Dec 27, 2013; Alameda, CA, USA; General view of an Oakland Raiders helmet at press conference at Oakland Raiders Practice Facility. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Real football is back. After nearly seven months of free agency, combines, pro days, the draft, OTA’s, training camp and tiresome preseason games, the NFL season began last night, and the Raiders regular season will kick off on Sunday against the New York Jets. While not quite a rivalry in modern times, the history between the Raiders and the Jets (originally known as the Titans) goes back a long way. As original members of the American Football League, the two teams played each other in the regular season twice each year for the first eight years of their existence. In 1968, as the merger loomed and the AFL had grown to ten teams, new divisional alignment meant the two only had one regular-season contest. It would be held at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (about two years old at the time) on November 17, 1968. It would become one of the most famous games in professional football history and come to be called the “Heidi Game.”
The Raiders entered the 1968 season hoping to repeat as AFL Champions under head coach John Rouch. One year prior, the Raiders had played the best season in franchise history, going 13-1 and qualifying for postseason play for the first time, winning the AFL Championship Game against Houston in convincing fashion before being defeated soundly by Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl II. Led by “Mad Bomber” Daryle Lamonica, the Raiders offense epitomized the wide-open AFL style of football: Lamonica had thrown for over 3,000 yards and 30 TD’s in 1967 and was on pace for another 3,000 yard season in 1968. The Jets, coached by Weeb Eubank, had never qualified for postseason play in franchise history. Led by superstar gunslinger Joe Namath, the Jets also epitomized AFL football: Namath had thrown for over 4,000 yards in 1967, a mark that would not be reached again in pro football until 1979 (Dan Fouts). Both teams entered the game with identical 7-2 records. The Jets, after a 3-2 start where Joe Namath had suffered two 5-INT games, had won four straight, led by a more balanced offensive approach and a stifling defense that had 18 takeaways in the four-game stretch. Oakland had started with four straight wins before dropping two in a row to San Diego and Kansas City, but were back on a three-game win streak.
The Raiders were also riding with a more balanced offensive approach, while the Raider defense had been routinely shutting down opposing offenses, holding opponents to less than 100 yards passing on five occasions to that point. The two teams had met sixteen times prior to the 1968 meeting, and the Jets led the series 8-6-2, with the Raiders having a 3-1-2 edge in the last six meetings. The year prior, the Jets had handed the Raiders their only loss on the year in their first of two regular-season meetings. Later, the two teams met in one of the most vicious contests in AFL history: the Raider defense had assaulted Namath with great malice with cheap shot after cheap shot. The late season meeting was between the two best teams in the AFL, with two of its most exciting players, but would also serve as a grudge match between the two teams, who had developed a clear hatred of each other.
The game was played, like most West Coast day games, at 1 PM local time, 4 PM Eastern, and was broadcast across most of the country (except for within 90 miles of Oakland) on NBC. The network had been promoting their special Sunday evening presentation of the movie Heidi for 7 PM that evening, pre-empting their usual Sunday night lineup, and hoped the game would have fans already tuned in when the movie started. Prior to Jets-Raiders, NBC had been showing the Bills-Chargers matchup, but cut away from the end of Bills-Chargers to go to the beginning of Raiders-Jets, which was standard procedure for football broadcasts at the time.
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The bad blood was evident early on with a personal foul against the Jets on the opening kickoff. The Jets got out to an early 6-0 lead after two field goal drives, but Daryle Lamonica’s 22 yard pass to Warren Wells put the Raiders in the drivers seat to close the 1st quarter, and a 48-yard Lamonica strike to Billy Cannon put the Raiders ahead 14-6 early in the 2nd quarter. Namath led a late scoring drive to close the second, capping it with a 1-yard TD run of his own, and a failed two-point attempt on a trick play resulted in a 14-12 Raider advantage at the half.
Early in the 3rd quarter, Lamonica would throw an interception (he threw two on the day) that set up a Jets touchdown drive, and the Jets moved ahead 19-14 with 10 minutes left in the third quarter. On the ensuing drive, Lamonica led the Raiders right back up the field on an 80-yard drive that resulted in a 3-yard touchdown run by Charlie Smith after a series of penalties on Jets safety Jim Hudson had moved the ball to the 3-yard line. Hudson, who had intercepted Lamonica earlier, was ejected from the game and subsequently gave the middle finger to Oakland fans. The Raiders added a 2-point conversion to the Smith touchdown and took a 22-19 lead by the end of the third quarter of play.
With the ball in scoring position early in the 4th quarter and an opportunity to take a commanding two-possession lead, Charlie Smith fumbled the ball and the Jets’ Gerry Philbin recovered on their own 3-yard line. Namath connected to Don Maynard on two consecutive deep throws, exposing rookie cornerback George Atkinson to the tune of 97 yards and a touchdown on two completions. Just like that, the Jets took the lead back, and would add a field goal on their next drive to go ahead 29-22. The next Raiders drive started at their own 12-yard line, but Lamonica led the team down the field and hit future Hall-0f-Famer Fred Biletnikoff with a 22 yard TD strike to tie the game with four minutes remaining in the contest. Namath answered back with a drive of his own which ended in another Jets field goal that broke the tie and gave the Jets the 32-29 advantage with 1:01 on the clock. It was now 7:00 PM Eastern Standard Time.
While NFL games routinely were played in 2 1/2 hours or less, this AFL matchup had dragged on over the three hour mark. The two quarterbacks would combine for 71 attempts – an enormous number at the time – and 41 incomplete passes, each one requiring a clock stoppage. The pace of the game was slowed even further with the high number of penalties in the heated contest – a total of 19 penalties were called in the game, a rarity in that era. With confusion reigning at the NBC control center in California and the network offices in New York City, exacerbated by flooded switchboards as fans were calling in demanding to be shown the conclusion of the game, the decision was made to cut away from the game in the Eastern time zone and start the movie Heidi just as the Raiders’ Charlie Smith was taking the kickoff out of the endzone. Football fans in the eastern United States, including all the Jets fans in the New York area, would miss the bedlam that was to follow.
After Smith’s return to the 22-yard line, Lamonica immediately hit Smith for a 78 yard touchdown that was called back on a penalty. Undeterred, Lamonica went back to Smith for a 20 yard reception that turned into a 35 yard play after a facemask call against the Jets. On the following play from the 43 yard line, Lamonica hit Smith again, this time for a touchdown strike with 42 seconds remaining. George Blanda’s extra point put the Raiders in front 36-32, meaning Namath and the Jets would need to score a touchdown to win it. They wouldn’t get the opportunity: Raider linebacker Bill Budness stripped Jets returner Earl Christy of the ball at the 12 yard line on the ensuing kickoff, and backup running back Preston Ridlehuber picked up the loose ball and scored with it. With 36 seconds remaining on the clock, the Raiders had put the game away and would go on to win 43-32.
Of course the entire Eastern time zone never saw the two Raider touchdowns scored in the final minute, instead getting the opening credits of Heidi. Football fans revolted, jamming the switchboards and mailrooms at NBC, furious about missing the exciting final minute of the game. The network responded immediately, and all future football broadcasts were allowed to run over their time slot if necessary, pushing back all other network programming, something they would need to do less than a month later for a Raiders-Chargers matchup. In all NFL broadcasting contracts since, it has been mandated that games be broadcast in their entirety, with only a few exceptions for local team markets (as Raider fans who live in LA are all to familiar with after years of being force-fed Charger games). The game changed the way football is broadcast forever, and may have established professional football as television’s number one event: last night’s Seahawks-Packers game was the highest rated television show since the Super Bowl.
The Raiders would go on to to win out the rest of the year, finishing the season 12-2 on an eight game win streak. New York would go on to win their last four, finishing 11-3. Both teams would win their respective divisions and would face each other again on a cold late December day at Shea Stadium in Queens. The Jets won 27-23 and would go on to face the NFL’s Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Not sure how that all ended up or if any guarantees were made or what became of that Namath fellow.
The Jet Press
Daryle Lamonica, who threw for 311 yards and 4 TDs in the Heidi Game, would quarterback the Raiders for four and a half more seasons before being replaced by Ken Stabler. After the Raiders AFL Championship loss, John Rouch was fired and replaced with the legendary John Madden, who would lead the Raiders to the postseason in eight of his ten years as head coach and lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl title. The Jets, meanwhile, would return to the playoffs the following year, losing to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs. They would not see the postseason again until 1981 and have not been back to the Super Bowl. The bitter rivalry between the two that developed during their time in the AFL dissipated as the two franchises went in different directions and played in different divisions, but experienced a brief restoration when the two met in the playoffs in consecutive years after the 2001 and 2002 seasons, both Raider victories.
The two teams meet Sunday looking to establish new identities, both with young starting quarterbacks and a lot of question marks. The vicious AFL days are gone, and Geno Smith is no Joe Namath, but he and Derek Carr are representatives of the next generation of NFL quarterbacks, and perhaps Carr can bring back some of the old Lamonica magic in Oakland. What the future holds for these two teams remains to be seen.