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They jetted back to earth

Sept. 25, 1978
Sept. 25, 1978

Table of Contents
Sept. 25, 1978

The Fight
Dear Billy
Penn State
Baseball
Tennis
College Football
Pro Football
Equestrian Events
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

They jetted back to earth

Off to their best start of the '70s and dreaming of a return to their glory days, the rebuilding New York Jets were rudely shot down by Seattle Quarterback Jim Zorn

There were the New York Jets last week—undefeated, alone in first place in the AFC East, rolling behind a flashy quarterback from Alabama by the name of Richard Todd and favored to whip the winless Seattle Seahawks and raise their record to 3-0. The Jets had not started a season that well since 1966, when they had a flashy quarterback from Alabama by the name of Joe Namath, and the mere thought of three wins in three games had to be staggering. In fact, the Jets had won only three games in each of the previous three years, and they had not had a winning season in the '70s.

This is an article from the Sept. 25, 1978 issue Original Layout

For a long time Sunday at Shea Stadium the Jets and the Seahawks played defense like a couple of sorority touch teams. Todd and Seattle Quarterback Jim Zorn staged a shootout in the first half, each throwing the ball 14 times. Todd completed eight for 170 yards, Zorn 10 for 137—and the two teams jogged off at halftime tied 14-14. They matched field goals in the third quarter, Seattle's Efren Herrera, the Dallas discard, converting from 45 yards and New York's Pat Leahy responding from 37 yards, and then early in the fourth quarter Herrera trotted onto the field in an attempt to break the 17-17 tie with a short field goal from 24 yards. Or so the Jets thought.

No doubt thinking about how easily the New York receivers had been getting open, Seattle Coach Jack Patera wisely decided that the Seahawks needed a touchdown, not a field goal, and decided to use an old fake field-goal play. Zorn, who holds for Herrera's placements, took the snap from center, jumped up, ran to his left and gained a first down at the Jets' two-yard line. Two plays later, Zorn rolled right on the option and pitched the ball to running back David Sims, who went into the end zone standing up for his third touchdown of the game to give the Seahawks a 24-17 lead that their shaky defense somehow preserved until the final gun.

While neither the Jets nor the Seahawks are ready to challenge for the playoffs, they are two of the most promising teams in the league, and almost mirror images of each other. But then, what would you expect of teams run by two men who spent five years commuting to New York City together on the 7:58 from Massapequa? Seattle General Manager John Thompson was executive director of the NFL Management Council until he moved to Seattle three years ago; he was the first person hired by the Seattle owners after they had paid $16 million for the franchise. And Jim Kensil was executive director of the NFL until he became president of the Jets in June of 1977.

Their teams are the two youngest in the AFC, the Jets averaging 24 years of age, the Seahawks 24.7. In Todd and Zorn, Kensil and Thompson have secured the most important, and rarest, ingredient needed to build a winner—a talented quarterback. Also under Kensil and Thompson, the Jets and the Seahawks have developed solid, progressive organizations that are patiently building Dallas-style through the draft. In operational efficiency, the Jets, who are in their 18th year and have won a Super Bowl, are, if anything, somewhat behind the Seahawks, who are only three years old.

New York reached its nadir in 1975 when Coach Charley Winner, thinking his team was just a few players away from playoff contention, traded his first, fourth and sixth draft choices for three defensive linemen, two of whom now are out of football. Then again, at the time that made as much sense as drafting collegians because the Jets had usually failed miserably at the draft table.

Tight-fisted Weeb Ewbank, who coached and also ran the club as general manager from 1963 to 1974, economized on scouting. As a result, New York's first-round picks from 1967 to 1970 all bombed, and the present roster includes only six players drafted before 1976. Ewbank thought so little about the scouting end of the Jets' operation that when the team constructed a new office building, Weeb Ewbank Hall, at its Hofstra University training center, Ewbank assigned his three-man personnel department to a lone, windowless room.

Ewbank retired in 1974, and Winner, his son-in-law, was fired following a disastrous three-win season in 1975. The Jet reconstruction was launched the following season with the arrival of Lou Holtz from North Carolina State. Holtz began a much-needed housecleaning, but not even his rapid one-liners could keep the people smiling. Seeing that success was a long way off, Holtz resigned with one game to go in the 1976 season and moved to Arkansas.

Once Kensil took over as president, the Jets began to pour money into the scouting budget. The Jets set up a separate pro personnel department—something most other NFL teams already had—and doubled the number of scouts on the payroll to six. Significantly, Kensil had an addition put onto Weeb Ewbank Hall and assigned the personnel department an entire wing—with plenty of windows. Also, Jet personnel forms now are more highly detailed than they were during Ewbank's regime, and scouts must commit themselves definitively on prospects. "It's not my job to pick football players," says Kensil, "but I can assess the people who do it, and the means and methods they use."

For now the cornerstones of the New York and the Seattle building programs are the third-year quarterbacks—Todd and Zorn. Their dissimilarities are striking. Todd is right-handed, a drop-back quarterback from a wishbone school. Zorn is a southpaw, a scrambler from the pro-style passing attack at Cal Poly in Pomona. Befitting his status as the first quarterback drafted in 1976, Todd employed Namath's agent and signed a five-year, $605,000 contract. Befitting his status as a free agent, Zorn was signed to his first pro contract by a Dallas assistant public-relations man—a man whose last name happened to be Todd.

Zorn almost made the Cowboys in 1975, but he was released as the final cut just before the first game when Dallas acquired Running Back Preston Pearson from Pittsburgh on waivers. Zorn remained out of football that year, then signed with Seattle as a free agent. He became an instant star in Seattle's first game, a home exhibition against San Francisco. Zorn did not enter the game until the second half when the Seahawks were trailing 24-0, but he quickly produced 20 points. On the last play of the game a Zorn scramble was stopped two yards short of the goal line, and Seattle lost 27-20. Nevertheless, Zorn became the most popular pro athlete in Seattle, supplanting the SuperSonics' Slick Watts, and he has been the Seahawks' No. 1 quarterback ever since.

Todd's acceptance came much more slowly. The Jets needed a pro-style dropback passer to succeed Namath, and Todd didn't seem to be the right choice. His first year in New York was a waste as Holtz tinkered with the veer offense. Todd didn't really get his chance until 1977, when the Jets elevated Walt Michaels from defensive coordinator to head coach. Namath was given his release, and Michaels named Todd his starter.

Todd completed better than 50% of his passes last season and developed a passing acquaintance with Wide Receiver Wesley Walker. Now Todd-to-Walker may be the best deep-passing combo in the NFL. They teamed up for 47-yard and 43-yard touchdown bombs in the Jets' 33-20 opening-day upset of Miami three weeks ago. Todd threw for three touchdowns against the Dolphins and three more against Buffalo in the Jets' 21-20 victory.

Throughout his career Todd has had to suffer comparisons with Namath. While he adamantly insists he is no Broadway Joe, he is a lot closer to that mold than Zorn, who putters about Seattle in a yellow Volkswagen and devotes much of his free time to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Zorn is a former speed skater and amateur boxer, as well as an accomplished juggler who has appeared on children's television shows in Seattle, where he now lives full time.

Todd, though, deserts New York as soon as the season ends. He has just finished building a house on a bay of the Gulf of Mexico in Alabama, complete with a sauna, a whirlpool, a weight room and a 24-foot powerboat tied up at the dock in back. Oakland Raider Quarterback Kenny Stabler is building a house about a quarter of a mile away, and Todd says the area is called "the Red-neck Riviera."

Both Todd and Zorn are single, but Todd gratuitously adds, "Very single." He admits that he ballooned from 210 to 223 pounds in his rookie year because of repeated all-night forays around Manhattan. This season Michaels ordered Todd to give up his East Side bachelor pad and move in with teammates near the Jets' Long Island training complex.

Todd says of the comparison between himself and Namath, "I don't have his arm and he didn't have my legs." While Todd is more mobile than Namath, Zorn is a far superior runner. Seattle has designed specific plays to take advantage of Zorn's ability to scramble, including the fake field-goal run that helped beat the Jets. This year Zorn has tried to improve his passing percentage, a lowly 41.4 last season, by curtailing his running and staying in the pocket. And he is succeeding, as evidenced by his 19 completions in 26 attempts for 191 yards Sunday.

"I have more confidence in my offensive line now," Zorn says. "It used to be that before I looked at the defense, I looked at the offensive line to see if it was doing its job. I couldn't do what I was supposed to do because I was worrying about what my offensive line was doing."

Unfortunately for the Jets, Zorn did everything he was supposed to do on Sunday in Shea Stadium.

PHOTOSims rushed for all three Seahawk touchdowns.PHOTOZorn's passing and running befuddled the Jets.