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Sports Then and Now

Matt Snell: Super Bowl Hero

Posted on December 24, 2020 by Dean Hybl
Matt Snell

The Vintage Sports Then and Now Athlete of the Month was the key weapon behind the most important upset in pro football history.

While Joe Namath was the face of the 1968 New York Jets and Super Bowl III, Matt Snell was the backbone of the New York offense and primary weapon during the shocking victory.

In many ways, the foundation for the 1968 championship squad started to be built in the 1964 AFL Draft when the Jets selected Snell, a star at Ohio State, with the third pick in the first round. Occurring at the height of the AFL-NFL player war, Snell was also drafted by the New York Giants in the 4th round of the NFL Draft (49th overall pick).

Had Snell decided to go to the more established NFL and the Giants, it would have further cemented to perceived dominance over the fledgling league and perhaps have been a final nail in the coffin for the struggling Jets. However, by choosing the Jets, Snell helped legitimize the franchise and paved the way for the signing of Namath a year later.

Right from the start, Snell flashed the ability to be one of the top runners in the league. The fullback finished second in the AFL with 948 yards rushing as a rookie while also catching 56 passes for an additional 393 yards.

The addition of Namath in 1965 and halfback Emerson Boozer in 1966 gave the Jets a dynamic backfield. Combined with a pair of top-flight receivers in Don Maynard and George Sauer, the Jets had assembled a strong cast of skill position players that put great pressure on opposing defenses and complemented an improving defense.

Snell proved to be a consistent runner leading the team in rushing in five of six seasons between 1964 and 1969.

After improving their record each season, the Jets finally broke through to be a playoff caliber squad in 1968. Snell had been limited to only seven games in 1967, but rebounded to regain the team rushing lead and rank sixth in the AFL with 747 yards on the ground in 1968.

The Jets posted an 11-3 record to win the AFL East and reach the AFL Championship Game for the first time in team history.

Facing the defending AFL Champion Oakland Raiders, the Jets scored a late touchdown to win the title 27-23 and advance to Super Bowl III. Snell had rushed 19 times for 71 yards against the Raiders, but the game was won through the air as Namath passed for 266 yards and three touchdowns. Maynard had six receptions for 118 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner.

Despite their victory over the Raiders, few gave the Jets much hope against the NFL Champion Baltimore Colts. The Colts were a dominating 13-1 in the regular season and crushed the Cleveland Browns 34-0 in the NFL Championship Game.

Given that the NFL Champions had easily won the first two Super Bowls and were expected to again cruise in Super Bowl III, there were some discussions behind-the-scenes that the format for the Super Bowl might need to be changed as the AFL teams were perhaps not ready to compete with the best NFL teams.

Much has been made of the boisterous “guarantee” made during the week by Namath, but he was simply verbalizing a quiet confidence possessed by an entire franchise that had spent four years building to that moment.

While the passing game was the main offensive weapon against the Raiders, Namath and head coach Weeb Ewbank had a different plan against the Colts. Wanting to control the ball and keep the explosive Baltimore offense off the field, they intended to use Snell and Boozer to control the ball and time of possession.

That strategy was apparent in the opening drive as they rushed the ball four times and threw a pass to Snell before having to punt. However, in their second possession Namath threw the ball six straight plays before again having to punt.

They went back to the run in their third possession with Snell gaining nine yards on two carries, but the drive ended on the third play when Sauer fumbled after catching a pass for the first down.

Fortunately for the Jets, Baltimore quarterback Earl Morrall was intercepted by Randy Beverly only three plays later.

This time Namath successfully combined the run and pass to move the Jets down the field. Snell rushed six times for 35 yards on the drive, including a four-yard touchdown run to give New York a 7-0 lead.

That would prove to be the only score of the half as the Jets led 7-0. Snell was the workhorse of the half running the ball 16 times for 71 yards and catching two passes for another 21 yards.

The Jets continued to control the game in the third quarter as their defense put the screws on the struggling Colts. By the time Jim Turner kicked his third field goal of the second half a minute into the fourth quarter to give the Jets a 16-0 lead, it was clear that the Jets were in complete control of the game.

After continuing to struggle offensively early in the third quarter, Baltimore switched quarterbacks replacing Morrall with future Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas. Unfortunately for the Colts, the results were similar as they punted on their first drive and then Beverly registered his second pick of the day.

The Jets then moved completely to a ground game to keep the clock moving. After three successful field goals, Turner missed a 42-yard kick with 7:08 remaining to give the Colts a glimmer of hope. Unitas then led the team to their first touchdown of the game with 3:32 remaining.

However, that proved to be too-little-too-late as Snell and the Jets eventually ran the clock out. Amazingly, Namath did not throw a single pass in the fourth period as the final 16 plays for the Jets were all runs.

Though Namath was named the game MVP, many considered Snell to be the true MVP of the game as he finished with 30 rushing attempts for 121 yards and the only touchdown of the game. He also was second on the team with four receptions for 40 yards.

In 1969 Snell earned first team All-AFL honors while rushing for 695 yards. It would prove to be his final significant action as injuries limited him to just 12 games and 64 rushing attempts over his final three seasons.

At the time of his retirement, Snell was the leading rusher in Jets history with 4,285 yards. He still ranks fourth all-time in team history.

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