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On This Date in Sports: September 21, 1970: Monday Night Football

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Monday Night Football makes its debut as the Cleveland Browns beat the New York Jets 31-21 at Municipal Stadium. It was a night to forget for Joe Namath, who threw three interceptions, including a 25-yard pick-six by Billy Andrews, that put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter. Monday Night Football would become an instant hit as Howard Cosell helped drive high ratings, becoming the most hated and most popular announcer in sports.  


Primetime NFL games were not new in 1970, as the DuMont Television Network aired Saturday night games in the 1950s. Commissioner Pete Rozelle envisioned a stand-alone primetime game in the 1960s. The first Monday night game was in 1964 between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions at Tiger Stadium, which drew the largest crowd at the time to see an NFL game in Detroit. The NFL continued to experiment with Monday night games in 1966 and 1967 while the AFL played a few Monday games the next two seasons.   


ABC was set up well for primetime football, as they were the third-place network for years, rarely being able to compete with CBS and NBC. For Producer Roone Arledge it was about creating a booth that would create as much buzz as the game itself. He first wanted Frank Gifford, but could not pry him away from CBS for the 1970 premiere season. This left Keith Jackson as the first Monday Night announcer. Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith and his down-home laid back humor provided game analysis from a former player’s perspective. At the same time, Howard Cosell, a controversial sports commentator from New York, was added to create headlines. 


The Cleveland Browns were one of three NFL teams shifted to the AFC for the 1970 merger season. Coached by Blanton Collier, they had lost the NFL Championship Game in 1968 and 1969. The New York Jets, coached by Weeb Ewbank, were upset in the AFC Playoffs by the Kansas City Chiefs as they sought to win a second straight Super Bowl in 1969. As the 1970 season began, there was no bigger star in professional football than Joe Namath, who helped make the Super Bowl by winning Super Bowl III. 


The first Monday night game drew a record crowd of 85,703 fans to Municipal Stadium. The stadium called the mistake by the lake. It was the Jets who were the ones making the mistakes with four turnovers and a record 13 penalties. The Jets miscues helped the Browns jump out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter as Gary Collins caught an eight-yard pass from Bill Nelsen. Bo Scott added a second score with a two-yard run. The Jets would get back in the game with a five-yard touchdown run by Emerson Boozer. 



Leading 14-7, the Browns started the second half with a bang as Homer Jones ran back the kickoff 94-yards for a touchdown. Boozer added a second touchdown on a ten-yard run to keep New York in the game. The Browns extended the lead to 24-14 with a 27-yard field goal. In the fourth quarter, Joe Namath connected with George Sauer on a 33-yard touchdown pass to get the Jets back within a field goal. However, a 33-yard pick-six by Billy Andrews sealed the win for Cleveland. 


Monday Night Football quickly became an American institution. The booth changed in 1971 as Frank Gifford was lured away from CBS and replaced Keith Jackson. Monday Night Football proved to be a ratings winner and helped ABC climb from third to first by the end of the 1970s.