Play Like A Jet: A Look Back At 1999

Scott Mason with a history lesson on the New York Jets 1999 season…

On June 2, on Turn On The Jets Digital, we will be debuting a brand new podcast called “Play Like A Jet,” which will take an in-depth look at some of the most memorable moments in Jets history, both good and bad.

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Each week we will cover a game, a season, a player’s tenure with the Jets, or a special Jets-related event from head to toe. Over the next few weeks, we will be unveiling more about the podcast and I hope to have some special surprises lined up, but in advance of the June 2 debut, I wanted to give you a taste of what you can expect each week.

Today, I’m going to take you back in time to 1999 and tell the story of one of the Jets’ most interesting seasons, one which started off with great hopes, crashed and burned, and then ended on a high note thanks to an unlikely hero.

Please follow @playlikeajet1 on Twitter for any and all updates about the show. I also welcome your feedback including topic suggestions, any helpful information, and of course all questions.  I want this to be YOUR show, so any and all contributions would be much appreciated.

1999 – Leading up to the 1999 season, the Jets’ fanbase was unquestionably the most optimistic I had seen it in my lifetime. The previous year, under the direction of legendary coach Bill Parcells, the team had come within one half of defeating the Denver Broncos and going to the Superbowl for the first time since 1969.

Former Heisman trophy winner and #1 overall pick in the 1987 NFL draft, Vinny Testaverde, had been mostly disappointing during the 11 years he split with Tampa and Cleveland/Baltimore, but he caught fire in 1998 after taking over the starting job from Glenn Foley in week 3. The former University of Miami star, who grew up in Long Island, NY, had arguably the best season of any Jets QB in franchise history up to that point, throwing for 29 TDs and just 7 INTs, while compiling a 101.6 QB rating, and a stellar 7.7 yards per attempt.

Testaverde’s primary passing weapons – wide receivers Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet – had both gained over 1,000 yards, and running back Curtis Martin – who had amassed over 1,600 all-purpose yards in his first season with the team after defecting from New England – was already widely recognized as one of the best offensive players in the league.

The defense – led by pro bowlers Aaron Glenn and Mo Lewis – was coming off a season where it ranked second in the NFL in points allowed and seemed poised to continue its strong play heading into 1999.

And the cherry on top? On May 3, 1999, Broncos QB John Elway ended weeks of speculation and announced his retirement from the NFL.   This left second-year man Brian Griese – an untested third round pick out of the University of Michigan – as Denver’s starting QB, resulting in the Jets becoming the odds on favorite to win the AFC and play in the Superbowl at the end of the 1999 season.

Needless to say, the future looked incredibly bright.

For many Jets fans, this was the year they had all been waiting for. The Jets would finally end their three decade championship drought and add another Lombardi trophy next to the one from Superbowl III that Joe Namath had helped procure.  This was the Jets’ year and nothing could stop them.

Well, nothing, except, as it turned out, the shattering of an Achilles heel.

On September 12, 1999, the Jets opened the season at home against former coach Pete Carroll and the New England Patriots. I was furious, because I was in upstate NY beginning my freshman year of college at the time and I could not see the game since the Buffalo Bills were on and they were the regional team.  Unfortunately for me, this was before a plethora of bars carried every NFL game and finding an internet stream to watch was terribly difficult back then.  All I could do was check the ticker at the bottom of the screen during the Bills’ game and wait for halftime to watch highlights.

I was eager to see what was going on at the Meadowlands and when halftime of the Bills’ game came, I excitedly sat by waiting to watch highlights of what the Jets had done in the first half. When the CBS halftime crew eventually got around to the Jets-Patriots game, they went through the action and then made the announcement that destroyed every ounce of optimism Jets fans had built up over the past year.

“The Jets lead it 16-10 at the half as Tom Tupa takes over for Vinny Testaverde who ruptured his Achilles tendon and will miss the rest of the season.”

My heart sank and I legitimately felt like I was going to cry (I didn’t cry, I just felt like I was going to…..so save your ridicule!). The one guy the Jets absolutely, positively could not lose was gone, and with him went any realistic hope for a Superbowl season.

I frantically ran to my phone and called my parents’ house, knowing that my father was at the game with my brother and wouldn’t be able to call me back until he got home hours later (this was before everybody on earth had cellphones, kids……primitive times, indeed!).

“I…..I…….Um….Uh……What the hell is going on? They are saying on TV Vinny is out for the year.  Somebody please call me back and tell me what the hell is going on!”

I was unbelievably flustered leaving that message and probably sounded like a mugging victim during the call, which is to say I was not taking the news of Testaverde’s injury well.

Tom Tupa – a former QB turned punter who was listed as the backup QB to save a roster spot – had entered the game in Testaverde’s absence and actually played respectably, leaving the game with the Jets down 27-22 heading into the 4th quarter.  This was when the “emergency QB,” Rick Mirer – who was the real backup but could not play until the 4th quarter due to rules governing those listed as emergency QBs – came in and promptly gave the game away with a late fourth quarter interception that led to a game winning field goal by New England’s Adam Vinatieri in the closing seconds.

The aftermath of the game and – more importantly – the Testaverde injury, led to the team trying to put on a brave face, with the exception of Keyshawn Johnson, who basically spoke for all Jets fans by pounding his fist on the podium and exuding extreme exasperation at the fact that the season was in all likelihood lost without Testaverde.

Later that night my father called me back and we tried to calm each other down, but that turned out to be an exercise in futility. We joked that maybe Rick Mirer would finally live up to the expectations the league had for him coming out of college in 1993, but we both knew 1999 had essentially gone from the “year of the Jets” to “better luck next year.”

The team would now be turned over to Mirer, who had been picked up in a trade by Parcells after he dealt previous backup, and former starter, Glenn Foley, to Seattle. There was a tinge of irony to the fact that Foley had been sent to Seattle, since that is where Mirer started his career after being picked #2 overall in the 1993 draft out of Notre Dame.

Despite showing some promise in his rookie year, Mirer bombed in Seattle before Dave Wannstedt – the head coach of the Chicago Bears who was desperate for a QB – dealt a first round pick for Mirer and a fourth round pick in 1997.  Things quickly went south, however, as Mirer was so bad in Chicago that he lost the starting job in training camp to Erik Kramer.  When he finally got his opportunity due to Kramer’s poor play, Mirer played even worse, forcing Wannstedt to go back to Kramer after only a handful of games.

He got another chance in the last three games of the season after the Bears were 2-11, and although the team won two of those games, the former #2 overall pick was terrible. Overall, in seven games during the 1997 season, Mirer compiled an unbearably bad QB rating of 37.7 with 0 TDs, 6 INTs, and a completion percentage barely north of 50%.

After he requested to be released, the Bears mercifully waived the ex-Notre Dame star, and he was picked up by the Green Bay Packers. Mirer lost out on the backup job to Green Bay’s sixth round pick from the previous year – Boston College’s Matt Hasselbeck – and at that point, for some reason, Parcells decided he was the best available option to back up Vinny Testaverde.

That was fine as long as Mirer never had to play, but after Testaverde’s injury, Mirer took the reins. It went about as well as you would expect, with the only bright spot being a victory on the road against the defending champion Broncos.  Ironically, ABC had fought to get that game on Monday night in primetime, but CBS resisted and kept the game for themselves.

Sadly, what was supposed to be a highly anticipated rematch between the two top teams in the AFC from the year before, with Testaverde and Elway at the helm, instead turned into a battle of two 0-3 teams with Brian Griese facing off against Rick Mirer.  This game was as bad as you would think, and is notable only for the fact that Terrell Davis suffered an injury that effectively finished him as a dominant running back.

Mirer was so embarrassing the next week against Jacksonville – 19-38 with 2 INTs and 0 TDs in a 16-6 loss – that Parcells decided he couldn’t take it anymore and turned to the only quarterback he had left on the roster.

Ray Lucas had been a star QB at Rutgers, but was not selected in the 1996 NFL draft. His college coach recommended him to Parcells, the head coach of New England at the time, who told Lucas that he would give him a shot to earn a roster spot, but only if he was willing to learn special teams.

After the Patriots cut Lucas in 1997, Parcells – who was now with the Jets – brought him on to play special teams and eventually even let him get involved in some gimmick plays. In the 1997 season finale, with a potential playoff spot on the line against the Detroit Lions, Lucas got into the game as a runner and a passer, completing three passes in a row before throwing a costly interception.

Lucas played special teams and came in for some gadget plays again in 1998, but all the while he had not abandoned his dream of playing QB in the NFL. He worked hard with QB coach Dan Henning in the offseason to improve his accuracy and made enough progress to eventually become the backup to Mirer.

Parcells realized Lucas was somewhat of a shot in the dark, but at 1-4 and the season all but slipping away, letting him play was the only option he had left.

I was scheduled to be back on Long Island for Lucas’s first start on October 17 against the Indianapolis Colts, and planned to go the game, which I may not have done if Lucas hadn’t been in the lineup. Not that I thought he was going to be the second coming of Joe Montana, but at least he was an unknown, which was far more interesting than going to see Mirer, who was a proven failure.

Surprisingly, the Jets were able to go toe to toe with the Colts and even led most of the way. Lucas showed some flashes, but a late interception sealed his fate and led to a young Peyton Manning engineering the game winning drive for Indianapolis.

It was a frustrating end to an otherwise fun afternoon, though it was a mere footnote in NY sports that day.  I spent my entire car ride back upstate that night listening to the Mets and Braves in game 5 of the NLCS, reaching my room just in time to see Robin Ventura’s walk-off in the 15th inning after nearly six hours of baseball had been played at Shea Stadium.

The Jets were now 1-5 and the playoffs seemed all but impossible, though the idea of seeing Lucas play a little more was intriguing. Unfortunately, it would have to wait, because the former Rutgers standout had hurt his ankle, forcing Mirer back into the starting lineup.

He played poorly on the road against the Raiders in a game where the team blew a ten point lead in the fourth quarter and was better the following game in a win against a terrible Arizona team. But that wasn’t enough to keep Mirer in the lineup, as Lucas was ready to go in mid-November against New England, and so the job was his again.

This was the point where the Jets’ season began to take a turn for the better. The team went into New England and won, following that up with a big home victory the next week against Buffalo.  Lucas was starting to find his groove, too, completing 80% of his passes and rushing for a TD against Buffalo.

He played poorly in his second loss to the Colts, but interestingly, the turning point for Lucas may have come in the next game, a week 13 loss to the Giants. The Jets got blown out, but Lucas played very well, passing for 284 yards and a career high four TDs.  He then led the Jets to two fourth quarter comeback victories against Miami and Dallas before what many consider the team’s finest performance of the season, a 38-31 win in the rematch against Miami on Monday Night Football that included touchdown passes to three different wide receivers (Keyshawn Johnson, Wayne Chrebet, and Dedric Ward).

The Jets wrapped up the season with a victory at home against Seattle, finishing at 8-8 overall. That wasn’t good enough to earn a playoff berth, but with four straight wins and as arguably the league’s hottest team at the time, it is fair to speculate as to whether the Jets could have done some real damage if they had made it to the post season that year.

Parcells did a great job turning around a lost season, although obviously one wonders what could have been if only he had turned to Lucas earlier.

When the dust settled, the Jets appeared to be in good hands. Parcells was on board to continue providing the best coaching the Jets ever had, Lucas looked poised to back up Vinny Testaverde in 2000 and maybe even be his heir apparent, and Johnson, Chrebet, and Ward seemed to have turned into one of the league’s best groups of receivers.

But this is the Jets we are talking about, and with them, nothing ever goes the way we think it will.

Soon after the season, Parcells stunningly announced he would be stepping away as head coach to go into a role behind the scenes in the front office. Bill Belichick was supposed to take over, but instead pulled an even bigger stunner than Parcells and resigned at his introductory press conference, hitting the road for rival New England and leaving the team in the hands of linebackers coach Al Groh.

The Jets’ great receiving corps went by the wayside as well, with contract issues leading Parcells to deal Johnson to Tampa Bay for two first round picks. After extracting a first rounder from New England, the Jets ended up with four first round picks in the 2000 draft, one of which was used to select Marshall QB Chad Pennington as the QB of the future, seemingly putting an end to any thought of Lucas being Testaverde’s successor.

Lucas left the Jets for the Dolphins in 2001, serving as the backup that year and playing in a handful of games in 2002 before injuries forced him to retire. As for Mirer, the Jets cut him loose following the 1999 season.  After that, he bounced around the league with three different teams before calling it quits at the end of 2004.

I hope you enjoyed this look back in Jets history to the year 1999 and I look forward to doing this in podcast form – with a healthy dose of humor and fun surprises sprinkled in! – beginning June 2 when we launch “Play Like A Jet” here at turnonthejets.com. I eagerly await your feedback about 1999 and your questions, comments, and show ideas for the new “Play Like A Jet” podcast on Twitter @playlikeajet1.

Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com