What has become apparent is that Gutman, who has been with New York since 1977, and Hess are now and have for several years been out of their league. Kotite's departure means the Jets are shopping for their third coach in four seasons.
In Kotite's New York debut the Jets suffered the first of their 13 losses in 1995, a 52-14 crushing by the Dolphins. Having signed off on more than $65 million in free-agent contracts during the off-season, Hess was looking for improvement in the record in '96. And the Jets did show improvement, dropping this year's opener by a much narrower margin, 31-6 to the Denver Broncos. In that game quarterback Neil O'Donnell, a free agent who had been lured from the Pittsburgh Steelers by a five-year, $25 million contract, completed seven passes and was sacked eight times. Three weeks later O'Donnell, who last January went down to defeat in the Super Bowl, lost the so-called Stupor Bowl, which pitted the 0-3 Jets against the 0-3 Giants. A fortnight after that, the Jets lost O'Donnell, who separated his right shoulder in a 34-13 defeat by the Oakland Raiders. Six games and five defeats thereafter—a 31-21 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 27 ruined New York's otherwise perfect season—O'Donnell returned...for pregame warmups. While loosening up for a Dec. 1 game against the Houston Oilers, he slipped on one of the letters in the word JETS in the end zone, making him, as one wag noted, the first quarterback in team history to be sacked by a logo. O'Donnell tore a muscle in his right calf, and his season came to a merciful end.
Kotite probably figured he was a goner by Dec. 14, when the Philadelphia Eagles visited the Meadowlands. Still, on the eve of that game he uncorked his most impassioned speech of the season, reminding his players that Eagles management had mistreated him before finally canning him after the 1994 season. (Never mind that Kotite lost his last seven games that year, turning a potential playoff team into a 7-9 also-ran.) Fired up, the Jets jumped all over Philly and led 20-7 midway through the fourth quarter before succumbing 21-20. Sunday's swoon against Miami marked the fifth time this season that New York had blown a double-digit lead.
After such a slovenly win, the old Jimmy Johnson would have icily pointed out the slipshod defense his team had played and that for the fifth straight game his club had received at least seven penalties. Instead, as Miami's first-year coach, Johnson could not conceal his pleasure as he strode toward the team bus after beating the Jets to finish 8-8. "The main thing today was to just go out and have a positive feeling finishing off this first year," he said.
Johnson wrote this season off after the Dolphins were eliminated from playoff contention on Dec. 15. Still, it would have galled him to finish under .500, if for no other reason than the gloating opportunity this would have afforded his predecessor, Don Shula.
After charging to a 3-0 start, the Dolphins flopped, losing eight of their next 11 games. Throughout the season Johnson reined in quarterback Dan Marino, instructing him to hand off the ball more frequently than he ever has in his 14-year career. The idea was sound: By establishing a formidable running game, Johnson hoped to take pressure off Marino, who's 35 and brittle, and prolong his career. Results were mixed. Rookie back Karim Abdul-Jabbar rushed for 152 yards against the Jets and became the first Dolphin in 18 years to run for 1,000 yards in a season. In other games, however, Miami's running game stalled. Marino, having one of the worst statistical seasons of his career, was deeply frustrated. It was a tough year for his offensive linemen, too, most of whom were acquired primarily for their pass-blocking skills.
As they groped for a new identity, the Dolphins were not always entertaining. The same can't be said of the contretemps between Johnson and Shula. Asked in October how he thought his successor was doing, Shula replied, "He'll be judged at the end of the season, just like I was judged." In addition to revamping the offense, Johnson started five rookies on defense this season, and all told, eight first-year players got lots of playing time. In short, he will not be judged—by a reasonable, nongrudge-bearing person, at any rate—for another season or two.
The battle of enormous South Florida egos really heated up two weeks ago, when Johnson dissed Shula's famously complicated playbook, which Johnson retained because he wanted to maintain continuity. One reason the offense had struggled this season, Johnson said, was that the playbook was bloated and would have to be radically streamlined in the off-season. (Why it took him most of the season to arrive at this conclusion, he did not satisfactorily explain.) "I had to do the same thing with the playbook in Dallas after two years with David," said Johnson, referring to David Shula, Don's son, who served two years under Johnson as the Dallas Cowboys' offensive coordinator before being reassigned. Soon thereafter David went to the Cincinnati Bengals as their receivers coach.
Sitting at his desk last Thursday morning, Johnson grunted theatrically as he lifted the offending playbook. "Here it is," he said, flipping through its many pages. "O.K., I just traded for you, now memorize that by Sunday. Or say you're a rookie who played last year at East Carolina. Memorize that by Sunday."
O.K., we get your point, but wasn't that kind of cold, bringing David into it? "I don't mean anything negative toward Don or anybody else," said Johnson. "I've got to do what I've got to do to win games."