A jewel lost in a dark and dusty attic too long now, Joe Namath has been delivered into the sunlight, there to dazzle us as he once did with the undeniable beauty only he could create. At 8:50 Saturday night, lights on the Coliseum scoreboard said, "A Southern California Welcome for Broadway Joe Namath." Bye-bye, Jets. Hello, Rams.
Playing only the third quarter of the Los Angeles Rams' first exhibition game. Namath completed three of four passes for 34 yards. He moved nimbly on the knees that are marvels of surgical stitchery and, as always, his throwing motion was classic in its simplicity. "He looked good, didn't he?" said Fran Tarkenton, the Minnesota quarterback whose team won, 22-17.
Men who live in press boxes and hang onto typewriter kays for a living often say silly things about quarterbacks, the silliest being a conclusion that one quarterback's presence clearly inspires a team more than another's. Well shucks folks ain't no rule against being silly, so let's say this: With Namath at quarterback instead of second-year man Haden, the Rams will be in the 1978 Super Bowl.
The Rams have won four straight Western Division championships in the National Football Conference. As proof of the team's strength, coach Chuck Knox points out the Rams have used four different quarterbacks in the playoffs - John Hadl, James Harris, Ron Jaworski and Haden. Still, the Rams have not reached the Super Bowl, losing three times in the conference championship game, and that is a failing the Rams have hired Joe Namth to correct.
"If we don't get to the Super Bowl this year, really have bad knees," said the Rams' owner Carteer, Carroll Rosenblomo, somewhat sounding as if he could arrange for a truck to drive across Namath's lap. As poorly as Namath has done in the melancholy years of the Jels' decline from victory in the 1969 Super Bowl to consecutive 3-11 seasons the last two years, no one ever questioned the quarterback's most valuable asset: leadership. Confident, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, poised under pressure. Namath is a Super Bowl quarterback.
"All he needs in a supporting cast, which we never gave him," said Carroll Huntress, a Jet scout here to watch the Rams and Vikings. "Here they have an offensive line and a running game. With us, everybody knew what was coming. A Namath pass. That's why so many were intercepted. Oh, yeah, he can play. Tere."
Not too long ago, Tarkenton was running his fool head off trying to stay alive with the New York Giants. In five season, the Tarkenton Giants broke even, but in 1971 they were 4-10 with Tarkenton throwing 21 interceptions and only 11 touchdowns. That prompted his trade back to his original team, the Vikings and Tarkenton has been a marvel ever since, helping Minnesota get to three Super Bowls in five years.
Might Namath, too, realize that kind of success now that he, too, has been rescued from peril?
"It definitely increases your interest," Tarkenton said, smiling. "It gives Joe a new lease of life. In New York, he could say, 'We're going to win,' but he know they couldn't. Here they are going to win. They've got a running game here, and the defense is going to geep him in the game."
The Coliseum scoreboard, after greeting Namath, flashed his picture with another note: "Joe Namath has passed for more than 400 yards in a game three times, more than 300 yards 21 times." In 1967 Namath passed for 4,007 yards, an NFL record. An inspection of last year's numbers though, reveals Namath ranking right down there with somebody named Gary Marangi of Buffalo.
He averaged a gain of 4.74 yards. Of 31 NFL, quarterbacks with more than 140 passes, Namath's gain-per-try ranked 30th, about one foot ahead of Marangi. Namath three 16 interceptions, only four touchdowns. His longest pass was a 35-yarder, ranking him last. He was 29th in NFL rating points (for comparison's sake. Billy Kilmer was 14th).
As kindly as possible, a man said, "Joe, your statistics last year were not too good."
Namath laughed. "How could you like top go into a gunfight with a six-shooter that won't fire?" he said.
"Those stats, Joe, how much do they reflect the real Namath?"
"These is the real Joe Namath," he said. "That was me out there."
Sounds nice, but Namath doesn't believe a word of it. He needs no money, he needs no pain. He could quit football today and sell popcorn and pantyhose on the boob tube. But he is, and always has been, an athlete who likes the athlete's world (even as he spoke smoothly to reporters and dressed in nice threads. Namath paused now and then to spit snuff juice onto the floor). He wants to show he is, at 34, a great quarterback.
"I've always had a good mental attitude starting every season," Namath said when someone asked if this season were special to him. "But when you get to be 1-7, it is a bit depressing. It is a team game, and it is very difficult to excel if you don't have any help. The Rams have proven what kind of team they have."
Namath said he may be in better physical shape this early in the season than ever. On the advice of the Rams' doctors, he swims 800 yards in the morning, 800 more in the afternoon. The idea is to build his cardiovascular system while sparing his knees the pounding of running.
"I'm struggling in that water," Namath said. "But I'm getting in good shape."
Someone asked if Namath had a place to live here.
"I gotta make the team first," he said. It was a nice exit line, done with a smile.