a play-by-play man, but there were going to be two color announcers:  Howard Cosell, a bombastic and shrill former lawyer turned boxing announcer who gained fame for supporting Muhammad Ali’s legal battle with the Armed Forces Selected Service; and Don Meredith, a recently retired Dallas Cowboys gunslinger quarterback with a sharp sense of humor.  Skeptics believed that they could not possibly compete with the established announcers at CBS and NBC.

The AFL merged with the NFL in 1970 and this was the first week of a unified pro football format. The AFL was henceforward referred to as the American Football Conference of the NFL.  The Browns, Steelers, and Colts agreed to switch to the new AFC in order to balance the number of teams in each conference. No one knew at the time how good they were.

On the one hand, some felt that the AFL had become superior to the NFL, based on two Super Bowl victories, both of which were huge upsets. However, the majority believed that the talent level in the established NFL was too high.   So in 1970, the two conferences would play each other, and Jets versus Browns was an early focus.

Namath was a cultural icon. Not only was he a brilliant quarterback, but he had long hair and even a Fu Manchu for a while.  Yet the prevailing theory was that great athletes were supposed to be clean-cut, like Otto Graham or John Unitas, who had a crew cut.  Not only that, but Namath was a charismatic, genuinely friendly person, who was always interesting during interviews.

He was also consummate girl chaser, doing movies with the likes of Hollywood actress, singer and dancer  Ann-Margret, considered to be one of the most beautiful women in the world. Not for nothing was Namath known as Broadway Joe. As a thirteen-year-old in Berea Ohio, this author had his mind blown. Maybe long hair and beautiful girlfriends are not so evil after all?

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The Browns’ answer to Joe Namath was supposed to be young Phipps, but Coach Blanton Collier realized that he was not ready. Bill Nelson would lead the team into battle, at least to start the season. Nelson was a little like Josh McCown, a very good leader, and solid football man, though not nearly as talented as the rocket-armed Namath.

The biggest star on the team was Leroy Kelly, the heir to Jim Brown and a future Hall of Famer in his own right, aided and abetted by Bo Scott.  Scott was a terrific running back from Ohio State drafted in 1965 in the third round, but played a few seasons in Canada because the Browns were so stacked with running backs including Jim Brown, Kelly, and Ernie Green. Kelly and Scott were an outstanding tandem.

No one knew whether anyone would show up for a football game at night, and if they did would they be awake enough to cheer? Those fears were put to bed immediately as the largest crowd in Cleveland Browns history,  85,763 rabid fans turned out for the game, which turned out to be played in perfect weather conditions. It was so loud and electric that it was almost literally stunning to the NFL officials who were not sure what to expect.  Cleveland fans were delighted in the new experience of football at night, and the exciting realization dawned that this might history in the making.

The game was dominated by Namath and the Jets everywhere except the scoreboard.  Namath lived up to his reputation, easily firing bombs down the field mostly to wideouts George Sauer and Don Maynard. Maynard was often double covered, but Namath was okay with hitting Sauer time and again.  However, breakdowns kept the Browns in the game as Namath had two interceptions in the first half.

The Browns built an early lead with a Bill Nelsen pass to veteran wideout Gary Collins, and then a run by Bo Scott to give them a commanding 14 point lead. The Jets could not answer because Namath threw two interceptions to kill drives, but they finally scored on a run by two-time Pro Bowler Emerson Boozer in the second quarter, cutting the lead to 14-7.

Modell’s replacement for Paul Warfield, Homer Jones, took the second-half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown.  This was undoubtedly one of the highlights of Modell’s Cleveland career since for one game the team did not miss Warfield.

Still, gunslinger Namath kept firing, and the Jets continued to move the ball.  The Jets marched down the field in the third quarter, and Boozer scored another touchdown.  Although the Browns were able to slow down Don Maynard to an extent, George Sauer seemed unstoppable on his way to 10 catches for an incredible 172 yards.

Midway in the fourth quarter Namath and Sauer hooked up for a 33-yard touchdown pass and suddenly the once commanding 14 point Browns lead was down  24-21. Late in the fourth quarter, the Jets got the ball back after a Don Cockroft punt, and Namath had about 40 seconds left for a drive, needing only a field goal to tie the game. But Namath’s pass to Boozer was picked off by middle linebacker Billy Andrews, who ran it back to the house, sealing the victory and rocking the stadium crowd.

Namath lived up to his billing, going 18 for 31 for 298 yards and a TD. As a team, the Jets racked up 454 yards on offense, more than double the Browns’ 221 yards. But Broadway Joe also threw those three INTs including the famous Billy Andrews pick-six, and for one game Homer Jones made Modell look like a genius by taking a kickoff return to the house.  Homer would catch only ten passes for 141 yards that season to close out his NFL career.

The rest of the season did not end well for the Jets or the Browns.  Cleveland sputtered their way to a 7-7 record.  Blanton Collier retired after that year, partly because of a loss of hearing that made it difficult to coach effectively.  Collier’s 7-7 record was the worst of his coaching career.  In no other season was he fewer than four games over .500, and overall he went 76-34-2, a winning percentage of .691 over eight NFL seasons.

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The Jets slid all the way to 4-10, with Namath breaking his wrist in Game 5.  The way things turned out, the opening game was actually the highlight of the season for both teams.