Today, in the third installment of a six-part series looking back on the Walt Michaels era, we’ll explore the Jets’ 1979 season.
After three consecutive 3-11 seasons, the Jets were one of the surprise teams of the NFL in 1978. In the league’s first 16-game campaign, New York rode explosive offensive plays to a respectable 8-8 record.
Still, while the offense was solid, there was a major problem with the unit. QB Matt Robinson’s strong performance while filling-in for injured QB Richard Todd had resulted in a quarterback controversy.
1979 NFL Draft
The Jets bolstered their defensive line in the 1979 draft by selecting two future members of the famed “New York Sack Exchange.” DE Marty Lyons was taken in the first round (14th overall), and DE Mark Gastineau went in the second round (41st overall).
Lyons, who currently serves as the Jets’ radio analyst alongside play-by-play man Bob Wischusen, enjoyed 11 campaigns with Gang Green. As for Gastineau, his off-putting personality and antics aside, he was arguably the most dominant defensive player in franchise history. Gastineau was a five-time Pro Bowler, and his 22 sacks in 1984 are the second most for any player in a single season in league history; New York Giants’ DE Michael Strahan recorded 22.5 sacks in 2001.
The remainder of the draft wasn’t very fruitful for Gang Green, but the team gained a couple more serviceable players. Third rounder (68th overall) DB Donald Dykes made some big plays on defense and special teams over three seasons with New York, and DB Johnny Lynn, a fourth-round selection (98th overall), amassed 17 interceptions in seven seasons.
During preseason play, Todd and Robinson engaged in a battle to win the Jets’ starting quarterback job.
After the team’s third exhibition contest, a 27-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Aug. 17, 1979, Head Coach Walt Michaels gave the nod to Robinson. The third-year signal caller had produced more scoring drives than Todd in New York’s first two preseason games, and he did so again versus Pittsburgh, though his overall numbers (7-15; 140 yards; TD) against the Steelers weren’t overly stellar. Essentially, Todd (6-15; 64 yards; Int) lost the job more than Robinson won it.
Week One: Cleveland Browns
The visiting Browns, who had eliminated New York from playoff contention with an overtime win in week 15 of the 1978 season, defeated the Jets again in extra time, 25-22.
Gang Green led, 22-19, in the final minute of regulation, but a roughing-the-passer penalty by Gastineau moved the ball to the Jets’ 18-yard line, and Browns’ K Don Cockroft drilled a 35-yard field goal to force overtime. Cockroft then won the game with another field goal, a 27 yarder, with 15 seconds left in the extra period after Robinson (17-31; 191 yards; 2 INTs) was picked off (Gerald Eskenazi; The New York Times; Sept.3, 1979; p. C1).
Seven years later, in the 1986 AFC Divisional Playoffs, Gastineau infamously committed another roughing-the-passer penalty against the Browns. The latter incident commenced a meltdown in one of Gang Green’s most painful setbacks.
New York’s kicking game was a major culprit in the loss. In addition to missing a pair of field goals, including a 43-yard try in overtime, K Pat Leahy blew the extra point attempt following RB Kevin Long’s fourth quarter score. Unfortunately for Gang Green, the problem would persist—the Jets’ 83.3% conversion rate on extra points (35-42) in 1979 was the third-worst percentage in the league.
Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Robinson’s overtime interception against the Browns would be his last pass attempt as a Jet.
According to a report by New York Times beat writer Gerald Eskenazi, Todd assumed starting quarterback duties on Sept. 6, 1979 after Team Orthopedist Dr. James A. Nicholas diagnosed Robinson with a sprained right thumb (Eskenazi; Sept.7, 1979; p. A19). The injury, which Robinson claimed to have suffered in a freak accident involving his motel room door on the Thursday prior to the Cleveland game, would take 10 to 17 days to heal.
Though his thumb would indeed heal, Robinson’s playing time for the remainder of the season would be limited to kick-holding duties. News would soon surface that the signal caller’s ailment had actually occurred while wrestling with WR Bobby Jones, not by being caught in a door as Robinson had asserted. Michaels was furious with the quarterback, and he refused to give him his job back.
Robinson was traded to the Denver Broncos for both a first-round pick and a second-round pick in the 1980 NFL Draft on Feb. 1 , 1980.
Week Two: At New England Patriots
The Jets’ record fell to 0-2 after a 56-3 loss to the Patriots, which remains the most lopsided setback in franchise history.
Todd (10-20; 118 yards; 2 INTs) struggled in his first start of the year; his counterpart on the Patriots, Steve Grogan (13-18; 315 yards; 5 TDs), fared better.
Grogan’s performance wasn’t an anomaly against the Jets’ defense in 1979. New York surrendered the most passing yards (4,115) as well as the most passing touchdowns (31) in the league.
Week Three: Detroit Lions
New York earned its first triumph of the year, 31-10, in this inter-conference battle against the Lions.
A balanced offense led the Jets to victory. Todd (9-13; 208 yards) was efficient through the air, and he connected with WR Wesley Walker (177 yards on six receptions) for some big plays.
Furthermore, as would be the case for the remainder of the season, multiple running backs enjoyed solid performances for the Jets. Four Jets’ running backs—Kevin Long (76 yards), Scott Dierking (57 yards), Bruce Harper (33 yards), and Clark Gaines (41 yards) — combined to gallop for 207 yards on 47 carries.
The Jets led the league in rushing with 2,646 yards in 1979 despite not having a single running back finish in the top 10 in rushing yards; Gaines, who ended the season with 905 yards, the 13th-best total in the NFL, was the team’s leading rusher.
Week Four: At Buffalo Bills
Bills’ QB Joe Ferguson torched the Jets’ defense, throwing five touchdown passes in a 46-31 Buffalo win.
Ferguson’s great day marked the second time in three weeks that an opposing quarterback had thrown for five scores against the Jets. To put this situation in perspective, after Dolphins’ QB Dan Marino threw five touchdown passes against the Jets on Nov. 27, 1988, Gang Green wouldn’t allow the feat to be repeated for almost 25 years; Bengals’ QB Andy Dalton broke the string in a 49-9 Cincinnati victory over New York on Oct. 27, 2013.
Week Five: Miami Dolphins
Behind explosive performances from both their offense and their defense, the Jets beat the Dolphins, 33-27.
On offense, four Jets’ running backs— Tom Newton (38 yards; 2 TDs), Gaines (92 yards), Harper (16 yards), and Dierking (22 yards)—accumulated 168 yards on 47 carries. Todd (6-10; 186 yards; TD; INT) basically managed the game, but he threw a 71-yard touchdown pass to Walker in the fourth quarter.
New York’s defense contributed two touchdowns. Lynn returned a fumble to pay dirt in the first quarter, and DB Bobby Jackson scored on a fifty eight-yard interception return in the third.
Week Six: At Baltimore Colts
The Colts jumped out to an early 10-0 lead and withstood a late Jets’ rally for a 10-8 win.
Though Todd (12-29; 189 yards; 3 Int) endured a dreadful afternoon, New York had multiple chances to prevail late in the final quarter. Gang Green turned the ball over on downs inside the Red Zone, but the defense forced a three-and-out and a Colts’ punt, which should’ve resulted in a final opportunity for the Jets. However, Dykes was called for a roughing-the-kicker penalty, and the Colts ran out the clock (Eskenazi; Oct. 8, 1979; p. C1).
Week Seven: Minnesota Vikings
Gang Green beat the Vikings, 14-7, in the inaugural Monday Night Football game at Shea Stadium. The triumph was New York’s first win on the prime time program—the Jets had lost all seven of their previous Monday Night Football contests, which were played on the road between 1970 and 1976.
The Jets signed K Rich Szaro for this game after Leahy sprained his knee in practice; Leahy was done for the season. Szaro, who had kicked for the New Orleans Saints for the previous four seasons, missed both of his field goal attempts, and he was subsequently released.
Gang Green’s fans didn’t come across well after the game. Late in the fourth quarter, spectators began to throw bottles. Regarding the situation, a security guard said, “This is the worst I’ve ever seen. I’ve been here for 10 years — even for the [New York Mets] World Series victory (Eskenazi; Oct. 16, 1979; p. S15).”
Week Eight: Oakland Raiders
Off a short week, New York reached .500 for the first time in 1979, with a 28-19 win over the Raiders.
Todd threw three touchdown passes in the triumph, and Dierking (85 yards; TD) and Long (58 yards) were effective on the ground.
The Jets signed K Toni Linhart for this game. Linhart, the Colts’ kicker since 1974, missed his only field goal try against the Raiders.
Week Nine: At Houston Oilers
Gang Green rallied from a 24-10 fourth quarter deficit to tie the game, but the visitors fell in overtime, 27-24.
The loss wasn’t the worst thing that happened to the Jets on the day, though. After catching four passes for 111 yards and a touchdown, Walker, the Jets’ biggest offensive weapon, suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Having also lost in overtime against Cleveland in the opener, 1979 is one of only two seasons in Jets’ history where the team dropped multiple overtime games. The 2004 squad also lost two games in the extra quarter; three if one counts that team’s loss in the AFC Divisional Playoffs at Pittsburgh.
Week 10: At Green Bay Packers
At Lambeau Field, the Jets earned their first road victory of the year by 27-22.
Todd fired a pair of scores, one each to TE Jerome Barkum and Harper, and Gaines (125 yards on 16 carries) ran wild.
Week 11: Buffalo Bills
Each team scored a pair of touchdowns in this contest. However, the Bills actually converted their extra point attempts, and they won the game, 14-12. Linhart missed both of his extra point tries for the Jets.
Jones, the wide receiver who infamously wrestled with Robinson, caught his only touchdown pass of the season from Todd (16-25; 180 yards; TD; 3 INTs).
Week 12: At Chicago Bears
After Barkum caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Todd (15-24; 202 yards; TD; 2 INTs) in the first quarter, the Bears reeled off 23 consecutive points en route to a 23-13 win.
Linhart missed his first two tries on the day—the PAT attempt following Barkum’s score and a subsequent field goal try—to extend his dubious missed kick streak to four dating back to the Buffalo game. Linhart did convert the PAT after Todd’s touchdown scamper in the fourth quarter, but he was nonetheless released following the game.
Week 13: At Seattle Seahawks
On Monday Night Football, the Seahawks defeated the Jets, 30-7. The loss, which was New York’s third setback in as many years against Seattle, dropped Gang Green’s record to 5-8.
Rookie free agent K Dave Jacobs was signed prior to the game to replace Linhart. Jacobs missed his only field goal attempt of the evening, a 42-yard try, but he was at least a perfect one for one on PATs.
In the loss, P Chuck Ramsey played poorly. He shanked a punt early in the game and later had one blocked. Michaels, who was never afraid to speak his mind—a trait that eventually got him fired—ripped Ramsey’s performance following the game.
Ramsey wasn’t happy with Michaels’ criticism. The punter said, “Walt blamed me. He finally knows my name. When I hit it 64 yards he never said my name. Now I understand he’s blaming me (Eskenazi; Nov. 27, 1979; p. C17).”
It should be noted that Ramsey had a solid overall season in 1979. His 40.8 yards-per-punt average was eighth best in the NFL.
The Jets won their final three contests against Baltimore, New England, and Miami, respectively, to salvage their second straight 8-8 season.
New York’s defense played better down the stretch. The unit forced eight turnovers and recorded eight sacks over the last three games.
The Jets had many question marks. Most significantly, Todd (16 TDs, 22 INTs) was very inconsistent, and doubt remained as to whether he could become a franchise quarterback.
On defense, the numbers weren’t pretty on the whole. Still, the improved pass rush down the stretch offered hope for the future.
Additionally, the team possessed an additional first-round draft choice as a result of the Robinson trade.
Could the Jets put everything together and develop into a winning team in 1980?