In July the New York Jets were one of the NFL's pretty teams, a club with more talent than Central Casting, a sensible choice for a Super Bowl spot. Now, with the second half of the season a week old, the Jets are 4-5 and remain a major enigma. At times they've been ferocious. They've controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage and crushed the life out of good teams, such as the 49ers last Sunday (27-13) and the Bills on Oct. 3 (34-10). But at times they have also looked like sheep. What's the story?
CHAPTER ONE: A HISTORY LESSON
After the Jets' Super Bowl victory in 1969, nothing less than Supe would do. Media, fans, even players got caught up in the hype.
August 1973—The Jets are flying back from an exhibition win in Tampa. They're 2-0. "There's more talent on this team than on our Super Bowl team," veteran Guard Randy Rasmussen said. "...you look up and down this plane and there's just so much talent...." The Jets finished the season at 4-10.
November 1975—In Baltimore some Jets notice a football magazine with Joe Namath's picture on the cover and a billing that reads JOE NAMATH SAYS WE CAN WIN THE SUPER BOWL. "The players know they can win. Emotionally we're ahead of that Super Bowl season," Joe Willie says inside. That afternoon the Colts win 52-19 to hand New York its sixth loss in an eight-game losing streak. The Jets ended the season at 3-11. Delusion has always been very big at Shea Stadium.
CHAPTER TWO: THE COACH
Five days before the 49ers game, Jets Coach Joe Walton sat in his office and tried to figure out what has happened. "There's a sign with an old Vince Lombardi slogan that I'm hanging up where the players can see it," he says. "It reads 'You've got to pay the price.' " There's already a sign up—THE JET TEAM: SMART, EFFICIENT, DISCIPLINED, ENTHUSIASTIC. The words fly at Walton like arrows. "Look at this," he says, shoving a paper across the desk. It shows that in the first quarters of the Jets' first eight games, they've been outscored 41-14. "When you're playing with enthusiasm, you jump on a team," Walton says. "You beat the hell out of them from the opening whistle. I showed my players these numbers today." He shook his head.
Walton, 47, was an NFL assistant coach for 14 years until he got the top job with the Jets last February. He coached Richard Todd for two years as the Jets' offensive coordinator. This year Walton, characteristically wearing a baseball cap backward on his head, has screamed at Todd as he came off the field, much in the manner of Chuck Noll yelling at the young Terry Bradshaw. Trouble is, Todd's 29 years old and an eight-year veteran.
On Monday, Oct. 17, the day after the Dolphins intercepted Todd five times and beat the Jets 32-14, Walton didn't show his players the films. He told them to relax. They were too tight, he figured. The Jets relaxed and blew a 21-0 lead to Atlanta the next week, losing 27-21.
"I've tried everything," Walton said. "Now I've got to get tougher."
A former NFL coach says of the Jets, "Hiring a head coach who used to be an assistant with the same team creates problems. The head coach has got to be aloof, but here's a guy who was tight with them. Now he replaces a tough guy like Walt Michaels, who kept them scared, and that little edge of fear is gone. They don't play as hard. Fear, you know, is a great motivator." Maybe the Jets felt a little fear when Walton instituted his get-tough policy before the 49ers game. Who knows? Walton also turned his cap around for the game at San Francisco.
CHAPTER THREE: THE FIELD REPORT
In game No. 1 this season the Jets beat the Chargers 41-29. The victory hid an important statistic—San Diego averaged 5.8 yards per rush. "They were hook-able," a scout says. "Kellen Winslow was going in motion and hooking the Jets' outside linebacker. He had an alltime blocking day for a tight end. Then everybody started doing it—run a back inside against them and break him outside." The next week Seattle beat New York on the ground, Curt Warner running for 128 yards. In game No. 3 New England's Tony Collins hit the Jets for 212, and then the Rams' Eric Dickerson racked up 192. The Jets, 2-2 at that point, got their defensive line to square up and play the run. They played more zone defenses and moved their strong safety up closer to shut down the ground game. Those changes worked. The New York defense played pretty well in the next five games, rising to new heights against the 49ers, the NFC's top offensive team. But the offense has been erratic.
The wide receivers have caught one touchdown in the last five games. Wesley Walker, the long-ball threat, has caught only two passes that were longer than 18 yards, one for 24 against Atlanta and one for 27 against the 49ers. The Jets' lack of a possession receiver has become more and more apparent. When they drafted Lam Jones, a world-class sprinter, they figured he and Walker would form a devastating long-ball combo. It hasn't worked that way. Jones has turned into a one-pattern receiver, the down-and-in from the right side. He's caught 14 passes this season, eight on inside patterns from the right.
One reason the long-ball threat is missing is that Todd no longer has full confidence in his protection. Tackles Chris Ward and Marvin Powell are effective drive blockers, but their pass protection has slipped noticeably.
Also, the Jets suffered a huge loss to their offense when All-Pro Halfback Freeman McNeil separated his shoulder in the fourth game.
CHAPTER FOUR: THE QUARTERBACK
At times Todd has been in tune with his receivers—he had a highly competent game against the 49ers (20 of 28 for 201 yards and a 28-yard TD to Jones)—but sometimes he has been out of touch. In the fourth quarter of the Atlanta game, the Jets could have blunted the Falcons' comeback had they mounted any kind of offense. But Todd went 3 for 14 passing, including zero for his last seven. He looked overmatched. Veteran Todd-watchers say his fundamentals are slipping. "He doesn't set up right," one scout says. "He doesn't get a good read downfield. He's moving all over the place, and half the time he's throwing off his back foot."
"Oh, hell," Todd says, "I looked the same way in my good years, too."
CHAPTER FIVE: SHALL WE DANCE?
Defensive End Mark Gastineau and his sack dances amuse some of his teammates, infuriate the rest. Last year a few of them were upset because he wouldn't run the end-tackle stunts that were called; he didn't want to go inside. "He'd say, 'Leave me alone, I'm doing my own thing,' " one Jet defender recalls. "We've worked all that out," Walton affirms. Gastineau still gets his share of sacks (eight in nine games), but his dancing still gets people mad.
CHAPTER SIX: THE ORGANIZATION
Principal Owner Leon Hess is moving the Jets to New Jersey in '84. This has led to some catchy banners in Shea: MR. CLEAN, SELL THE TEAM, a reference to Hess's gripe about the dirty bathrooms.
Since Weeb Ewbank, the longtime coach and general manager, left in 1974, the Jets haven't been blessed with outstanding football savvy at the executive level. Don't forget, this is the club that lost its two most notable stars, Namath and John Riggins, without getting anything in return.
"From the president's office right down to the personnel staff, one word can be used to describe the Jets organization," says one NFL executive. "Arrogant. Extreme arrogance. They never admit to a mistake."
This year might change all that.