There were the New York Jets last week—undefeated, alone in first place in the AFC East, rolling behind a flashy quarterback from Alabama by the name of Richard Todd and favored to whip the winless Seattle Seahawks and raise their record to 3-0. The Jets had not started a season that well since 1966, when they had a flashy quarterback from Alabama by the name of Joe Namath, and the mere thought of three wins in three games had to be staggering. In fact, the Jets had won only three games in each of the previous three years, and they had not had a winning season in the '70s.
For a long time Sunday at Shea Stadium the Jets and the Seahawks played defense like a couple of sorority touch teams. Todd and Seattle Quarterback Jim Zorn staged a shootout in the first half, each throwing the ball 14 times. Todd completed eight for 170 yards, Zorn 10 for 137—and the two teams jogged off at halftime tied 14-14. They matched field goals in the third quarter, Seattle's Efren Herrera, the Dallas discard, converting from 45 yards and New York's Pat Leahy responding from 37 yards, and then early in the fourth quarter Herrera trotted onto the field in an attempt to break the 17-17 tie with a short field goal from 24 yards. Or so the Jets thought.
No doubt thinking about how easily the New York receivers had been getting open, Seattle Coach Jack Patera wisely decided that the Seahawks needed a touchdown, not a field goal, and decided to use an old fake field-goal play. Zorn, who holds for Herrera's placements, took the snap from center, jumped up, ran to his left and gained a first down at the Jets' two-yard line. Two plays later, Zorn rolled right on the option and pitched the ball to running back David Sims, who went into the end zone standing up for his third touchdown of the game to give the Seahawks a 24-17 lead that their shaky defense somehow preserved until the final gun.
While neither the Jets nor the Seahawks are ready to challenge for the playoffs, they are two of the most promising teams in the league, and almost mirror images of each other. But then, what would you expect of teams run by two men who spent five years commuting to New York City together on the 7:58 from Massapequa? Seattle General Manager John Thompson was executive director of the NFL Management Council until he moved to Seattle three years ago; he was the first person hired by the Seattle owners after they had paid $16 million for the franchise. And Jim Kensil was executive director of the NFL until he became president of the Jets in June of 1977.
Their teams are the two youngest in the AFC, the Jets averaging 24 years of age, the Seahawks 24.7. In Todd and Zorn, Kensil and Thompson have secured the most important, and rarest, ingredient needed to build a winner—a talented quarterback. Also under Kensil and Thompson, the Jets and the Seahawks have developed solid, progressive organizations that are patiently building Dallas-style through the draft. In operational efficiency, the Jets, who are in their 18th year and have won a Super Bowl, are, if anything, somewhat behind the Seahawks, who are only three years old.
New York reached its nadir in 1975 when Coach Charley Winner, thinking his team was just a few players away from playoff contention, traded his first, fourth and sixth draft choices for three defensive linemen, two of whom now are out of football. Then again, at the time that made as much sense as drafting collegians because the Jets had usually failed miserably at the draft table.
Tight-fisted Weeb Ewbank, who coached and also ran the club as general manager from 1963 to 1974, economized on scouting. As a result, New York's first-round picks from 1967 to 1970 all bombed, and the present roster includes only six players drafted before 1976. Ewbank thought so little about the scouting end of the Jets' operation that when the team constructed a new office building, Weeb Ewbank Hall, at its Hofstra University training center, Ewbank assigned his three-man personnel department to a lone, windowless room.
Ewbank retired in 1974, and Winner, his son-in-law, was fired following a disastrous three-win season in 1975. The Jet reconstruction was launched the following season with the arrival of Lou Holtz from North Carolina State. Holtz began a much-needed housecleaning, but not even his rapid one-liners could keep the people smiling. Seeing that success was a long way off, Holtz resigned with one game to go in the 1976 season and moved to Arkansas.
Once Kensil took over as president, the Jets began to pour money into the scouting budget. The Jets set up a separate pro personnel department—something most other NFL teams already had—and doubled the number of scouts on the payroll to six. Significantly, Kensil had an addition put onto Weeb Ewbank Hall and assigned the personnel department an entire wing—with plenty of windows. Also, Jet personnel forms now are more highly detailed than they were during Ewbank's regime, and scouts must commit themselves definitively on prospects. "It's not my job to pick football players," says Kensil, "but I can assess the people who do it, and the means and methods they use."
For now the cornerstones of the New York and the Seattle building programs are the third-year quarterbacks—Todd and Zorn. Their dissimilarities are striking. Todd is right-handed, a drop-back quarterback from a wishbone school. Zorn is a southpaw, a scrambler from the pro-style passing attack at Cal Poly in Pomona. Befitting his status as the first quarterback drafted in 1976, Todd employed Namath's agent and signed a five-year, $605,000 contract. Befitting his status as a free agent, Zorn was signed to his first pro contract by a Dallas assistant public-relations man—a man whose last name happened to be Todd.