Thirty-One Years Ago Today, The Jets Super Dreams Died In The Mud
How could something like this happen? How could the Orange Bowl’s field have not been attended to during a monsoon in the days leading up to the big game? Thirty-one years ago today on January 23, 1983 the AFC Championship between the Jets and Dolphins in the strike shortened season of 1982 pitted the two bitter AFC East rivals. Who clashed under adverse field conditions that eventually did the Jets in.
The Jets exciting yet inconsistent QB Richard Todd rolled into Miami playoff hot, hoping to lead Gang Green back to the Super Bowl where only his predecessor Joe Namath had been (Todd took over late in 1976 but fought hard to win the job for good over Matt Robinson in the late 70’s). The Jets of 1981 under the leadership of Todd (who played with injured ribs throughout much of that season) won the AFC East title at 10-5-1 but lost the Wildcard round at home in devastating fashion 31-27. Todd’s interception in the end zone during the waning moments thwarted a second half rally that had sent the Shea Stadium crowd into a late fourth quarter frenzy after the club trailed 31-13.
On the bright side, the loss was the Jets first playoff appearance since 1969. Therefore 1982 brought with it high hopes. However a strike shortened the season to just nine regular season games. It was determined by commissioner Pete Rozelle that a bizarre sixteen team postseason tournament would follow.
So at 6-3 the sixth seeded Jets had to travel to Cincy to take on a 7-2 Bengals team that was looking to get back to a second straight Super Bowl ( the 49ers beat them 26-21 in SB XVI). Instead the Jets despite a 14-3 1st quarter deficit, went on to shockingly blow out the Bengals 44-17 thanks to Freeman McNeil’s 202 yard day (many were concerned about the state of McNeil’s hamstring injury heading into the game too) and move on to Los Angeles to play the first ranked 8-1 Raiders.
In the LA Coliseum (the Raiders and their unpredictable owner Al Davis moved to LA for a stretch in the eighties thinking that the Silver and Black brand could be more lucrative in Southern Cal) the Walt Michaels Jets did it again, pulling off a second straight road upset. This thanks to the Sack Exchange’s day long heat on Raider QB Jim Plunkett, McNeil’s second straight 100 yard rushing day, and Wesley Walker’s huge game (169 yards 1TD). RB Scott Dierking’s one yard plunge with 3:45 left gave the Jets a 17-14 lead. LB Lance Mehl picked off Plunkett twice late in the fourth to seal it. All that stood in the way of a date with the Joe Theismann and John Riggins led Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVII were the second seeded yet beatable 7-2 Dolphins. Who had a stout defense but lacked long term firepower at QB with their rotating combo of David Woodley and Don Strock.
Then the controversy. The Orange Bowl field was never covered during a 72 hour rainstorm that preceded kickoff. Did Miami’s legendary Head Coach Don Shula and the rest of the Fish brass do it on purpose to slow down McNeil and force the game into the shaky hands of Todd? If so, the dastardly plan was genius. Todd threw five interceptions. Three to LB AJ Duhe who returned one of those for a touchdown in the fourth to seal the win 14-0. McNeil, who couldn’t cut and slash the way he loved to do, ended with a paltry 46 yards on the day.
The stress of the devastating loss may have one of the factors that contributed to Michaels stepping down weeks later in place of the highly coveted offensive guru, Jets OC Joe Walton. 1983 naturally brought Super Bowl contender expectations to the Jets, after two straight years of playoff appearances. Todd was a Sports Illustrated cover boy that Summer and of course the SI jinx kicked for him ( 18 TD 26 int) and the team as the Jets went 7-9. Forcing the club to send Todd to New Orleans in order to the turn the page in 1984. As the early 1980’s Jets door closed.
Backup Pat Ryan then started the 1984 season under center but the rookie who was taken in the QB rich 1983 draft took over for the unimpressive former Tennessee Vol late in the year. No, not Dan Marino. Ken O Brien. The Dolphins had done it to the Jets again! Happy anniversary Coach Shula. I hope you and your car get stuck in the mud today.