On this week’s NFL schedule, the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns square off, so for our Throwback Thursday feature I am going to re-post, from 2010, a story about a game played between these two franchises – the very first Monday Night Football game ever played. Here it is:
Monday Night Football has become a weekly tradition in itself after humble beginnings in 1970. NFL football in 1970 was completely different than the game today, but there was so much “newness” going on at that time that the game was really starting to become the nation’s real national pastime. At the point where the NFL decided to try the Monday night experiment, the league had just merged with the American Football League and realigned itself into the National and American Conferences. Three NFL teams – Cleveland, Pittsburgh and the Baltimore Colts – were transferred into the AFC to balance out the 2 conferences. So even though the first MNF matchup between the Browns and New York Jets was technically a game between 2 AFC teams, it was far from that. The NFL had long claimed superiority over the AFL until the Jets and Kansas City Chiefs pulled off huge Super Bowl upsets and cemented the AFL’s place as an equally-talented league. The Browns-Jets matchup opened the MNF season in 1970 after the Chiefs had beaten the Vikings in SB IV, and Namath’s Jets were already over a year removed from their upset win over the Colts in SB III that changed pro football forever. The Browns were a proud NFL team that was getting its’ shot at quieting the brash, young upstart quarterback from the AFL, Joe Namath. The broadcast team for the game was not the famous trio that put MNF on the map – Frank Gifford, Don Meredith and Howard Cosell. Keith Jackson was the play-by-play man in the first season, but the following year moved to doing college telecasts for ABC and was replaced by Gifford. Cosell, of course, became the star of the MNF show over time and was hated by fans everywhere for his pompous attitude, but that was all part of the show. In fact, ABC’s Roone Arledge completely changed the way games were covered, introducing more sideline closeups of players and coaches and microphones to catch what was being said on the sidelines. There was more drama and showmanship brought into the broadcasts, and interviews of famous people by Cosell in the booth became commonplace. Ronald Reagan and John Lennon were just 2 of the people Cosell interviewed during the games. You were nobody if you hadn’t been interviewed by Cosell on MNF back then. Also, Cosell’s halftime highlight show became hugely popular.
As for the first game itself, the Browns, with veteran Bill Nelsen at quarterback, future Hall of Famer Leroy Kelly having long since replaced Jim Brown as the featured back, and veteran split end Gary Collins running circles around a young, inexperienced Jet secondary, jumped out to a 14-0 lead. The Jets cut it to 14-7 at halftime, then Homer Jones made the biggest play of his career by returning the second half kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown to widen the Browns’ lead to 21-7. Namath rallied the Jets back to within 24-21, but late in the game threw an interception that LB Billy Andrews returned for a touchdown that climaxed a 31-21 Cleveland victory. The Browns gave the NFL old guard a small measure of revenge for the 2 previous Super Bowls with the win, but the sport was on it’s way to evolving into the entertainment giant it is today. Pete Rozelle’s vision of growing the game, with the merger, Monday Night Football and the Super Bowl, has grown beyond even his wildest dreams.