The clock showed three minutes to play. Seventy-seven yards and seven points and the Miami Dolphins stood between the New York Jets and a share of first place in the AFC East. And as Jet Quarterback Richard Todd came slouching onto the field there was a tremendous feeling of d�j� vu in Shea Stadium.
It was a Joe Namath feeling. You could close your eyes and see No. 12 trotting out in that stiff-legged way of his, shoulders hunched over as he leaned into the terrible late autumn winds of Shea, hands tucked into the special pockets in his jersey. Joe Willie, cold, hurting, but you knew what was going to happen. Those little tippy-toe steps back—set up, sight, aim, fire—the defense coming unhinged.
But it is five years into the post-Namath era for the Jets, and the quarterback on Sunday was Todd. Sure, he'd had good outings, plenty of them, but the New York fans had yet to see him pull out a meaningful game in the dying moments. Todd had never quarterbacked a contending team in November; in fact, the Jets hadn't been in the race for a division lead this late in the season since 1969 when they were defending Super Bowl champs and Namath was 26 years old and the AFC was still called the AFL. As Todd came onto the field, limping slightly on the left ankle that he'd sprained two quarters earlier, the rib he'd broken the week before wrapped in a Casco Rib Protector and a Byron Donzis Flak Jacket and a special amplifying microphone inside his helmet in case his voice should suddenly fail him, Tight End Jerome Barkum's thoughts journeyed backward in time.
"Oh yes, I was thinking of Joe," said Barkum, the only member of the offensive unit on the field who had been in a huddle with Namath. Barkum would shortly catch the 11-yard touchdown pass that would give the Jets a 16-15 victory with 16 seconds left. "I was thinking about how many times I saw him come on that field hurting. The way Richard's head was down, the way he hunched over, that reminded me of Joe. It took me back. Joe playing on those busted-up knees of his, Richard playing today with the broken rib and the bad ankle—those things take courage."
It was a very bad situation for Todd. The pain in the rib had been deadened by an injection—"It wasn't a displaced fracture. The bone was just cracked," Todd said of the injury he had suffered in the Jets' win over New England, "and the flak jacket protected it from further damage"—but he was having trouble setting up on the swelling ankle. When he tried to put anything on a sideline pass, the ball would take a dive. The double protective wraps around his ribs were strangling his delivery to the outside. He could throw O.K. down the middle, but the Dolphins were making things nasty with a new blitzing scheme—two linebackers shooting in from the Jets' left side, Todd's blind side.
But while the Jets' offense was struggling, their defense was making things just as miserable for the Dolphins. With 10� minutes to go in the game, New York had held Miami to no first downs and 14 yards, total, in the second half, and the Dolphins were hanging on to a three-point lead by their fingernails. Then, suddenly, Miami found a running game. The Dolphins ate up more than seven minutes on a run-only drive that ended in a 23-yard field goal and gave Miami a 15-9 lead.
The crowd woke up when Todd and the New York offense took over at their own 23 with three minutes to go, and there were groans when two plays gaining 11 yards ate up a full minute on the clock. In the Namath era this wouldn't have happened. Namath called his own plays; he knew how to work the clock. Everything is sent in now, and something was lost in translation; the Jets never went into their hurry-up offense. They made up for it with corporate planning, with a drive in which Todd completed seven of 10 passes. The completions went to seven different receivers—three running backs, three wide receivers and, finally, the TD throw to the tight end, Barkum. Two wide receivers were on the right side, Barkum was split left, and Todd hit him coming across the middle. The play is called 45-Option, and Barkum's journey took him past a linebacker, Earnie Rhone, and between the nickel back, Don Bessillieu, and the strong safety, Glenn Blackwood.
The Jets are now tied with Miami for first place in the AFC East at 7-4-1. They have not lost to Miami in four seasons, and if they end up tied with the Dolphins, they will represent the division in the playoffs because they have beaten and tied Miami this season.
The story of the 1981 Jets, at least at this stage of the season, is one of redemption—of the club itself and of Coach Walt Michaels. After three starts the Jets were 0-3. Buffalo had crushed them 31-0 in the opener. Then they blew a two-touchdown lead to Cincinnati while tying a club record for penalties with 14. In his press session the following day, Michaels flew into a rage at one reporter and impressed the others as being a man on the ropes.
The next weekend the Jets were blown out 38-10 by the Steelers. They gave up the most rushing yardage (343) in their history. "We're tight and scared that we might make mistakes," Fullback Tom Newton said. Added Todd, "We'd better stick together because we're the only friends we have out there."