It had been building in New York, growing, a slumbering monster that frightened you with its personnel but stumbled over its own feet when things got serious. For years the fans have watched the Jets' dazzling cast of characters and asked: When? When will they get it together and stop messing up? When will the underachieves finally achieve something?
After Sunday's games they were the best team in the AFC at 9-3, thanks to a brutal 16-13 overtime victory over the New England Patriots at the Meadowlands. New England dropped to 8-4, part of an AFC gang of four with the same record. For a brief period, New York hearts were bursting with pride over the way the Jets got themselves together in the overtime, squashed the Patriots' offense and then sprung their little free agent from Fordham, Kurt Sohn, for the 46-yard punt return that set up Pat Leahy's winning 32-yard field goal one play later.
But the fans are watching through a crack in the closet door; they have one hand over their eyes. They've been through it all before, you see. They're gun-shy. They're expecting the worst because they remember. Remember 1981? The birth of the Sack Exchange. Posing for photos on Wall Street. The great roaring defense that ultimately was buried under a wave of Jet offensive turnovers (five) in the opening round of the playoffs. How about 1982, the strike year? It ended in a quagmire in Miami, one game away from the Super Bowl—five interceptions and 139 total yards and zip on the scoreboard. Then came the dark years, a pair of 7-9s, when the coach became disenchanted with his quarterback and the fans with the coach, Joe Walton, who canned Richard Todd after the '83 season and then watched his team lose seven out of its last eight games in '84.
It's different now. The first thing Walton did to turn things around was hire Bud Carson to coach his defense. Carson is one of those strange figures who wander through the NFL, leaving controversy in their wakes. He's the Johnny Sain of football. Sain's pitchers loved him, the fans loved him, the manager would give him the long stare. "Uh, John, you've just got to do things my way. You won't? Well, goodby and good luck."
December 2, 1985
Carson's résumé reads: defensive coach of the Super Bowl champion Steelers ("A genius...10 years ahead of his time," Andy Russell, the old Pittsburgh linebacker, once said of him); defensive coach of the Super Bowl Rams; then two see-you-laters in Baltimore and Kansas City. When Walton hired him, Carson was coming off a season as an unpaid consultant at Kansas University.
"I spent a lot of time raking leaves and taping every game that came on television," he says.
Any discussion of the 1985 Jets must begin with Carson's defense: complex, ever changing, cerebral principles translated into the quick strike and relentless pressure. On Sunday that defense finally caught up with the Patriots in overtime. Quarterback Steve Grogan was out of the game (defensive end Ben Rudolph fell on his left knee in the first quarter; Grogan will be on the shelf about four weeks), and young Tony Eason had done a heroic job in relief, bringing New England back with 10 points in the fourth quarter. But in two possessions in the extra period, the Patriots couldn't get out of the shadow of their own goalpost.
Their first series ended when cornerback Johnny Lynn made a picture play, crashing split end Cedric Jones as the ball got there. Lynn, who had made another perfect read and forced a fumble on an Irving Fryar reverse near the Jets' goal line in the third quarter, said it was simply a matter of doing what he had been taught.
"We hadn't blitzed much earlier in the game," he said, "but then we started sending in our nickelback, Lester Lyles [one sack], and it gave them trouble. We blitzed on that last play. I knew they were going to their hot man, Jones on the quick post, so it was just a matter of getting there."
The second and last New England series ended with a Joe Klecko sack of Eason that forced the Patriots into their final, fateful punt. When Carson switched the Jets from a 4-3 to 3-4 defense this year, he made Klecko his noseman, cocking him on an angle toward the center, as Pittsburgh had done with Joe Greene back in the old Steel Curtain days. "Klecko's been tearing up the league," said the Patriots' 13-year-veteran center, Guy Morriss, who faced Greene in his heyday. "Greene did it with quickness. Klecko combines quickness with great strength and leverage. He's found a home there."
Part of Carson's philosophy is constant change. At times this season he has used six linebackers. He has come in with six defensive linemen, stationing Mark Gastineau as a blitzing middle linebacker. And when the Jets go to a four-man pass rush, Klecko lines up at any of the four positions, seldom repeating one alignment. Klecko got that final sack on Sunday when he stunted inside from the defensive right end spot, and he came in clean.
The Jet defense is a testimony to Carson's ingenuity. An injury-ridden secondary has performed at a consistently high level, with a lineup that's ever changing. Lynn, for instance, has bounced around every defensive backfield position. Carson got together with his linebacker coach, Dan Radakovich, who was with him in Pittsburgh and L.A., and decided to switch Lance Mehl, one of the game's finest outside backers, to the inside, where he's having an All-Pro year.
"When I first saw him I thought he was going to be an average player," Carson says of Mehl, "but he turned out to be a jewel. On every good team I've ever been with there's been one guy who's naturally on the same page with you—all the time. You don't have to sit down and explain things a million times. He can anticipate what you're talking about. He knows. That's Mehl."
The difference between the Jets who were 6-6 after 12 games last year and the current 9-3 team is 831 fewer yards given up. New York came into the Patriots game ranked second in defense in the AFC. But there's the quarterback, too.
Ken O'Brien, the fifth QB drafted in the great Class of '83, was a non-playing rookie. The sixth and last was Dan Marino, who went to the Dolphins three picks later. For two seasons the fans didn't let the Jets forget it. Until now. Nobody's knocking Marino, who has spectacular talent. Maybe the NFL's quarterback rating system isn't all that accurate, but going into last Sunday's contest O'Brien had the top mark in the league—a grade of 97.3, 17.8 points better than Marino this season.
In the off-season O'Brien lost 12 pounds, went on a weightlifting program and spent long hours with Zeke Bratkowski, the old Lombardi Packer who was hired in January. What has emerged is a very competent quarterback to lead the Jets' offense. In the words of New England defensive coordinator Rod Rust, "The thing that impresses you most about O'Brien is his judgment. He knows what he's doing. He doesn't make bad decisions."
Sunday's game didn't hurt O'Brien's ranking—20 of 33 for 311 yards, one TD and no interceptions. The third-period TD was spectacular—88 yards to Wesley Walker, O'Brien reading blitz and getting the ball off in a hurry to Walker on a quick post from the right side. The Patriots fouled up their coverage—"I didn't hear the blitz call. I was playing zone," cornerback Raymond Clayborn said—and Walker was through them and gone before they could figure out what had happened.
The ingredients are all there for the Jets. Freeman McNeil, one of the game's classiest runners, saw limited duty on Sunday because of a sprained ankle, but Johnny Hector stepped in to rush for 97 yards. Rookie wideout Al Toon (six catches, 78 yards) is a budding superstar. Walker can still burn you deep. The defense is inspired. Maybe, just maybe, this is the year.