Today, in the fifth installment of a six-part series looking back on the Walt Michaels era, we’ll explore the Jets’ 1981 season.
Following consecutive 8-8 finishes in 1978 and 1979, respectively, the Jets’ record plummeted to 4-12 in 1980. Even more alarming than the record, though, was the play of QB Richard Todd, who fired a league-high 30 interceptions on the campaign.
Gang Green introduced a pair of new coordinators for the 1981 season.
Joe Gardi, who had coached the team’s linebackers as well as its special teams for the previous four seasons, was promoted to defensive coordinator after his predecessor, John Mazur, was forced to retire because of Parkinson’s disease (Gerald Eskenazi; New York Times; Dec. 21, 1980; p. S1).
Even more significant to the team’s prospects was the hiring of Joe Walton (pictured) as the team’s new offensive coordinator on Jan. 20, 1981. After Offensive Coordinator John Idzik, the father of the Jets’ current general manager, departed the organization following the 1979 season, New York didn’t hire a replacement for 1980, and Todd’s performance bottomed out. Walton, who had held the same position for the Washington Redskins since 1974, was credited with turning Joe Theismann into a solid quarterback, and the Jets hoped he could accomplish the same with Todd (New York Times; Jan. 21, 1981; p. B11).
In fact, Todd’s performance improved greatly under Walton in 1981. He threw 25 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions on the season, and his 2.6 % interception percentage was the fourth-best in the NFL; impressively, Todd achieved this ratio while attempting 497 passes, the sixth-most throws for any quarterback league-wide. Overnight, Todd had transformed from a turnover machine into one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks.
1981 NFL Draft
New York bolstered its running game through the 1981 draft.
With the third-overall pick in the first round, the Jets selected RB Freeman McNeil, who would make three Pro Bowl teams in 12 seasons with Gang Green. McNeil’s best year probably came in the strike-shortened 1982 campaign, when he led the league with 786 rushing yards.
Additionally, the Jets selected RB Marion Barber in the second round (30th overall). The father of former Dallas Cowboys’ running back Marion Barber III, the elder Barber backed up McNeil for seven seasons.
Week One: At Buffalo Bills
The Jets commenced the new season in dreadful fashion, getting blanked by the Bills, 31-0.
Todd (16-25; 138 yards; 2 INTs) struggled in the loss.
Week Two: Cincinnati Bengals
In the Jets’ home opener at Shea Stadium, the Bengals rallied from a 14-0 deficit for a 31-30 victory.
Despite the setback, Todd (18-29; 251 yards; 3 TDs) enjoyed a good afternoon; it was the first time in 12 games that he didn’t throw an interception.
WR Wesley Walker caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Todd in the second quarter. Coming off consecutive injury-plagued seasons, Walker possessed a nose for the end zone in 1981. His nine receiving touchdowns on the season were tied for fourth most in the league.
Following the loss, DB Darrol Ray was critical of his team’s situation. He said, “The Jets haven’t won lately, and there’s no reason for anyone to lay down for us. If you’re the other team, you figure if you just keep pressing us, then something will happen (Eskenazi; Sept. 14, 1981; p. C10).”
Week Three: At Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh humiliated the Jets, 38-10, to drop the visitors’ record to 0-3.
Gang Green’s run defense was abysmal in this game. The unit allowed eight Steelers’ players to accumulate 343 yards and five touchdowns on 56 carries.
The 343 rushing yards are the most the Jets have ever allowed in a single game. Previously, the New England Patriots amassed 330 rushing yards in a 41-7 win over the Jets on Oct. 18, 1976.
Since this Pittsburgh game, the Jets have surrendered 300 rushing yards in just one contest — the Patriots galloped for 328 yards in a 23-13 win over the Jets on Sept. 18, 1983. Otherwise, Washington attained 296 rushing yards in a 23-20 overtime win against Gang Green on Nov. 4, 2007.
Though the club was reeling, President Jim Kensil gave Michaels a vote of confidence after the game (Eskenazi; Sept. 21, 1981; p. C1).
Week Four: Houston Oilers
Behind strong performances from Todd (25-39; 312 yards; 3 TDs) and Walker (2 TDs; 128 yards), the Jets earned their first win of the season, 33-17.
DE Mark Gastineau recorded four sacks against Houston, an achievement that wasn’t an anomaly for the 1981 Jets (Eskenazi; Sept. 28, 1981; p. C1). Led by four defensive lineman, Gastineau, DL Joe Klecko, DT Marty Lyons, and DT Abdul Salaam, who together garnered the moniker “The New York Sack Exchange,” Gang Green attained a league-high 66 sacks in 1981.
This total, which was the highest for any team in a single season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, was 14 sacks greater than the closest 1981 challenger; the Oakland Raiders placed second in the league with 52 sacks.
For what it’s worth, the current single-season NFL team sack record is held by the 1984 Chicago Bears (72 sacks). As an aside, sack totals for individual players didn’t become an official statistic until the 1982 season.
Week Five: At Miami Dolphins
For the seventh time in franchise history, but the first time since the addition of overtime to the NFL regular season in 1974, a Jets’ game ended in a tie. The 28-28 deadlock at Miami snapped Gang Green’s six-game surge against the Dolphins, which had dated back to 1978. New York’s previous tie, which was also by a 28-28 score, came against the Oilers on Oct. 15, 1967.
Though his team didn’t win, Dolphins’ Head Coach Don Shula seemed content with the tie, calling the result a “step in the right direction against the Jets (Eskenazi; Oct. 5, 1981; p. C1).”
Week Six: New England Patriots
The Jets gained a 28-14 second-half lead, and they withstood a late Patriots’ charge to prevail by 28-24.
Todd threw for 182 yards and three touchdowns in the game, but most of his success came in the first half. He managed only 24 passing yards after intermission (George Usher; Newsday; Oct. 12, 1981; p. 68).
New York’s defense was solid in the win. The unit recorded eight sacks and intercepted four of QB Steve Grogan’s passes. Ray returned one of these picks 43 yards to pay dirt in the third quarter, and DB Johnny Lynn earned the game-clinching interception with 17 seconds left. Lynn’s interception thwarted a potential game-winning Patriots’ drive that had entered the red zone.
Michaels admitted angst prior to Lynn’s big play. He said, “This is my 31st year [in football] and I can’t remember a time my heart was in my throat like this (Usher; Oct. 12, 1981; p. 68).”
Week Seven: Buffalo Bills
Gang Green avenged the shutout loss it suffered at Buffalo earlier in the season by taking the rematch at Shea Stadium, 33-14.
K Pat Leahy enjoyed a strong game. He drilled all seven of his kicks, four field goals and three extra points, on the afternoon.
Because of the fifth-place schedule used by the NFL through the 1994 season, the Jets played the AFC West Division’s Seattle Seahawks twice in 1981. The Seahawks had beaten the Jets in each of the previous four seasons, and they weren’t done.
The two Seattle games marked the Jets’ only two losses during the final 13 weeks of the 1981 season.
The visiting Seahawks thumped the Jets by 19-3 in week eight, before gaining a narrower victory, 27-23, at Seattle in week 14.
Week Nine: At New York Giants
Angry with the team’s performance against Seattle, Owner Leon Hess spoke to the Jets prior to the Giants’ game. He said, “You embarrassed yourselves last week (Frank Litsky; New York Times; Nov. 2, 1981; p. A1).”
Gang Green responded by defeating the Giants, 26-7, and Hess was awarded the game ball (Litsky; Nov. 2, 1981; p. A1).
The Sack Exchange dominated against the Giants. Big Blue QB Phil Simms was sacked nine times, including four times by Gastineau and three times by Klecko (Litsky; Nov. 2, 1981; p. A1).
Steve Serby Situation
On the Wednesday following the Giants’ win, New York Post writer Steve Serby, who had been critical of both Todd and Michaels over the years, tried to talk with the signal caller at his locker. It proved to be a painful decision for Serby.
According to Gerald Eskenazi in his 1998 book Gang Green: An Irreverent Look Behind the Scenes at Thirty-Eight (Well, Thirty-Seven) Seasons of New York Jets Football Futility, Todd told Serby to “get lost,” and when the scribe wouldn’t listen, the quarterback choked Serby before pushing him into WR Bobby Jones’ locker (Eskenazi; 1998; p. 163).
Serby was taken to a hospital, and although the New York Post filed criminal charges against Todd, they were dropped (Eskenazi; 1998; pp. 164-165).
Week 10: At Baltimore Colts
Todd was unfazed by his confrontation with Serby. At Baltimore the following Sunday, the signal caller completed 21 of his 31 pass attempts for 277 yards and three touchdowns as the Jets defeated the Colts, 41-14. This win upped New York’s record to 5-4-1.
After the game, Michaels said that Todd’s performance was “perhaps the best game of his six-year pro career (Usher; Nov. 9, 1981; p. 80).”
Week 11: At New England Patriots
Though Todd (6-13; 56 yards) endured torn rib cartilage during a sack late in the first half, the Jets completed the head-to-head sweep of the Patriots, 17-6 (Eskenazi; Nov. 16, 1981; p. C1).
LB Greg Buttle was a key factor in the Jets’ win. His second-quarter interception set up RB Bruce Harper’s four-yard touchdown run, and his fumble recovery later in the period led to Leahy’s 47-yard field goal.
Week 12: Miami Dolphins
For the eighth straight meeting, the Dolphins couldn’t beat the Jets. Miami led by 15-9 late in the fourth quarter, but Todd fired an 11-yard touchdown pass to TE Jerome Barkum with 16 seconds remaining to afford the Jets their seventh triumph of the season, 16-15.
Despite the lingering rib injury and a sore ankle — C Joe Fields had accidentally stepped on the ankle early in the contest — Todd (21-38; 203 yards; TD) had a respectable game. Happy with both his perseverance and the win, Todd said, “It was like a dream come true; I was crying on the sidelines (Eskenazi; Nov. 23, 1981; p. A1).”
Week 13: Baltimore Colts
New York blanked the Colts, 25-0, to improve its record to 8-4-1.
Leahy nailed four field goals in the win, and McNeil ran for a couple of touchdowns.
Week 16: Green Bay Packers
Coming off a 14-13 win at Cleveland in Week 15, the Jets controlled their own destiny entering the season finale. If they defeated the Packers, who also needed a win to clinch a playoff berth, the Jets would qualify for the postseason for the first time since 1969.
The Jets dominated Green Bay, 28-3.
New York’s defense shined in the big spot. The unit recorded nine sacks, forced three turnovers, and held the Packers to negative yardage on five separate drives (Eskenazi; Dec. 21, 1980; p. C1). The Packers’ 84 yards of total offense was by far their season low; they hadn’t attained fewer than 200 yards of offense in any game all year coming in.
With a 10-5-1 finish, the Jets became the first team in NFL history to make the playoffs after a 0-3 start. The 1982 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 1992 San Diego Chargers, the 1995 Detroit Lions, and the 1998 Buffalo Bills have since recovered from 0-3 holes.
21 years later, in week 17 of the 2002 season, the Jets again clinched a playoff spot by dismantling the Packers. In the latter affair, QB Chad Pennington threw four touchdown passes in a 42-17 Jets’ triumph.
AFC Wild Card Game(!): Buffalo Bills
Gang Green’s season ended with a heartbreaking loss to the visiting Bills, 31-27.
Buffalo dominated the Jets early. Harper fumbled the opening kickoff, and DB Charles Romes picked up the ball and ran it back for a Bills’ touchdown, just 16 ticks into the game. The visitors then scored 17 more points for a 24-0 lead early in the second quarter.
To their credit, though, the Jets didn’t quit. Now down by only four points late in regulation, Gang Green marched from its own 20-yard line to the Buffalo 11-yard line, converting both a third-and-20 and a third-and-15 along the way.
Unfortunately for the Jets, they couldn’t complete the comeback; Bills’ DB Bill Simpson intercepted Todd (28-51; 377 yards; 2 TD; 4 Int) at the one-yard line with 10 seconds remaining to seal the game for Buffalo.
Todd’s four interceptions were a dubious season high; he hadn’t thrown more than two picks in any game during the 1981 regular season.
While the ending was disappointing, the 1981 season had been a pleasant surprise for the Jets — with Todd and the defense excelling after years of mediocrity. Could they take another step forward in 1982?