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What if John Unitas Played the Entire Second Half?

In Super Bowl III, Colts QB Earl Morrall struggled greatly before being taken out for John Unitas late in the third quarter. Unitas was injured most of the season, but was cleared to play. Don Shula has said in hindsight switching at halftime might have been a better idea. What if he had?

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I'm fully aware that I am writing this (and you're probably reading it) with an eye on Twitter and free agency in the NFL. With that being said, the Weekly What If will carry on, albeit two days late because I got caught up in all of the trades and signings.

This week, I decided to take it a little further back than I have been for the What If posts. We'll be headed back to a Sunday afternoon in mid-January at the Orange Bowl.

The Colts were one of the most statistically dominant teams that the NFL had seen (and those stats still stack up well today) and seemed to have the easy track to winning the Super Bowl. The Jets were just another team from the AFL hoping to defeat an NFL team in the Championship Game.

Every football fan knows the narrative. The Jets' defense shut down the league's top offense, and flustered NFL MVP Earl Morrall. The Jets' offense, led by Super Bowl MVP Joe Namath, did enough to score 16 points on the Colts top ranked defense, which was all they needed.

The controversial point, if you will, in the game revolved around Johnny Unitas. Doctors had cleared him to play, but Head Coach Don Shula made the (correct) decision to start Morrall.

As noted, Morrall would struggle in the game, highlighted him infamously not seeing Johnny Orr wide open on a flea-flicker pass late in the half.

With about four minutes to go in the third quarter, Shula pulled Morrall for Unitas. Three times Unitas drove the Colts into the Red Zone. The first time, he was intercepted, the second time, the Colts scored, and the third time the Colts couldn't convert on a fourth down.

Still, Unitas would finish the game with more completions and yards than Morrall.

So what if Shula makes the switch at halftime? What if Unitas plays the entire second half?

In a VHS I had (that makes me sound older than I actually am) about Super Bowl III, center Bill Curry makes an interesting comment (this may also be on the History of the Colts DVD).

It went something along the lines that when the Jets players saw Unitas warming up on the sideline they thought "uh oh" because the legend was coming in. Of course, let's keep in mind this was just the opinion of Curry, but it does make for an interesting talking point.

By the time the late 60s rolled around, Unitas was a legend, and had shown he could bring the Colts back in important game. It would stand to reason (pure speculation, again) that some thought of doubt could have crossed the Jets' minds seeing Unitas get ready to play.

Shula has also said that, looking back, he should have put Unitas in at halftime. If he had, the Colts very well may have won the game.

Remember, the score was only 7-0 at halftime and the Colts got the ball first. Yes, Tom Matte fumbled on the first play of the second half, but does that happen if Unitas is in the game? More specifically, do the Colts even run on that first play?

Obviously, it's impossible to say what could have happened if Unitas had entered the game at halftime. However, I do think that it is unlikely that the Jets are able to extend the lead to 16 before the Colts score. In fact, in the game, it was 13-0 by the time Unitas gets on the field.

I think the score isn't that high if Unitas comes in earlier. Maybe 10-0, but at no point does it reach 13-0. Let's even say that the 15 minutes of game action Unitas plays is the same for the Colts. In this scenario, let's say it is 10-0 by the time the Colts score their first touchdown, making it 10-7.

I'll give the Jets another field goal after that, bringing the score to 13-7. Essentially, I'm only taking away the field goal the Jets got off of the Matte fumble, because that doesn't happen in this scenario.

The fourth quarter is where things really change. On their third trip to the red zone, only down 6, and this time mid-way through the quarter, the Colts don't need to go for it. They can kick the field goal making the score 13-10.

Also, in Super Bowl III, Joe Namath hurt his finger on his throwing hand in the third quarter. Even after he returned, the Jets didn't throw the ball again. While the unit was struggling, I don't expect the Colts defense would have let the Jets offense run out the remainder of the fourth quarter without passing.

The Colts and Unitas would have had one more chance. If there's one thing I've learned is that it is never a good idea to bet against an elite Colts QB in crunch time (Super Bowl 44 notwithstanding).

The Colts go down and tie the game, sending the game to overtime. At this point it would mark the second time the Colts and a New York team went to overtime in a championship game.

It's tough to say how an overtime frame would have gone. The Colts obviously would have had all of the momentum in a 13-13 game at this point. But in sudden death, momentum doesn't always mean anything.

One thing is for sure, though, the Jets would have needed Namath to throw the ball. If he couldn't, then there is no way the Jets win at this point. None.

Being the homer that I am, I'll give the Colts the overtime win on a Tom Matte one-yard plunge to clinch the title. And yes, I intentionally picked Matte so it would be the same situation as Alan Ameche doing the same against the Giants.

Moving forward, how would this affect football in general?

The NFL and AFL would still merge, and on a low note for the NFL as the Chiefs still beat the Vikings the next season. Don Shula probably isn't fired after the 1969 season, though, as he would have brought a title to Baltimore. I think eventually, he would have been fired, and probably wound up in Miami, but not as soon as 1970. This, of course, means no perfect 1972 season.

The biggest change that could trickle down from this comes in 1970. As we all know, the Colts, Steelers, and Browns all moved from the NFL/NFC to the AFC. Would the NFL have moved the Colts (and would they have agreed) only two years removed from a world championship in the NFL? I suppose if they could move the storied Browns, they could move the Colts. I'm just not so sure they move a champion to the AFC.

Regardless, the point of this whole article is that, I believe, if Unitas plays the whole second half, the Colts beat the Jets. If this means not returning to the Super Bowl two years later to play the Cowboys, then fine. The Colts wouldn't forever be known as the team who lost to the AFL in the Super Bowl for the first time.