In July the New York Jets were one of the NFL's pretty teams, a club with more talent than Central Casting, a sensible choice for a Super Bowl spot. Now, with the second half of the season a week old, the Jets are 4-5 and remain a major enigma. At times they've been ferocious. They've controlled both sides of the line of scrimmage and crushed the life out of good teams, such as the 49ers last Sunday (27-13) and the Bills on Oct. 3 (34-10). But at times they have also looked like sheep. What's the story?
CHAPTER ONE: A HISTORY LESSON
After the Jets' Super Bowl victory in 1969, nothing less than Supe would do. Media, fans, even players got caught up in the hype.
August 1973—The Jets are flying back from an exhibition win in Tampa. They're 2-0. "There's more talent on this team than on our Super Bowl team," veteran Guard Randy Rasmussen said. "...you look up and down this plane and there's just so much talent...." The Jets finished the season at 4-10.
November 1975—In Baltimore some Jets notice a football magazine with Joe Namath's picture on the cover and a billing that reads JOE NAMATH SAYS WE CAN WIN THE SUPER BOWL. "The players know they can win. Emotionally we're ahead of that Super Bowl season," Joe Willie says inside. That afternoon the Colts win 52-19 to hand New York its sixth loss in an eight-game losing streak. The Jets ended the season at 3-11. Delusion has always been very big at Shea Stadium.
CHAPTER TWO: THE COACH
Five days before the 49ers game, Jets Coach Joe Walton sat in his office and tried to figure out what has happened. "There's a sign with an old Vince Lombardi slogan that I'm hanging up where the players can see it," he says. "It reads 'You've got to pay the price.' " There's already a sign up—THE JET TEAM: SMART, EFFICIENT, DISCIPLINED, ENTHUSIASTIC. The words fly at Walton like arrows. "Look at this," he says, shoving a paper across the desk. It shows that in the first quarters of the Jets' first eight games, they've been outscored 41-14. "When you're playing with enthusiasm, you jump on a team," Walton says. "You beat the hell out of them from the opening whistle. I showed my players these numbers today." He shook his head.
Walton, 47, was an NFL assistant coach for 14 years until he got the top job with the Jets last February. He coached Richard Todd for two years as the Jets' offensive coordinator. This year Walton, characteristically wearing a baseball cap backward on his head, has screamed at Todd as he came off the field, much in the manner of Chuck Noll yelling at the young Terry Bradshaw. Trouble is, Todd's 29 years old and an eight-year veteran.
On Monday, Oct. 17, the day after the Dolphins intercepted Todd five times and beat the Jets 32-14, Walton didn't show his players the films. He told them to relax. They were too tight, he figured. The Jets relaxed and blew a 21-0 lead to Atlanta the next week, losing 27-21.
"I've tried everything," Walton said. "Now I've got to get tougher."