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Appreciating Namath: How an NFL Legend Becomes Disrespected

Applying today’s standards to yesterday’s superstars is as ignorant as it is pointless, but history revisionists are more determined than ever to misrepresent reality. Don’t let them get away with it.

THE fastest way for me to disregard your opinions about football is to say that Joe Namath is overrated.

Nothing can simply exist all by its lonesome in this generation; a person or product’s value must be scrutinized and dissected and then compared to its contemporaries, and our opinions are louder than ever in the era of social media and LTE service. Something is always inherently overrated or underrated, mainstream or bohemian, perpetually generating a bullshit rating system that is ingrained in our subconscious and preventing us from appreciating anything without playing the role of amateur gold speculators. Sit in a car of four or more and wait for the first person to shout “Overplayed!” when listening to a track on a Top 40 station. It’s as inevitable as the sun rising in the east or a Pitbull verse producing groans from everyone in that vehicle.

(Pitbull really does blow, though. Calling him the worst thing to happen to Millennials is not being nihilistic in the slightest; his music career’s existence alone gives credence to nihilism as a doctrine.)

The very first page of a “joe namath overrated” Google search served as the inspiration for this piece. Exhibit A, B, and C provide such hard-hitting analysis as “Whoa, he threw more interceptions than touchdowns!” and “Homeboy over here only completed half his passes.” Vegas is offering 1:100 odds that Namath’s stat line was discovered by these experts five minutes before the compiling of their rankings.

Before I delve into a spirited analysis of Broadway Joe’s numbers and reveal just how friggin’ little of a grasp one must possess of basic passing statistics to insinuate that he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame, I think it’s important to reflect on the general myopia that most football fans suffer compared to those of other North American sports. In baseball, basketball, and hockey, the legends of old are respected and revered, their achievements and talents actually growing with every passing year as new followers join the herd and the diehards of decades past are happy to aggrandize their boyhood idols’ conquests. In football, though, these men are considered dinosaurs, not timeless titans, and the reason for this is fairly obvious.

Unlike the other sports, football has evolved so precipitously and so linearly since Namath’s heyday that the game is barely even recognizable from the one he played. In baseball, the concept of the nine fielders, one pitcher, and one batter’s duties has never really changed in the last hundred-or-so years, and the efficacy of scoring runs over that time period has held surprisingly constant (with its ebbs and rises, of course). Wilt Chamberlain’s numbers dwarf those of his modern day counterparts, forcing fans to actually contextualize the importance of offensive pace in basketball while putting his stats into a fairer light, but few postulate that he and his fellow All-Stars of that era could not succeed in today’s NBA. The legacies of Jordan and Bird and Magic and Russell are treated far more favorably by the media and the casual fan than any baller of the twenty-first century. Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux are universally considered as better players than anyone of this generation, so a justification here is unnecessary.

I can catch a vintage game of baseball, basketball, or hockey on ESPN Classic and see little difference in the product other than the quality of the broadcast, but the same cannot be said for football. Defenses are brutal and relentless while quarterbacks throw considerably less than the pass-happy product we see today, and the primitive route trees that receivers were asked to run will have you screaming for coordinators to dial up a dig or a screen or a slant. The stats don’t make sense to Armchair Bob — “What do you mean he completed fifty percent of his passes? That’s awful! Hell, Rex Grossman’s done better than that!”

Beyond their pedestrian understanding of any statistic that won’t impact their fantasy football team, those who knock Namath will invariably preach the same sermons. To them, he’s in the Hall because of The Guarantee, because of the New York media, because of his glamorized nightlife and impressive dating history, a man that was more glitz than gamer and playboy than playmaker. Most my age know him as the geezer who drunkenly macked on Suzy Kolber during a Jets game and screwed up the coin toss in this year’s Super Bowl (fur coat and all).

And for that, let me paraphrase your grandfather here — this generation sucks.

THIS piece is a defense not only of Joe; it is analytical redemption for every gun-slingin’, talent-oozin’, trend-buckin’ cowboy who won games differently than the game is played today. The crime being committed by those who cite Namath’s completion percentage and interception totals is a blatant disregard for how offenses have evolved through rule changes and strategic revolutions. If you can’t explain to me in 30 seconds or less how Michael Vick has a higher completion percentage than Johnny Unitas or why on average half as many of Christian Ponder’s pass attempts have been intercepted as Sammy Baugh’s, then you don’t deserve to be making historical assessments based on glancing over a stat sheet.

Those that are more educated will ask why Namath couldn’t keep pace with the completion rates of Hall-of-Fame contemporaries like Len Dawson (57.1), Bart Starr (57.4), and Roger Staubach (57.0). And why was his passer rating roughly 15 points behind all of theirs?

This is the problem with judging ancient players by modern standards. Passer rating is king in Bill Walsh’s world of short throws and a horizontal attack (the formula infamously double counts completion percentage), but Unitas, the man who most considered the Greatest of All Time before Dan Marino made the mid-80s his personal playground, won championships and racked up accolades by challenging defenses vertically, posting yards-per-completion rates that were well above league average in all but two of his Pro Bowl seasons. Otto Graham — a three-time MVP and football’s all-time leader in Y/A by a full half-yard — averaged an astonishing mark of 16.1 Y/C over his ten-year career. Namath was even more of a bomber relative to his era, surpassing the NFL average in every year between his sophomore season and final campaign with the Jets; his Super Bowl-winning rate of 16.8 was the equivalent of a 14.3 Y/C today, which would have edged out Nick Foles for the league’s best in 2013 while being a full yard higher than anyone else.

What allowed Namath to flourish with this playing style — going deep, standing tall in the pocket, daring defenses on every drop back with that hair-trigger release — was the fact that he was probably one of the four or five-best players in the history of football at avoiding sacks… the two locks being Marino (the Grand Poobah of pocket presence) and Peyton Manning. Take a look at what he did in his twenties.

Year Games Passes Sacks Taken Sk% League Average Sk% % > League Average
1965 9 340 16* 4.5 8.8 48.9
1966 14 471 32* 6.3 8.8 28.4
1967 14 491 26 5.0 7.8 35.9
1968 14 380 15 3.9 8.3 53.0
1969 14 361 13 3.5 8.1 56.8
1970 5 179 6 3.2 8.2 61.0
1971 3 59 0 0.0 7.5
1972 13 324 11 3.3 7.8 57.7

Joe was far above average as a rookie, a rare feat, and performed well in his next two seasons while he was given one of the league’s heaviest workloads, posting two of the five-highest pass attempt totals up to that point in history. By the time Namath became the NFL’s youngest Super Bowl-winning quarterback ever — a distinction he would hold for 33 years until surpassed by Tom Brady** — he was transcendent in that regard. Despite dealing with a broken wrist and a smattering of knee injuries over the next four seasons, Namath was sacked a mere 30 times in 953 drop backs in that span — a Ruthian rate of 3.15 percent.

I’m not just waxing poetic on one of Namath’s strengths and ignoring his flaws, either. His microscopic sack totals in his prime years were the reason why his Net Yards per Attempt (NY/A, one of the passing statistics I detailed in last week’s piece) was always considerably above league average from 1966 to 1975, and to be blunt, most fans overrate interceptions and undervalue sack avoidance to an embarrassingly stupid degree. Adjust that for era — when a pick from gunslingers like Namath often meant it was an arm-punt that went 40-some yards downfield — and that misjudgment becomes magnified.

An interception is always a turnover, but a sack is often a drive-ruiner no matter what down it happens on, and they come far more often over the course of a season. Quarterbacks in 2013 were intercepted on 2.8 percent of their pass attempts and sacked on 7.1 of them; Matt McGloin was the only one who threw for a thousand yards (of 38 such passers) and netted a Sk% that was higher than his INT%. Namath’s interception rate was roughly average in his twenties — 5.5 percent to the NFL’s 5.3 percent between ’65 and ’72 — and he was unparalleled at dodging pass-rushers at a time when dump-offs were rarely utilized and quarterbacks were instructed to test defenses deep instead of throwing it out bounds. That sounds like a damn good trait to be one of the best ever in.

But in the present day, despite owning five Pro Bowl selections***, four All-Pro honors, and being a two-time MVP by the time he was 26, Namath’s big arm and daring demeanor is often caricatured as arrogantly aggressive and wantonly reckless because of his interception totals and low completion percentage. A man that Walsh once called “the most beautiful, accurate, stylish passer” he’d ever seen and was also considered by Don Shula to be “one of the three smartest quarterbacks of all time” doesn’t seem to really fit the description of a rich man’s Jeff George, but these narratives persist because most sports fans are stupid and their opinions are silly.

Football Perspective’s Chase Stuart calculates Namath to be the second-most productive quarterback ever through the age of 26, aided greatly by his mammoth 1967 season. Joe became the first quarterback in NFL history that year to throw for 4,000 yards in a 14-game slate and wouldn’t have a neighbor in that territory until 1979, his record only broken by 75 yards after Dan Fouts was given two extra games and league-altering rule changes to do it.**** When many pundits questioned whether Namath could continue being a force in football after the NFL-AFL merger and two injury-riddled seasons, Namath was far and away the league’s best quarterback in 1972 despite finishing eleventh in passer rating. Jason Lisk puts it best:

“Despite missing a substantial portion of what would be the prime years for a lot of quarterbacks … The one year [Namath] played almost a full season during that stretch (1972), he led the league in passing yards, touchdowns, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, and adjusted net yards per attempt. Oh, and he completed 50% of his passes, so he sucked.”

That 1972 campaign serves as a microcosm for why several modern measuring sticks are close to meaningless when stretched over time. Namath had a completion percentage (50.0) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (19:21) that was mediocre for his era and is horrible by today’s standards, relegating him to a middle-of-the-pack passer according to the quarterback rating formula, but what did that matter when he was producing substantially more value on a throw-by-throw basis than any of his peers?

Look at how much he outpaced second place in some of his league-leading categories, and keep in mind that AY/A and ANY/A are adjusted for the number of picks thrown.

Namath 8.7 6.9 17.4 216.6 8.10 6.42
Second Place 7.8 (Bob Berry) 6.8 (Bob Berry) 16.6 (Bobby Douglass) 198.6 (Archie Manning) 6.80 (Charley Johnson) 6.26 (Billy Kilmer)
Statistic % > Second Place
Yards Per Attempt 10.3
Adjusted Yards Per Attempt 1.5
Yards Per Completion 4.6
Yards Per Game 8.3
Net Yards Per Attempt 16.0*****
Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt 2.5

Completion percentage doesn’t matter when the passes you are completing net you that kind of yardage. Despite one out of every two throws not finding their target, Namath was simply producing more positive offense for his team on average every time he dropped back to pass, sacks and picks included. That’s math. That’s irrefutable. But Miami’s Earl Morrall was First Team All-Pro because the Dolphins went 9-0 with him at the helm and Bob Griese sidelined. He averaged a whopping 15 pass attempts per start for the impending Super Bowl champions.

So unlike passing statistics, sportswriters being blind is a phenomenon that is perfectly transitive over time.

’72 is just a drop in the bucket, though. That isn’t really my gripe, and it wasn’t even considered Prime Namath by those who actually watched him play. His knees — already eroding as a rookie following a career-threatening injury in his senior year at Alabama — were now completely shot before 30, sapping him of the dazzling dual-threat ability that prompted Bear Bryant to call him “the greatest athlete I ever coached.” The best doctor in the business told Namath he might be able to play four years in the pros. He managed 13, but at the cost of an accelerated decline and countless torn ligaments. The pain was so great in retirement that he bought a new pair of knees at the ripe old age of 48.

Along with being one of the weakest Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks in completion percentage and interception rate (even after adjusting for era), Namath is guilty of hanging around long after he should have rode off into the Manhattan sunset. After sitting out most of 1973 with a shoulder injury and winning Comeback Player of the Year the next season for managing a decent stat line, Joe was awful his last three years. He was a 32-year-old in a 50-year-old’s body. The last-ditch stint in Los Angeles was futile and to this day serves as an example of an athlete still clinging to a fleeting dream, the Rams’ blue-and-yellow jersey bizarrely strewn on his shoulders where only Jets green-and-white should reside. The image is right up there with Unitas in San Diego and Ewing in Seattle on the “WHY DIDN’T YOU JUST RETIRE” scale.

Namath’s numbers suffered because of his insistence to continue existing in the NFL. He shouldn’t have been playing, but stats can’t be adjusted for pride. Does anyone really think that Namath is less of a quarterback because he threw 16 interceptions on 4.7 Y/A in eight miserable 1976 starts, though? Does any player get inducted into the Hall-of-Fame on the basis of how relatively gradual his decline was? Is the bust they present you with at your induction ceremony etched with your wrinkles and your bruises? Do the portraits in Canton of your playing days depict you laid out on a gurney getting yet another injection of cortisone, or will they be of you gloriously hoisting that Lombardi Trophy?

The answers to all of these seem obvious. A great player’s prime — his days of fame and hardware and on-field dominance — are what they will always be remembered by. Among the list of players who are Top 15 all-time in passing touchdowns, Vinny Testaverde (tenth), Dave Krieg (twelfth), and Drew Bledsoe (fifteenth) amassed their numbers mostly by remaining healthy for the majority of their careers and being competent enough to keep getting jobs around the league. Those three surpassed Jim Kelly, Steve Young, and Terry Bradshaw in that category… should we induct ‘em tomorrow?

The truth is that Namath was more talented and more capable of a passer than Dawson, Starr, Staubach, and a whole lot of other quarterbacks that happened to eclipse him in completion percentage. They could not handle the workload he was dealt at that young of an age. Dawson threw as many passes as a rookie Namath did three times in a 19-year career. Staubach never outpaced the league average in attempts-per-game until he was 36. And Starr, the five-time NFL champion?  He never once threw the ball 300 times in a season.

The irony of it all is that while Namath was playing a brand of football that appears hieroglyphic in 2014, he was actually serving as the archetype athlete for the modern game. The Jets lived and died by their quarterback just like today’s best teams need a premier passer to have consistent success, asking him to work miracles with rosters that progressively became shittier as his own skills were dissipating. Sandwiched between Baugh, Unitas, Marino, and Manning on the evolutionary chain of seminal signal-callers, I cannot help but snarkily ponder how many titles Starr would have won in New York instead of Green Bay. Shoutout to my man Wilbur, but you were no Vince Lombardi.

I place different values on different measuring gauges than the mass media and the common fan, and that’s something I have to accept whenever wading through the murky waters of quarterback rankings. But what I will never embrace is the constant need to re-evaluate long-established legacies and pinpoint who exactly was overrated and underrated, especially when that process is being done with the wrong tools.

To me, Joe Namath is who he is — one of the most fascinating mixes of raw talent and magnetic charisma to ever grace an American subculture. He was one of the country’s most recognizable rebels in a decade that loved nothing more than a bad boy, and he was really damn good at that football thing, too. Namath remains the only quarterback in history to notch a 4,000-yard season before the switch to the 16-game format. He is the owner of what is inarguably the most badass single-game stat line in NFL history. His year in ’72 is one of the finest of all time and receives surprisingly little attention, especially after discovering that the early seventies was the forward pass’ version of the Great Depression (so much so that it necessitated the 1978 rule changes in the eyes of the owners). Namath’s 8.10 NY/A that season shattered the old record of 7.51 and is still the ninth-best mark in league history.

But he only completed half his passes, so yeah, I guess he sucks.

* These totals are unofficial since the NFL does not provide quarterback sack data prior to 1968. We do have team sacks to work with, though, and from there the true number is not difficult to estimate.

** Namath (25 years, 226 days) was one day older than Joe Montana (25 years, 227 days) when the latter started and won Super Bowl XVI.

*** Namath was named to three AFL All-Star games and — after the merger — two NFL Pro Bowls. The sum is colloquially referred to here by the recognition we know today.

**** Although Fouts claimed the total yardage crown in ’79, Namath’s record of 286.2 passing yards-per-game wasn’t supplanted until the next season. His career mark of 197.6 remains the best of any quarterback that retired before 1987.

***** Namath’s 1.30 gap over the second-best finisher in NY/A has only since been bested by Kurt Warner’s 1.64 advantage over Daunte Culpepper in 2000.

Brandon Magner (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.

About Brandon Magner (27 Articles)
(@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the one-year MBA program at the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He is now enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Law.

3 Comments on Appreciating Namath: How an NFL Legend Becomes Disrespected

  1. Nice write-up.

  2. Brandon, you have written a fantastic article that clearly illustrates the folly of trying to compare stats from different eras. As no-huddle offenses become more prevalent, the statistical gap is likely to widen, as the number of offensive snaps per game continue to rise.
    Joe Namath is one of the most accomplished high school, college and professional QBs of his generation, and he did it on bad knees long before surgical repairs and reconstructions were effective.
    Thanks for your work putting this analysis together!

    • Brandon Magner // September 24, 2014 at 2:54 PM // Reply

      Thank you! Joe’s a favorite of mine in NFL lore, and I would highly recommend Mark Kriegel’s biography of him to anyone who is interested in a more personal look into his life.

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