The Best Seasons In New York Jets History 1980-2000 Part 1 (1981)

Scott Mason on the success of the New York Jets 1981 season…

Recently, Joe Malfa did a nice job of going through some of the worst seasons in Jets history.  I helped him a little bit with some of the research and since we had so much fun, we thought maybe we would combine our efforts again, but this time for a more positive purpose.  This is part one of a series on the 12 best Jets seasons since 1980.  I will be covering 1980-2000 and Joe will do the second part of the series with everything from 2000-2016.  So for those of you who are down in the dumps about the 2017 season, here is a little sunshine for you:

1981: Saying there was turmoil involving the Jets coming into the 1981 season would be a massive understatement.

For starters, the Jets had not been to the playoffs at this point since their Superbowl winning 1968 season.

Quarterback Richard Todd, who had been drafted in 1976 to replace Joe Namath, had largely been a disappointment, especially in 1980 when he led the NFL in interceptions with 30.  He also had an incredibly contentious relationship with the media and the fanbase, which just served to amplify all of his struggles.

Head Coach Walt Michaels, who had taken over the team in 1977 after Notre Dame Legend Lou Holtz failed miserably in 1976, had brought the team back to respectability with two 8-8 seasons in 1978 and 1979, but a miserable 4-12 season in 1980 had put him on the hot seat.  That seat got even hotter when the Jets started off 1981 0-3, with many observers surprised that Michaels wasn’t replaced right then and there.

But then a funny thing happened.  The Jets began winning and ended up arguably the hottest team in football, losing only twice in their final 13 regular season games.

The biggest reason for this?  A group of four men known as the “New York Sack Exchange,” who absolutely murdered quarterbacks on a weekly basis.

Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam did well, with six and seven sacks respectively, but it was Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau who really did the bulk of the damage.  The two men took turns destroying every offensive lineman and quarterback in their path, combining for an incredible 40.5 sacks between them (20.5 for Klecko and 20 for Gastineau).  It should be noted that Klecko managed to do this while playing hurt almost the entire season and being double teamed on a weekly basis.  The fact that he is not in the Hall of Fame is beyond maddening.

As dominant as the defensive line was, though, another major reason for the Jets turnaround was the improved play of Todd – who threw 25 touchdown to just 13 interceptions – including an unbelievable performance during a week 12 matchup at home against the hated Miami Dolphins with the division lead at stake.

Todd came into that game with broken ribs and was hurt so badly  that he couldn’t practice that week because even calling out plays meant excruciating pain for him.  Then, on top of that, during the game, an offensive lineman stepped on Todd’s foot and broke it.  The veteran signal caller somehow found a way to soldier on, though, and after the defense held Miami to a field goal with 3:10 left to play – putting the Jets’ at a 15-9 deficit – the brutally injured Todd went to work.

Despite the fact that he could not turn to his left because of his broken ribs and was hobbling on one leg due to his broken foot, Todd marched the Jets down the field, getting them all the way down to the 12 yard line with 21 seconds left as the crowd at Shea Stadium grew louder and louder with each tick of the clock.  It was on the following play that Todd somehow found the strength to turn left for just a brief second, before turning back and firing a bullet in between two defenders to Jerome Barkum for the game winning score.

The fans at Shea Stadium came absolutely unglued as the Jets celebrated, including Mark Gastineau, who ran all over the field leading the fans in celebration for what seemed like at least ten minutes.

At one point during the final drive, legendary announcer Dick Enberg – who was calling the game for NBC – remarked, “Win or lose, that man, Richard Todd, has won a lot of fans in New York today.”

He wasn’t kidding.

This was one of the gutsiest performances I’ve ever seen from a quarterback at any level, and I’ve told people many times that THIS was the game where Richard Todd went from being just some guy quarterbacking the Jets to THE GUY at quarterback for the Jets.  This was the moment when Gang Green nation finally accepted him, and in the aftermath, Todd got so emotional listening to the fans chant his name and serenade him with cheers that he broke down and cried in the tunnel on his way to the locker room.

The Jets finished the season with a 10-5-1 record and a wild card berth, looking like a team that could legitimately beat anybody on any given day.

Their wild card matchup wound up being against the Buffalo Bills, who had split with the Jets during the regular season and were looking to notch their first playoff win in franchise history, a goal that seemed attainable after they took a commanding 24-0 lead in the second quarter.  However, the Jets refused to give up, battling back and scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns to close to within 31-27 before getting the ball back and driving down the field all the way to the 11 yard line with 10 seconds left.

But the man who had been such a hero in the comeback against Miami just couldn’t pull off the same magic this time, as Todd threw his fourth interception of the day and Buffalo held on to win 31-27.

A disappointing ending to what was an otherwise terrific season, one that looked like it could lead to even bigger and better things in 1982.

So how would 1982 turn out?  Find out in the next installment of this series.

Also, if you liked this article, please be sure to check out my weekly podcast here at TOJ, “Play Like A Jet,” detailing the biggest moments, seasons, and careers in New York Jets history.  So far we have taken a look at 1992 with former Jets wide receiver Rob Carpenter, 2011 with “Collision Low Crossers” author Nicholas Dawidoff, 1997 with former Jets running back Adrian Murrell, 2008 with former Jets safety Kerry Rhodes, and a three week series on former bubble players trying to survive past training camps featuring former Hofstra All American safety Doug Shanahan and former Monmouth offensive lineman Tom Ottaiano.  New episodes drop every Friday at itunes, turnonthejets.com, and most other places you can download podcasts, so please subscribe and leave reviews.  An announcement is coming over the next few days on what to expect for this Friday’s show, so stay tuned and make sure to follow the show on Twitter for updates @playlikeajet1.