So much of the Giants’ temporary stay at the Yale Bowl was unmemorable. Yet the players have a hard time forgetting their 26-20 overtime loss to the rival Jets on Nov. 10, 1974, as one play encapsulated the frustration of those two dismal seasons.
“Watching Joe Namath bootleg around the defense like we weren’t there, that was one of the lowlights,” linebacker Pat Hughes said. “He just faked and came around the end. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
Yes, gimpy-kneed Broadway Joe, who hadn’t scored a rushing touchdown in five years, faked a handoff to Emerson Boozer, rolled to his left and limped in untouched from the 3 to tie it at 20 with eight minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Namath then threw the winning 5-yard touchdown pass to Boozer 6 minutes, 53 seconds into the extra period as the Jets won the first NFL regular-season game decided in overtime.
Namath, who completed 20 of 34 passes for 236 yards, and Giants counterpart Craig Morton, who connected on 21 of 32 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns in his first home start after being acquired from the Cowboys two weeks earlier, starred in the passers’ duel.
But it was Namath’s bootleg call that made the difference.
Namath later said he kept his plans to himself, telling neither the coaching staff nor his running back that he would keep the football. Cornerback Eldridge Small was the closest Giant to Namath as he crossed the goal line, futilely racing from the left with free safety Spider Lockhart trying to close the gap from the other side.
As he scored, Namath, known for his fragile knees, raised one hand and waved off the defenders, warning them not to hit him. Astonishingly, both pulled up.
“The last thing you expect Joe Namath to do is keep the ball on a bootleg,” running back Steve Crosby said.
"I was the middle linebacker and Brad Van Pelt was the right outside linebacker,” Brian Kelley added. “When they lined up in their huddle, I was telling Brad, ‘Just be aware of the bootleg.’ I do remember that play. That was about it, that’s when the fans started leaving.”
Actually, both teams had chances to win before Namath sealed the victory in overtime.
Kelley dived to his right at the goal line to deflect the ball away from Jerome Barkum on a third-and-5 from the Giants’ 12 and Jim Stienke blocked Pat Leahy’s field-goal attempt with 16 seconds left in regulation.
In overtime, the Giants’ Pete Gogolak missed a 42-yard attempt wide left, though the kicker argued both on the field and after the game that the football had gone inside the upright.
“It was the level of frustration of close, but not close enough,” Hughes said.
The Giants were coming off a 33-27 win at Kansas City the previous week, but the loss to the Jets started a season-ending six-game slide that left them at 2-12.