The clock showed three minutes to play. Seventy-seven yards and seven points and the Miami Dolphins stood between the New York Jets and a share of first place in the AFC East. And as Jet Quarterback Richard Todd came slouching onto the field there was a tremendous feeling of dèjà vu in Shea Stadium.
It was a Joe Namath feeling. You could close your eyes and see No. 12 trotting out in that stiff-legged way of his, shoulders hunched over as he leaned into the terrible late autumn winds of Shea, hands tucked into the special pockets in his jersey. Joe Willie, cold, hurting, but you knew what was going to happen. Those little tippy-toe steps back—set up, sight, aim, fire—the defense coming unhinged.
But it is five years into the post-Namath era for the Jets, and the quarterback on Sunday was Todd. Sure, he'd had good outings, plenty of them, but the New York fans had yet to see him pull out a meaningful game in the dying moments. Todd had never quarterbacked a contending team in November; in fact, the Jets hadn't been in the race for a division lead this late in the season since 1969 when they were defending Super Bowl champs and Namath was 26 years old and the AFC was still called the AFL. As Todd came onto the field, limping slightly on the left ankle that he'd sprained two quarters earlier, the rib he'd broken the week before wrapped in a Casco Rib Protector and a Byron Donzis Flak Jacket and a special amplifying microphone inside his helmet in case his voice should suddenly fail him, Tight End Jerome Barkum's thoughts journeyed backward in time.
"Oh yes, I was thinking of Joe," said Barkum, the only member of the offensive unit on the field who had been in a huddle with Namath. Barkum would shortly catch the 11-yard touchdown pass that would give the Jets a 16-15 victory with 16 seconds left. "I was thinking about how many times I saw him come on that field hurting. The way Richard's head was down, the way he hunched over, that reminded me of Joe. It took me back. Joe playing on those busted-up knees of his, Richard playing today with the broken rib and the bad ankle—those things take courage."
It was a very bad situation for Todd. The pain in the rib had been deadened by an injection—"It wasn't a displaced fracture. The bone was just cracked," Todd said of the injury he had suffered in the Jets' win over New England, "and the flak jacket protected it from further damage"—but he was having trouble setting up on the swelling ankle. When he tried to put anything on a sideline pass, the ball would take a dive. The double protective wraps around his ribs were strangling his delivery to the outside. He could throw O.K. down the middle, but the Dolphins were making things nasty with a new blitzing scheme—two linebackers shooting in from the Jets' left side, Todd's blind side.
But while the Jets' offense was struggling, their defense was making things just as miserable for the Dolphins. With 10½ minutes to go in the game, New York had held Miami to no first downs and 14 yards, total, in the second half, and the Dolphins were hanging on to a three-point lead by their fingernails. Then, suddenly, Miami found a running game. The Dolphins ate up more than seven minutes on a run-only drive that ended in a 23-yard field goal and gave Miami a 15-9 lead.
The crowd woke up when Todd and the New York offense took over at their own 23 with three minutes to go, and there were groans when two plays gaining 11 yards ate up a full minute on the clock. In the Namath era this wouldn't have happened. Namath called his own plays; he knew how to work the clock. Everything is sent in now, and something was lost in translation; the Jets never went into their hurry-up offense. They made up for it with corporate planning, with a drive in which Todd completed seven of 10 passes. The completions went to seven different receivers—three running backs, three wide receivers and, finally, the TD throw to the tight end, Barkum. Two wide receivers were on the right side, Barkum was split left, and Todd hit him coming across the middle. The play is called 45-Option, and Barkum's journey took him past a linebacker, Earnie Rhone, and between the nickel back, Don Bessillieu, and the strong safety, Glenn Blackwood.
The Jets are now tied with Miami for first place in the AFC East at 7-4-1. They have not lost to Miami in four seasons, and if they end up tied with the Dolphins, they will represent the division in the playoffs because they have beaten and tied Miami this season.
The story of the 1981 Jets, at least at this stage of the season, is one of redemption—of the club itself and of Coach Walt Michaels. After three starts the Jets were 0-3. Buffalo had crushed them 31-0 in the opener. Then they blew a two-touchdown lead to Cincinnati while tying a club record for penalties with 14. In his press session the following day, Michaels flew into a rage at one reporter and impressed the others as being a man on the ropes.
The next weekend the Jets were blown out 38-10 by the Steelers. They gave up the most rushing yardage (343) in their history. "We're tight and scared that we might make mistakes," Fullback Tom Newton said. Added Todd, "We'd better stick together because we're the only friends we have out there."
Michaels' job was reportedly in jeopardy. Not true, said Jet President Jim Kensil. New York then beat Houston, thanks to eight quarterback sacks and three interceptions of Ken Stabler, and the following week tied the Dolphins in a game that left a bad taste because the Jets pulled in their horns and went for a hopeless 48-yard field goal into the wind at the end of overtime.
Then the miracle happened. New York ran off six victories in the next seven games, while the Dolphins were losing four, and now the Jets are in a formidable position. In their last four games they play Baltimore, Seattle, Cleveland and Green Bay. Meanwhile the Dolphins must face Philadelphia, followed by New England, Kansas City and Buffalo.
There are some old-fashioned stories of personal revival on the Jets. Todd's is the most interesting recovery story of all. It's April 8, 1976, draft day at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York. The Jets are coming off a 3-11 season, and they have the sixth pick in the first round. The fans are tired of Namath. DRAFT TODD banners flutter from the gallery. "You've got it," Commissioner Pete Rozelle says from the podium, cocking a finger at the fans. "The Jets on the first round select Richard Todd, quarterback from Alabama." There is prolonged cheering.
Todd has shown the utmost courage in his six years with the Jets. He has played hurt—and he has played under four different offensive coordinators. And he has played to an almost continuous chorus of boos in recent seasons. Jet fans booed Todd when he regained his starting job from Matt Robinson in '79. They booed him unmercifully when his 30 interceptions led the league in 1980. They booed him on general principle this year. "Sure the boos hurt me," Todd says. "I'm human, too. They would even boo me during the introductions."
For a while this season Todd wouldn't give postgame interviews. Then on Nov. 4 he made national headlines when he struck back at his harshest critic, reporter Steve Serby of the New York Post. Serby had been a Robinson man. He had been very tough on Todd, and on Michaels, underscoring the fear and tension that ran through the Jets' locker room. Some of the Jets were afraid to be seen talking to him. Others felt Serby was one of the few reporters who wrote what was really happening. After the Jets beat the Giants to even their record at 4-4-1, Serby tried to make his peace with Todd, who told him to shove off. Serby didn't. Todd grabbed Serby by the throat and shoved him into a locker. Serby wound up in Nassau County Medical Center for observation. Serby and the Post filed criminal assault charges. The next day the Jet players had cordoned off the area around Todd's locker, as if it had been ordered by the local police. On the floor they had chalked the outline of where the body had lain. "You have a chance of making the front and back page of the Post" Jet publicist Frank Ramos told Todd, "for the first time since they ran the picture of Carmine Galante shot dead with the cigar in his mouth."
The Nassau County DA's office subsequently threw out the criminal charges against Todd, suggesting that the matter be referred to the Community Dispute Center, which is where a citizen goes when a neighbor's dog makes poopie on his lawn. On the Sunday following the incident Todd went out and threw for 277 yards and three TDs against the Colts. The Jets won 41-14.
"I'm sorry I lost my temper like that," Todd said last week, "but there comes a time when you can only take so much. I'm a moody person. I could understand bad things being written about me last year. Hell, I threw 30 interceptions. But when everything is negative, negative—even when you win it's negative—well, there's only so much you can take."
No one booed Todd last Sunday. "He played in pain and he pulled it out for us," Michaels said. "I looked at his face every time he came off the field, and there wasn't one time I saw an unusual expression on it—except for a win look. What's a win look? It's something Na-math had, something all the good ones seem to have. I think this game will be a milestone in his career."
Todd is having his best season, but the real story of the 1981 Jets is their defense. Defense made New York a Super Bowl team in 1968, and it has made it a division leader this year. Right End Joe Klecko, with 16 sacks to his credit, is playing the position better than anyone else in the NFL. Mark Gastineau, the end on the left side, is a rarity, a pure sack artist who stands 6'5", weighs 276 and runs a 4.58 forty. For a decade the pass rush has been the Jets' big failing, but now New York's strength in this aspect of the game forces teams to prepare for the Jets a bit differently.
Hope has sprung up in the hearts of New York fans who have suffered through 11 nonwinning seasons. Banners have appeared: GASTINEAU'S GANG, KLECKO'S KLAN, JETS' PRIDE, PLAYOFF FEVER—CATCH IT. But there's a month to go, and strange things can happen.
No one knows that better than Richard Todd and the Jets.