The Jets were just 4-12-0 in 1980 but improved to 10-5-1 and reached the postseason for the first time since 1969, the year they were the defending Super Bowl champions.
Not only did the Jets win in 1981, but they did it in style. They started the season 0-3 and were blown out in two of the games, a 31-0 opening week defeat to the Bills and a 38-10 drubbing at the hand of the Steelers. The press was calling for the firing of Head Coach Walt Michaels and the benching of starting quarterback Richard Todd. The season seemed lost.
But this scrappy Jets team managed to turn things around. They finished the season by winning seven of their final eight games including one point victories over the Dolphins at Shea Stadium and the Browns in Cleveland.
The Jets had plenty of memorable players in 1981. Todd had the best season of his NFL career, finishing with 25 touchdowns against just 13 interceptions and throwing for 3,231 yards.
The former first round pick out of Alabama had a love/hate relationship with New York fans since being selected by the Jets in the 1976 draft. Todd was drafted to replace Namath which made him unpopular in New York and put a lot of pressure on the youngster. At one point, he even gave the fans a one-finger salute when they voiced their displeasure at his play during a difficult loss. But in 1981, Todd’s gutsy determination and never say die attitude finally won over Jets fans.
The running game was led by flashy rookie Freeman McNeil who would go on to become the franchise’s all-time leading rusher.
Speedy Wesley Walker was the top wide receiver and he led the team with 9 touchdown receptions. Walker was legally blind in one eye but that never stopped him from becoming one of the league’s top deep threats.
The Jets offensive line featured big Marvin Powell at tackle, center Joe Fields and the last link to the Jets only Super Bowl team, veteran guard Randy Rasmussen.
The starting linebackers were Stan Blinka, Lance Mehl and Greg Buttle while safety Darrol Ray led the team with 7 interceptions and was the standout in the secondary.
But it was the front four that truly made the 1981 Jets special. New York finished the season with 66 team sacks, one short of what was then the all-time NFL single-season record. Ends Dan Klecko and Mark Gastineau were first and second in the NFL with 20.5 and 20 sacks respectively. Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam were tough inside and could also pressure the passer.
They were dubbed “The New York Sack Exchange” by the press and played their roles to the hilt. They were seen around the town, often as a unit. All four of them rang the opening bell on Wall Street one day. Posters and tee shirts of the Sack Exchange were everywhere.
Gastineau garnered the most attention for the infamous dance which angered opponents but helped bring Jets fans to a frenzy every time he recorded a sack. We all admired Klecko for his ability to play through injuries, Lyons and Salaam for their quiet consistency. We also learned that Abdul Salaam meant “Soldier of Peace.”
Despite their strong finish, the Jets hadn’t clinched a playoff spot after 15 games. The season finale came at Shea Stadium against the Green Bay Packers, who also needed to win the game to qualify for the postseason.
I was lucky enough to get tickets for the game and gladly sat in the end zone despite the single digit temperatures and swirling Shea Stadium winds that made it feel like almost 20 below.
The Jets offense scored twice late in the second quarter to give the home team a 21-3 halftime lead and all but put the game away. Johnny “Lam” Jones, who had blazing speed but questionable hands, managed to hold on to a 47-yard bomb from Todd to provide the cushion.
The second half belonged to the New York Sack Exchange. The Packers trailed by 18 points and had to throw the football. The Jets knew it and teed off on Lynn Dickey who was sacked nine times and harried on almost every play. The Jets held the potent Green Bay offense to just 84 total yards for the entire game and the outcome was never in doubt.
As the clock wound down, Jets fans began a celebration that was 12 years in the making. Shea was shaking as frozen fans tore down the goalposts. The Jets were in the playoffs!
A week later, the Jets hosted the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Wild Card Game. Although they eventually lost, their effort showed why the 81 Jets were a team to admire. Buffalo stunned the crowd and quickly led 7-0 when they returned a fumble on the opening kickoff for a touchdown. The Bills lead grew to 24-0 late in the first half.
But the Jets didn’t quit. A long pass from Todd to tight end Mickey Shuler and two Pat Leahy field goals pulled the Jets to within 24-13 early in the fourth quarter.
But then Buffalo’s Joe Cribbs dashed 45 yards for what seemed like the clinching touchdown and a 31-13 Bills lead.
Todd wasn’t through, however. He led the team on two scoring drives which culminated with a 30-yard pass to Bobby Jones and a one-yard plunge by Kevin Long. Now it was 31-27 Bills with 3:44 left on the clock. Gang Green’s defense forced a three and out and the Jets had the ball at their own 20 with 2:36 remaining on the clock. Todd drove the Jets down the field, fighting a tough Buffalo defense and the clock. The Jets reached the Buffalo 11 with just 14 seconds left.
Shea Stadium was buzzing as Todd went back to pass, looked over the middle and threw for the end zone. Buffalo’s Bill Simpson stepped in front of the intended receiver and intercepted the pass at the 2 yard line. The game was over. The Jets valiant comeback had fallen just short. The most exciting season for the New York Jets in more than a decade was over.