Their game plan was written in the docket of Manhattan Criminal Court. Their practice field was a patch of grass in Central Park. While their New York Jet teammates prepared to close out the exhibition season against the Los Angeles Raiders on the West Coast last Friday night, Ken O'Brien, the starting quarterback, and Mark Gastineau, the sack-happy defensive end, sat in a court-room while their lawyer tried to convince a jury that they hadn't really beat anybody up in a midtown disco on the night of Sept. 30, 1983. That was their practice for the Raiders—four days in court, with more of the same scheduled for this week, the first of the regular season.
It could be the Jets have discovered something that has eluded the Redskins, the Cowboys and all the other superpowers who've fallen to the mighty Raiders—that the way to prepare for Al Davis's boys isn't through endless repetition on the practice field or in the film room, but in a criminal court, where "alleged assailants" and "arresting officers" and "purported victims" will get you in the right frame of mind. Anyway, it worked for O'Brien and Gastineau in the L.A. Coliseum.
The Jets beat the Raiders 20-14. O'Brien, the second-year No. 1 draft pick from Cal-Davis who was designated the Jets' starter this summer even though he hadn't played a single down as a rookie, came in with three minutes to go in the third quarter and the Jets down 14-10. He had only a nodding acquaintance with the game plan (he'd read it over in a New York apartment and had had a meeting with coach Joe Walton the morning of the game), but after a little sputtering, he led the Jets on their winning TD drive. Gastineau started and played three quarters. He had two sacks (no dances, no fists in air) and five unassisted tackles. After the game he said, "My legs felt fine but I had trouble with my cardiovascular," which in real language means he was sucking wind.
O'Brien's evening was a little more complicated. "I think of the mistakes I made," he said, "and I know I just have to get more practice time in. On the interception I threw [which ended his first series], the ball just slipped out of my hand. That never happened before. I had to laugh. Some of the offense was new to me. I made mistakes with plays and formations, and I had to throw the ball away. I made mistakes on the side the play was supposed to go to. Instead of going right, I'm going left. I went back to a couple of real old patterns we've had since Day 1."
September 2, 1984
So what was it like in the huddle? Did he tell the troops, "Look, we might not know what we're doing, but we're gonna beat the hell out of 'em"? Was it grim, dedicated, purposeful?
"Basically it was mass confusion," O'Brien said. "They'd all sort of look at me quizzically. I mean, I'm supposed to be the leader. Maybe you've got to realize that sometimes you have to have a little fun out there."
O.K., but before we carry this too far, remember this was just an exhibition, and O'Brien was operating against the Raider seconds, who looked, at times, almost as confused as O'Brien felt. And if O'Brien's and Gastineau's assault trial drags far into this week, Walton will have serious doubts about who to start at quarterback against the Colts Sunday.
But still, there's something a little heartwarming about a guy who comes into a ball" game minus all the cerebral preparation of an average NFL workweek and pulls it out. Or as one Jet veteran said, "Kenny set the idea of practice back 10 years. Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea, his missing a few days. They'd been pushing him so fast, cramming so much into his head; maybe it was good he had a little breathing room."
O'Brien's performance brought to mind a game 10 years ago in which Clint Longley, then an unknown Dallas rookie, came off the bench and threw a long touchdown pass to beat the Redskins in the final moments, prompting Cowboy right guard Blaine Nye's immortal line: "The triumph of the uncluttered mind."
O'Brien and Gastineau got into trouble at Studio 54, which used to be the In place in New York. There was a fight, and three young New Yorkers filed assault charges against the two Jets. ("What I want to know," said Raider defensive end Howie Long, "is what's a rookie quarterback doing going to Studio 54 with Gastineau?") Third-degree assault carries a maximum sentence of a year.
When the trial began on Aug. 20, O'Brien and Gastineau moved from Long Island to midtown Manhattan. O'Brien stayed in an apartment, Gastineau in a hotel next to Central Park. They didn't go to the Jets training camp all week, working out on their own after court. O'Brien threw passes to a college friend. "I threw them anyplace I could," he said. "I even threw them in the hallway of a hotel once."
Gastineau put on cleats and shorts and practiced "blasts," short sprints, at night in the park. "If anyone tries to mug me," he said, "I'll sack him.... I told Ken I'd run patterns for him if he wanted me to. As long as he could hit me—it doesn't necessarily mean I've got to catch the ball. I told a couple of the doormen at the hotel that next week I'm bringing my pads in and I'll practice some rushes against them. They looked kind of nervous."
Late Thursday night, Gastineau and O'Brien arrived in L.A. Walton wasn't worried about Gastineau, a six-year veteran. O'Brien was a problem. He'd started the Jets' three preseason games—all losses—but his stats were considerably worse than those of backup Pat Ryan, who'd played in two fourth quarters and part of a third quarter. The scariest thing was that O'Brien had been sacked 18 times, Ryan three. What the stats didn't show, though, was that O'Brien had played for the most part against first stringers, Ryan against seconds and thirds.
In the Raiders game their roles were reversed. Playing against the firsts, Ryan did zip. At the half, the Jets had zero points and 59 yards of total offense, and Ryan had been sacked four times. L.A. lifted its regulars for the second half, and Ryan and the Jet first stringers put 10 points on the board. Then it was time for O'Brien.
His first series ended with the interception. Second series—three downs and punt. Third series, set up by a fumble—a field goal. With 6:46 to go and the Jets down 14-13, O'Brien had completed only two of eight passes. The Raiders had been shaking him up with safety blitzes. On the final Jet drive, 62 yards in 11 plays, O'Brien was 4 for 4. All his completions were short or medium range—eight yards to ex-Eagle Harold Carmichael, 15 and 13 yards to rookie tight end Glenn Dennison and seven yards to the second tight end, Rocky Klever. The winning TD came on a one-yard plunge by Johnny Hector with 1:47 left. Now if O'Brien and Gastineau can just get a win in court....