Namath was the AFL’s rookie of the year in 1965. The next season, he led the league in passing yards but also interceptions. Still, Namath gave the Jets a glimpse of what he was about to become, as his quick release2 helped the Jets become the first team to throw 500+ pass attempts but take fewer than 10 sacks; to date, only the ’88 and ’89 Dolphins have ever matched that feat. In ’67, Namath led the AFL in yards per attempt and became the first professional quarterback to eclipse the 4,000 yard mark; he made the Pro Bowl and split the All-Pro selections with Oakland’s Daryle Lamonica. The next year would define Namath’s career, of course, as he led the Jets to a victory in Super Bowl III. But he also was selected first-team All-Pro at quarterback by all six major AFL sources, and even was named Pro Football Weekley’s All-NFL/AFL quarterback. In 1969 he had another strong season and was named the AFL’s Player of the Year by the AP for the second season in a row. That season, Namath also made his fourth Pro Bowl in five years.
In fact, Namath, Dan Marino and Bob Griese remain the only quarterbacks to earn four Pro Bowls by the end of their age 26 seasons. And he remained the youngest quarterback to win the Super Bowl until Tom Brady in Super Bowl XXXVI. Namath was one of the most hyped quarterback prospects of his era, akin to how Andrew Luck is viewed today. Namath then signed with the AFL instead of the NFL, adding legitimacy to the younger league. He was given the largest contract in the history of professional football, and then lived up to that hype by having one of the best starts to a career of any quarterback in football history. But injuries would soon begin to chip away at Namath’s prime years.
Namath broke his wrist in 1970 and injured his knee in 1971, limiting him to just 8 starts during those two years. But in 1972, a healthy Namath had perhaps his finest season. Even with Don Maynard on his last legs, Namath led the league in passing yards, passing touchdowns, yards per attempt, net yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt and adjusted net yards per attempt. The Jets ranked 2nd in the league in both points and yards, behind only the undefeated Dolphins. Namath’s Jets also gave Miami one of their biggest scares of the season; the 24 points they scored were the most Miami would allow all year, but New York lost a fourth quarter lead and the game, 28-24.
In 1973, Namath missed most of the year with a shoulder injury, but he would win the Comeback Player of the Year Award in 1974. After ’74, Namath was effectively done, but played for three more seasons and put up miserable numbers.
Namath’s completion percentage was bad, even for his era, but consider the context. Namath took far fewer sacks than the average quarterback, and an incomplete pass is better than a sack. He was a vertical passer, and while that would hurt his completion percentage, he led the league in yards per completion three times. Namath played in a dramatically different era than today’s quarterbacks, which explains why his numbers may look poor compared to modern quarterbacks. And he hung around too long, lowering his career averages.
But from 1965 to 1974 he was the game’s among the top three quarterbacks in the game. Take a look at the stats3 of all quarterbacks over that ten-year period who attempted at least 1500 passes: