FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Even after more than half a century, Joe Namath represents the hope and the heartbreak of Jets fans still waiting for another championship.
He defied the odds on that unforgettable upset of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts on Jan. 12, 1969, wagging his right index finger to the sky while running off the field at the Orange Bowl all those years ago. And now at age 76, he remains the most compelling figure in franchise history.
Unlike almost every other iconic figure in sports, Namath’s opinions still matter, still resonate among fans old enough to have seen his Hall of Fame magic on the field, and young enough to understand his place in team history, even if the only evidence they have of him playing is grainy YouTube videos.
Ever the optimist, Namath has held out hope for so many Jets teams that have come before, even if none of those teams could ever equal what his once did.
Namath showed up at practice Monday morning, getting a chance to see first-hand a team that goes into the 2019 season with legitimate optimism. He likes what he saw, both from new coach Adam Gase and second-year quarterback Sam Darnold.
His expectations and hopes for Darnold this year? “Win a championship,” Namath said, breaking into a wide grin. “Expectations and hopes [are] two different things. Hope we could win a championship, but I don’t know if that kind of talent is here — remains to be seen. But who was the guy, Richard Bach, who said, ‘Argue for your limitations, and they’re yours,’ So you go in thinking you’re going to win.”
Namath appears to like everything about Darnold
“I like what I saw of him physically at Southern Cal,” Namath said. “When he got here, I liked what the coaches and players had to say about him. When I met him, I liked his demeanor. He gives you a good vibe, a good feeling. He’s respectfully humble. Physically, he can play as well as anybody, just needs to keep polishing himself and the team needs to polish up.”
Joe Willie also likes the guy who will now be calling the shots from the sidelines, even though Gase’s career with the Dolphins — which Namath knew plenty about — ended with just one playoff appearance in three seasons.
“I live in southeast Florida and watching the transition [Gase] made with the Dolphins for those years was encouraging,” Namath said. “I liked his style and I’m excited for Sam and the offense to have him as a man that knows offensive football.”
Namath believes Gase’s background is perfectly suited to getting the most out of Darnold.
“Adam, having been around some people, including Peyton Manning, I think he’s brilliant, and it’s just a matter of these guys being able to put it together,” Namath said.
But . . .
"It’s a team game,” Namath said. “The best quarterback I’ve ever seen would probably be the first Manning into the Hall of Fame, Archie. But he never had a team.
“He was with the New Orleans ‘Aints,’” Namath said, referring to the nickname given to the Saints, one of the NFL’s least successful franchises, when Manning played. “Sam’s got to have help on both sides of the ball.”
Le’Veon Bell’s presence reflects a huge part of that help on the offensive side. But even Bell’s success isn’t guaranteed.
“I saw a guy named Barry Sanders held to minus rushing yards against the Packers one year,” Namath said. “That’s says something about the offensive line, because we know damn well Barry Sanders could run. Le’Veon can play, we know that. It’s going to be up to the offensive line, how well they can open up holes. He needs those guys up front.”
Even with all the failed Jets teams he has seen over the years, Namath remains stubbornly optimistic about what lies ahead. After all, he wants today’s fans to experience what Jets fans have felt only once before.
“If there’s any feeling sorry, it’s for the Jets fans that have been pretty darn good over the years,” he said. “They’ve supported the team, and we haven’t had that many playoff teams. So yeah, I like a good, upbeat, happy atmosphere, and winning does that.”
Joe Willie knows from experience what winning can do. He just hopes to see it happen again in his lifetime.