Today, in the first installment of a six-part series looking back on the Walt Michaels era, we’ll explore the Jets’ 1977 season. (‘76 Season)
In the midst of New York’s second consecutive 3-11 season in 1976, first-year Head Coach Lou Holtz resigned with one game remaining, in order to take the same position at the University of Arkansas. Scouting Director Mike Holovak was named interim head coach for the season finale, but he was just a temporary stopgap. The Jets needed a new coach.
On Jan. 4, 1977, Gang Green hired Walt Michaels to be the eighth head coach in team history.
Michaels had served as the Jets’ defensive coordinator from 1963 to 1972, before reassuming the role under Holtz in 1976. He had bolted the organization prior to the 1973 campaign, because he was angry that Head Coach Weeb Ewbank had named Charley Winner, Ewbank’s son-in-law, as his successor rather than Michaels.
1977 NFL Draft
From top to bottom, the 1977 Draft was one of the best in Jets’ history.
New York’s early-round performance was solid. With the fourth-overall selection in the first round, Gang Green selected OT Marvin Powell, who, in nine seasons with the Jets, was named to five Pro Bowl teams.
The Powell pick was followed by the selection of the often explosive two-time Pro Bowl WR Wesley Walker in the second round (33rd overall). Walker’s average of 21.1 yards-per-reception in his rookie year was tops in the NFL.
The Jets also found some gems in the later rounds. Four-time Pro Bowl DT Joe Klecko was taken in the sixth round (144th overall), and RG Dan Alexander, who played with New York for 13 seasons, was an eighth-round choice (200th overall).
Also of note, RB Scott Dierking was taken in the fourth round (90th overall), and QB Matt Robinson was a ninth-round selection (227th overall). Dierking would start 50 games over seven seasons with the Jets, while Robinson had his moments in three seasons backing up QB Richard Todd.
On the recommendation of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Jets’ Owner Leon Hess named Jim Kensil the team’s President and COO on June 6, 1977. Kensil had served as the NFL’s executive director for the previous nine years, and Rozelle liked his football knowledge.
The Kensil hire limited the role of General Manager Al Ward. Sensing his fate, Ward resigned as GM following the season, on Dec. 30, 1977. After Ward, the Jets would not have another official GM until Dick Steinberg assumed the position in 1990. The team presidents—Kensil and later Steve Gutman—served as de facto GMs in the interim.
Gang Green waived QB Joe Namath, the legendary signal caller who had led New York’s offense since 1965, on April 1, 1977. As a result of Namath’s departure, Todd became the Jets’ starting quarterback in spite of the less-than-stellar numbers (3 TDs; 12 INTs) he accumulated in sharing time with Namath, during his rookie season in 1976.
Week One: At Houston Oilers
The Michaels era commenced ominously with a 20-0 loss in Houston.
The setback was more anemic than embarrassing. While Todd (10-25; 115 yards; INT) didn’t create any big plays, he at least limited the key mistakes.
Gang Green’s defense played competently in the loss. The unit surrendered just seven points through three quarters, before the Oilers pulled away.
Week Two: Baltimore Colts
Things didn’t improve for the Jets in their home opener at Shea Stadium. The Colts edged New York by 20-12.
Similar to the Houston game, Todd (13-22; 140 yards; 2 Int) put on a mediocre performance. The Jets tried to get a running game going, but it was a futile attempt; Gang Green amassed just 80 rushing yards on 34 carries.
Week Three: New England Patriots
New York defeated New England, 30-27, on K Pat Leahy’s 32-yard field goal in the game’s final minute.
Though Todd (12-21; 154 yards; 2 TDs; 3 INTs) was inconsistent, he made some big plays. After throwing his first score of the season—a three-yard strike to RB Charlie White—in the first quarter, Todd himself reached pay dirt from seven yards out later in the period. He then threw a 25-yard touchdown pass, which afforded the Jets a 27-20 lead, to Walker in the fourth quarter.
Each team scored a non-offensive touchdown in the contest. Patriots’ DB Raymond Clayborn returned a kickoff 100 yards to the house to knot the game at 14 in the first, and LB Greg Buttle scored after intercepting a pass by Patriots’ QB Steve Grogan in the fourth.
Before nailing the winning field goal, Leahy had endured a poor game. He had a field goal attempt blocked, and he missed the extra point attempt following Walker’s score. The unsuccessful PAT left the Jets with just a one-possession, 27-20, lead and afforded the Patriots an opportunity to tie the game, which they took advantage of.
Week Four: At Buffalo Bills
The Jets defeated the Bills, 24-19, to improve their record to 2-2.
Buffalo rallied from a 17-7 deficit in the fourth quarter, but a 14-yard touchdown burst by RB Clark Gaines salvaged the game for the Jets.
Week Five: At Miami Dolphins
Miami held off a Jets’ rally to defeat the visitors by 21-17.
The Dolphins took a 21-0 first half lead, but the Jets didn’t go away quietly. Gaines scored a pair of touchdowns from one-yard out after halftime to cut New York’s deficit to four points.
Special teams play hurt the Jets in the loss—Leahy had two field goal attempts blocked.
This loss commenced a seven-game losing streak, which left the Jets with a 2-9 record.
Week Six: Oakland Raiders
On the strength of two touchdown passes from QB Ken Stabler, the Raiders stormed back from a 27-14 fourth quarter deficit to defeat New York, 28-27.
On the whole, Todd (17-29; 396 yards; 4 TD; 2 Int) enjoyed his best afternoon of the season. He threw three consecutive scores after the Raiders went up 14-7 to propel the Jets to a 27-14 halftime lead. The first of these scores, an 87-yard throw to Walker, was the third-longest pass-play in the league in 1977.
Missed field goals by Leahy hurt the Jets again. The kicker was unsuccessful on tries from 32 yards out and 26 yards out, respectively, in the second half.
Week Eight: Miami Dolphins
The loss on the scoreboard wasn’t the biggest negative in New York’s 14-10 setback to Miami.
Todd was forced to leave the game in the second quarter after enduring a bruised knee on a sack; the injury caused Todd to miss Gang Green’s ensuing two contests as well.
With Todd out, veteran QB Marty Domres entered the game and competently mopped things up (14-24; 93 yards; TD). Since his 1969 debut, Domres had been a starting QB for both the San Diego Chargers and the Baltimore Colts; he had served as Leahy’s holder prior to this game for the Jets.
Week Nine: At Seattle Seahawks
Seattle handed the inept Jets their fifth straight loss, 17-0.
The Jets’ quarterback play was dreadful. Domres (2-9; 20 yards; INT) started the game, but he was pulled in favor of Robinson (4-9; 32 yards; Int).
The Seahawks were quarterbacked by Jim Zorn (16-37; 219 yards; 2 TDs), who reentered the spotlight in 2008 when he was surprisingly named head coach of the Washington Redskins; Zorn was subsequently fired after a 4-12 season in 2009 and replaced by now-former Head Coach Mike Shanahan.
As an aside, 1977 marked the Seahawks’ first season in the AFC. They had played in the NFC during their inaugural 1976 campaign and moved back to that conference in 2002, when the addition of the Houston Texans to the NFL forced realignment.
Week 10: At Baltimore Colts
Baltimore blew out the Jets, 33-12.
In an almost mirror-image of the Seattle game, Domres (1-7; 0 yards) started before being yanked for Robinson (9-26; 198 yards; TDs; 3 INTs).
Week 11: Pittsburgh Steelers
Despite a solid game from Dierking, who ran for 107 yards on 23 carries, the Jets were dealt their seventh consecutive loss, 23-20.
Robinson (7-19; 80 yards; TD; 3 INTs) struggled mightily in his first career start, especially in the second half. Todd (2-6; 8 yards; TD; 2 INTs) returned after Robinson fired back-to-back interceptions, but there wasn’t an immediate improvement; the Steelers intercepted Todd’s first two pass attempts.
Week 12: At New Orleans Saints
The Jets’ losing streak ended at the Superdome, 16-13.
A strong performance from Gaines (103 rushing yards on 22 carries) helped take pressure off Todd (8-21; 161 yards; TD; Int), who was making his first start in nearly a month. Leahy came up clutch, drilling a couple of field goals in the fourth quarter.
Week 13: Buffalo Bills
Buffalo beat the Jets by 14-10.
QB Joe Ferguson’s 11-yard touchdown pass to WR Bob Chandler in the final minute capped-off the Bills’ game-winning 92-yard touchdown drive.
Todd (10-27; 145 yards; TD; 3 Int) hindered Gang Green’s chances of winning by throwing three interceptions in the fourth quarter.
Week 14: At Philadelphia Eagles
Gang Green’s season ended with a miserable 27-0 shutout loss at Philadelphia.
For the second straight week, Todd (13-30; 100 yards) was picked off three times.
This was the final game where the Jets wore the classic uniforms that featured “NY JETS” written inside a football shape on the helmet.
Beginning in 1978, the helmet art was changed to feature “JETS” written below an airplane wing. The key themes of these new uniforms remained in place until 1998, when an updated version of the pre-1978 uniform was implemented.
The 1977 season would prove to be the final campaign for TE Rich Caster with the Jets. Following eight seasons with Gang Green, the three-time Pro Bowler signed as a free agent with the Houston Oilers for 1978.
In finishing with their third 3-11 record in as many seasons, the 1977 campaign had been a disappointment for the Jets.
Perhaps most alarming was the poor performance of Todd upon his return from the knee injury. The sophomore QB completed just 33 of 83 (40%) pass attempts over his final four appearances, after he had completed a solid 55.2 % (100-181) of his throws during the eight games prior to the injury. As an aside, the 55.2 % completion percentage would have been good for eighth-best in the league, had Todd kept up the pace.
On the whole, Todd’s inconsistency continued as did the team’s struggles. Could the Jets turn things around in 1978?