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Out at the Muscle Shoals, Ala. airport the other day, Richard Todd, quarterback of the New York Jets, was getting ready to fly his single-engine Cessna Skylane. While a mechanic was making the windshield spotless, an onlooker asked, "Richard, you're not going to mess up that windshield by running into any bugs up there, are you?" Said Todd, "Whatever's up there, I'll run into it."
That speaks volumes because there isn't much Todd hasn't run into. He's on a first-name basis with adversity. He has run headlong into legends and lost; he has run into New York and lost; he has run into surly fans and snippy media and lost; he has even run into his own sometimes sullen nature and lost. And in 1980, when after four seasons of struggle the job as Jets quarterback was at last his and his alone, he not only led New York to a 4-12 record but also led the NFL in interceptions with 30. Booooo.
In fact, Todd has been the Quarterback of the Future ever since he was drafted No. 1 out of Alabama by the Jets in 1976. The team and its fans have waited, waited, waited.... Finally, as much to send a message to Todd as anything, New York chose a quarterback named Ken O'Brien from Cal-Davis as its No. 1 in April's draft. Todd brushes it off, saying, "I guess if they had drafted John Elway, I might worry."
New Jet Coach Joe Walton, previously offensive coordinator and, says Todd, the only coach he has ever had who really taught him how to play football, pumps up Todd by saying, "Richard is just on the threshold of becoming a great quarterback. He has about reached the age and experience level where things should start going well for him."
They had better start going really well. The Jets are a talent-laden team that seems to have no holes, although New York's All-Pro center, Joe Fields, says perceptively, "Talent isn't talent until it shows up on the football field." All-Pro Wide Receiver Wesley Walker adds, "Everybody expects us to win." Indeed, this season anything less than a Super Bowl appearance—if not victory—will be viewed by Jet fans as a failure of unspeakable proportions. And guess who they will blame most? Says an executive with a rival club, "The problem is that Todd has been doing pretty darned good, but doing pretty good in New York isn't nearly good enough."
In short, it's put-up-or-shut-up time for Todd. He has tantalized Jet fans with mountaintop performances that only made the ensuing valleys seem deeper and more desolate. Last season, for example, he completed a whopping 67.3% of his passes in playoff wins over the Raiders and Bengals, and then threw five interceptions against the Dolphins in the AFC championship game. Typical. Right at the brink of acceptance, which he wants so urgently, he flubbed.
At Todd's football camp for kids, at the University of North Alabama last month, a coach was explaining that Todd would put on a clinic to "demonstrate what he does best." Mike Flynn, 16, of Huntsville, piped up, "What's that? Throw interceptions?" Says Todd, "Everybody remembers that last, lousy game. But what I have come to understand is the quarterback gets way too much blame when the team loses and way too much credit when it wins."
When Todd walked out of the dressing room after the Miami game, he at last saw a friendly face, that of his wife, Lulu, who grabbed his arm, looked him dead in the eye and said, "What was wrong with you? Why did you play so badly?" Months later, the outspoken Lulu explained, "Richard will never be accepted in New York and he will never make it in New York until he wins a Super Bowl—like Joe Namath. Period. Against Miami, Richard got humiliated. But people who think those interceptions will tear down his confidence just don't know him. He's cocky, I tell you."
It was a cold night in New York last January, several days before the league championship debacle, and Todd, wearing jeans and a baseball cap with his battered two-year-old python-skin cowboy boots propped on a facing seat, was eating tuna salad from a plastic bowl as he sat in the rear of a long, black limousine. Obviously, passenger and vehicle weren't well matched. That figures, because Todd and New York have never been in sync, have never been a match.
The reason is simple: Todd arrived in New York in 1976; in 1977, he replaced Joe Namath as the Jet quarterback. New York fans didn't want Namath replaced by anybody, and have never forgiven Todd for being the man who moved their hero out. When you compete against a legend, the legend wins. The fans have generally chosen to ignore the fact that Namath's record with the Jets was 60-63-4 and that only three of his 12 seasons at the helm were winning ones. Todd has a similar mark, 33-38-1, and he has already had two winning seasons in six. Easily overlooked, too, is how alike the performances of Namath and Todd have been if one considers their best years. For Namath it was 1967, when he completed 258 of 491 passes for 4,007 yards, 28 interceptions and 26 touchdowns. For Todd it was 1981, when he connected on 279 out of 497 attempts for 3,231 yards, 13 interceptions and 25 TDs. That's about a wash. But what's never forgotten is that in 1969 Namath led the Jets to a Super Bowl victory.