Today, in the fourth installment of a six-part series looking back on the Walt Michaels era, we’ll explore the Jets’ 1980 season.
In 1979, the Jets finished with an 8-8 record for the second consecutive year. Disappointingly, this decent record mostly came in spite of the performance of QB Richard Todd, who threw 22 interceptions and just 16 touchdown passes.
Even while Todd was struggling, however, Head Coach Walt Michaels refused to insert backup QB Matt Robinson — who had actually won the starting job out of training camp and started the season opener — into games because Robinson had lied about the manner in which he suffered a thumb injury; indeed, the coach was furious.
The Robinson situation had a silver lining, though: Gang Green managed to trade the quarterback to the Denver Broncos for a pick in each of the first two rounds of the 1980 NFL Draft.
1980 NFL Draft
Including the selections they received from Denver, the Jets possessed four choices (13th, 20th, 40th, and 47th overall) in the opening two rounds of the 1980 Draft. However, what could have been a great opportunity to improve the team turned into a debacle.
New York traded its two first-round choices to the San Francisco 49ers, in exchange for San Francisco’s first-round pick, second overall. The Jets’ eventual selection, WR Johnny “Lam” Jones, is arguably the biggest draft bust in franchise history. The Jets chose Jones because of his speed, and they hoped his ability could generate a lethal offense, especially when combined with explosive WR Wesley Walker. This hope never materialized into reality because Jones couldn’t catch the ball.
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, former New York Times Jets’ beat writer Gerald Eskenazi said that Michaels stopped starting Jones because the receiver was too nervous at the commencement of games to perform (Eskenazi, 1998, p. 149). Indeed, over five seasons with New York, Jones started more than eight games just once; he started 13 contests in his rookie campaign.
The Jets had a bit more luck in the second round. While WR Ralph Clayton (47th overall) didn’t play a single down for the Jets, DB Darrol Ray provided huge plays on defense for the team over five seasons. In 1980, Ray was one of five players in the league to score two non-offensive touchdowns, and his 132 interception return yards (on six interceptions) were the sixth-most in the NFL.
Finally, New York’s 10th-round pick (260th overall), C Guy Bingham, played nine seasons with the Jets, both as a long snapper and as a backup center.
Still, considering the number and placement of the Jets’ picks in the 1980 Draft, the results were disappointing.
Week One: Baltimore Colts
Though the Jets rallied from a 14-0 deficit to pull even, Baltimore salvaged the 1980 opener, 17-14.
With Baltimore leading late in regulation, K Pat Leahy, who had missed the final 10 games of the 1979 season because of a knee injury, had a chance to force overtime. His field goal attempt hit the left upright, however, and the Colts ran out the clock (Eskenazi; Sept. 8, 1980; p. C1).
In his first career game, Ray tied the score, 14-14, late in the third quarter when he returned a fumble 75 yards for a touchdown. Todd (11-26; 200 yards; 4 INTs) struggled, although he ran for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Week Three: San Francisco 49ers
Coming off a 20-10 loss at Buffalo in week two, the Jets hosted the 49ers in week three. San Francisco defeated the Jets, 37-27. The visitors took a 30-6 lead into the fourth quarter and held on.
In defeat, Todd (42-60; 447 yards; 3 TDs; INT) set an NFL record for completions in a single game. His 42 completed passes broke QB George Blanda’s old mark of 37 completions, which had been attained in a 24-10 loss for Blanda’s Houston Oilers at Buffalo on Nov. 1, 1964.
New England Patriots’ QB Drew Bledsoe broke Todd’s record when he completed 45 passes in a 26-20 Patriots’ triumph over Minnesota on Nov. 13, 1994.
Even with the greater emphasis on the passing game in today’s NFL, Todd’s 42 completions remain tied for the fourth-most for any quarterback in one game in league history.
Ironically, it can be validly argued that Todd’s performance wasn’t impressive. 31 of Todd’s 42 completions came after halftime, against a more conservative San Francisco defense (Eskenazi; Sept. 22, 1980; p. C1).
Week Four: At Baltimore Colts
The Colts defeated Gang Green for the second time in four weeks, 35-21, to drop the Jets’ record to 0-4. New York rallied from a 14-0 deficit to tie the game at 14, but the Colts pulled away in the second half.
An interesting situation occurred in the opening quarter of this contest. With the Jets trailing by 7-0, Leahy drilled a 30-yard field goal. However, a Baltimore offside penalty was enough for a Jets’ first down, and although Michaels said he wanted to decline the penalty and take the field goal, Referee Fred Wyant didn’t hear him for some reason. Todd (16-36; 240 yards; TD; 2 INTs) was picked off moments later (George Usher; Newsday; Sept. 29, 1980; p. 76).
I find it interesting that Michaels wanted to take the field goal and don’t think coaches today would do that, but Colts’ Coach Mike McCormack agreed with Michaels’ rationale (Usher; Sept. 29, 1980; p. 76). Either the decision-making in this situation has changed over the years, or I’m incorrect in my thinking.
Week Five: New England Patriots
Gang Green lost again, 21-11.
To add injury to insult, RB Clark Gaines was lost for the season in this game because of a double leg fracture (Eskenazi; Oct. 6, 1980; p. C1). The Jets’ leading rusher in 1979, Gaines never fully recovered from this injury, and he was waived by the Jets and claimed by the Kansas City Chiefs in December 1981 (New York Times; Dec. 10, 1981; p. B12).
Walker was placed on injured reserve following this game, a move that forced the WR to miss New York’s next four contests. Walker had sat out the Patriots’ game with a deep thigh bruise, and he had also been dealing with a neck strain and a hamstring injury (New York Times; Oct. 12, 1980; p. S7).
Week Six: At Atlanta Falcons
New York finally entered the win column in this inter-conference showdown, 14-7.
RB Kevin Long (100 yards; TD) enjoyed a strong game, and Ray sealed the triumph with an interception in the end zone with 25 seconds remaining (Eskenazi; Oct. 13, 1980; p. C1).
Week Seven: Seattle Seahawks
Seattle downed the Jets for the fourth straight season, rallying from a 14-3 deficit for a 27-17 win.
P Chuck Ramsey, who had a dreadful game against the Seahawks in 1979, had more issues on this day. With the Jets still leading, 14-3, late in the third quarter, Ramsey had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown.
In the week following the loss, Michaels issued an ultimatum to Leahy. The kicker had missed a field goal against Seattle, and his percentage for the year stood at only 50 percent (5-10). Regarding his plans going forward if Leahy had a poor game the following Monday night against Miami, Michaels said, “If it [Leahy’s field goal percentage] drops below .500, I’m not telling you what might happen (Eskenazi; Oct. 23, 1980; p. D23).”
Week Eight: Miami Dolphins
On Monday Night Football, the Jets clipped the Dolphins, 17-14, to up their record to 2-6.
By drilling a 48-yard field goal and both of his extra point attempts, Leahy saved his job and kept it through the 1991 season. His field goal proved to be the winning score after Miami put a scare into New York by tallying a pair of touchdowns in the final two minutes (Usher; Oct. 28, 1980; p. 88).
Week 10: Buffalo Bills
In a dramatic finish, the Bills earned the head-to-head sweep of the Jets, 31-24.
Having rallied from a 17-0 deficit to tie the game at 24, the Jets gained possession at their own 22-yard line with 54 ticks left in regulation. New York went three-and-out on two incomplete passes and a run, however, and a solid return on Ramsey’s ensuing punt left the Bills with good field possession with 19 seconds left. The visitors prevailed two plays later on a 31-yard touchdown pass from QB Joe Ferguson to WR Frank Lewis, who was being single covered by DB Donald Dykes.
As is often the case on losing teams, finger pointing ensued after the loss. Dykes criticized the defensive scheme on the winning touchdown by saying, “Anytime you got 12, 13, 14 seconds left on the clock and no time out left, it doesn’t make sense to have man-to-man coverage (Eskenazi; Nov. 10, 1980; p. C1).”
Also, Todd voiced his displeasure with the play calling on the Jets’ final drive. The quarterback said, “I think we should have run the clock; either that, or go for it all three times (Eskenazi; Nov. 10, 1980; p. C1).”
Week 11: At Denver Broncos
For the second straight week, the Jets lost by 31-24 on a late touchdown.
Suffering through the flu, 37-year old Broncos QB Craig Morton persevered and fired a pair of scores (Eskenazi; Nov. 17, 1980; p. C1).
The Jets’ defense made some big plays in the loss. DE Mark Gastineau recorded a couple of sacks, and DT Marty Lyons and DL Joe Klecko had one sack apiece. Also, DB Ken Schroy had two interceptions (Eskenazi; Nov. 17, 1980; p. C1).
Additionally, the Jets’ offense displayed signs of life. Jones caught his first career touchdown pass from Todd (14-25; 218 yards; 2 TDs; INT), and Walker reached pay dirt in his return from injured reserve.
Week 12: Houston Oilers
Gang Green salvaged a 31-28 win in overtime, after blowing a 21-0 fourth quarter lead. The winning points came on a 38-yard field goal by Leahy.
Despite the fourth quarter collapse, the Jets’ defense was often dominant in the contest. The unit forced six Houston turnovers, recorded four sacks, and limited RB Earl Campbell, who led the league with 1,934 rushing yards in 1980, to only 60 yards on 15 carries.
On a somewhat ironic note, two of Houston’s four touchdowns in the fourth quarter were scored by TE Rich Caster, who played with the Jets between 1970 and 1977.
Week 14: At Cleveland Browns
New York dropped a three-point contest to the Browns for the third consecutive year, this time by 17-14.
Though Jones caught a touchdown pass from Todd (19-28; 214 yards; 2 TDs; 2 INTs), Cleveland mainly succeeded in limiting the Jets’ big receiving threats—Jones and Walker were held to one reception apiece. 15 of Todd’s 19 completions went to his running backs.
Week 15: New Orleans Saints
The visiting Saints used a late score by RB Tony Galbreath to defeat the Jets, 21-20, and secure their first and only win of 1980.
Todd (10-27; 77 yards; 2 INTs) struggled, but his 31-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter was the longest scamper by any Jets’ player on the season.
In losing to a previously winless team, Jets’ players were embarrassed after the game. Walker said, “It’s demoralizing when you lose, but this makes it a lot worse. Embarrassed? This has got to be the all-time (Eskenazi; Dec. 15, 1980; p. C1.).”
With the victory, the Saints avoided becoming the first team in NFL history to lose their first 15 games in a season. The 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers went winless, but their ineptitude occurred in a 14-game campaign; the NFL season expanded to 16 games in 1978. In 2008, the Detroit Lions became the first and, to date, only team to lose their first 15 games; that Lions’ team went 0-16.
Week 16: At Miami Dolphins
Gang Green finished the sweep of its division rival, 24-17.
In the third quarter, Ray intercepted a pass from Dolphins’ QB David Woodley and returned it 71 yards to pay dirt for a 21-10 lead. This touchdown was Ray’s second defensive score of the season; he had previously scored on a fumble return in the opener.
The team awarded Defensive Coordinator John Mazur with the game ball. Mazur was forced to retire after two years in his role because of Parkinson’s disease (Eskenazi; Dec. 21, 1980; p. S1).
NBC-TV broadcasted this game without announcers. According to the network, 408 people called in and said they favored the experiment, while 366 other callers said they preferred the traditional broadcast with commentators (Eskenazi; Dec. 21, 1980; p. S1). In any event, for better or for worse, the announcer-less broadcast proved to be a one-time experiment.
The 1980 season had been a disaster for the Jets. Aside from the team’s disappointing 4-12 record, Todd (17 TDs, 30 INTs) endured a dreadful year.
Todd’s 30 interceptions tied the Jets’ single-season record, which hasn’t been matched since.
QB Al Dorow also threw 30 picks when the franchise was still known as the Titans in 1961. The 30 interceptions are also tied for the seventh-most in a single season in NFL history; only one signal caller league-wide has fired more picks in any campaign since — Buccaneers QB Vinny Testaverde unleased 35 interceptions in 1988.
The team was in disarray, and the prospects for 1981 appeared to be bleak.
Editor: 1980 also featured the release of Flash Gordon, a movie starring a fictional quarterback of the New York Jets by the same name. Enjoy(?) this ‘Football Fight.’