Whether it was “a ballyhooed game full of the snap and crackle people have come to expect of these taffy pulls,” as Stan Isaacs wrote in Newsday, or simply a penalty-marred mess of a game largely was beside the point.
When the Jets visited the Browns on Sept. 21, 1970, it was a seminal event in the history of sports media, one that the current NFL schedule will acknowledge by having the teams meet again Monday night at MetLife Stadium.
The rematch of the Browns’ 31-21 victory coincides with the celebrations of the NFL’s 100th season and the 50th season of “Monday Night Football,” and is a nod to the key role the latter played in the success of the former.
But none of that was a sure thing that hot night in Cleveland, when 85,703 people packed Municipal Stadium for what essentially was a television experiment.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle had been pushing for a prime-time package for years, and after CBS and NBC turned him down, hesitant to disrupt their entertainment schedules, he convinced a reluctant ABC to go along.
It began with a first meeting between two champions of the 1960s — neither of which has won a title since — and a marquee star in the Jets’ Joe Namath.
The larger idea was to make the announcers and the telecast itself part of the show, and to broaden its appeal to an audience presumed to be bigger and more diverse than on a typical Sunday afternoon.
Hence producer Roone Arledge’s move to add two colorful characters alongside play-by-play man Keith Jackson in acerbic, verbose Howard Cosell and amiable, countrified Don Meredith to play off one another.
It began immediately, when during the opening of the first telecast, Cosell introduced a montage of brutal sacks — most of which would be penalized in 2019 — from Meredith’s career as an NFL quarterback.
“Dandy Don Meredith, how does it feel to review the glories of yesterday?” Cosell asked.
(The entire game is available on YouTube, including ads, the first of which features Super Bowl IV quarterbacks Len Dawson and Joe Kapp pitching Gillette razors.)
It did not take long for the love-him-or-hate-him appeal of Cosell to work its magic.
In his review, The New York Times’ Jack Gould wrote, “His parochial partisanship for the Jets was grating enough, but his miscalls of what happened on the field, particularly with respect to penalties, suggested boxing is really more his bag.”
No one was certain how nighttime football would work, but the ratings were strong, beating CBS and NBC and securing 35 percent of televisions in use.
That was without any viewers in Cleveland, where the game was blacked out in an era before even sold-out games were unavailable in home markets. That policy changed in 1973, but initially the NFL was so concerned about home-market blackouts erasing the biggest market of all that neither New York team hosted a Monday night game until 1979.
ABC paid $8.5 million for that first season of Monday night games, a smidgen under the $1.9 billion ESPN pays for the privilege now.
As for the game itself, the Jets dominated statistically but were undone by four turnovers (to the Browns’ none), a 94-yard kickoff return by former Giant Homer Jones to open the second half and 13 penalties for 161 yards.
Namath finished 18-for-31 for 298 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions, including 10 completions for 172 yards to George Sauer.
Down 24-21, the Jets took over at their 4-yard line, but in the final minute, the Browns’ Billy Andrews intercepted a Namath pass and returned the ball 25 yards for the clinching score. It was the only interception of his career.
One of the extra cameras that ABC added for the event found Namath standing still in frustration, with his head down and hands on his hips after Andrews’ TD, a dramatic shot the network displayed again in slow motion as the telecast closed.
During an on-field interview before the game, Cosell had asked Namath if he agreed with coach Weeb Ewbank’s assertion that the 1970 Jets might be better than the ’68 Super Bowl champions.
“No, I don’t,” Namath said, “but I hope he’s right.”
He wasn’t. Namath broke his right wrist in Week 5, and the Jets finished 4-10.