With the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony set for this weekend, my thoughts drift to my beloved Jets and the players they have placed in the Hall of Fame and the players that may some day be enshrined in Canton.
There are three true Jets that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame; Joe Namath, Weeb Ewbank and Don Maynard. The Pro Football Hall of Fame lists six former Jets although I don't include John Riggins, Ronnie Lott or Art Monk since they played the majority of their careers elsewhere.
Of course, there are a number of former Jets that should someday be inducted to join the exclusive club. Curtis Martin, Joe Klecko and Kevin Mawae should be inducted someday.
What I am most interested in though are those former Jets that will probably never be enshrined in Canton but will always hold a special place in my heart and the hearts on many New York Jets fans.
These two words are the most often uttered words by long-time New York Jets fans. "What if we had drafted Marino?" "What if the field had been covered before the Mud Bowl in 1982?" "What if Todd hadn't thrown that interception against the Bills in 1981?" "What if we had never hired Rich Kotite?"
With the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies coming up, I can't help but think about my personal Top 5 New York Jets that make my "Hall of Very What if."
All of these players were talented players that will never make the HOF but each of them had the talent to make it if not for the dreaded "what if?"
What if the Jets had found a way to utilize the most electrifying player in the NFL in more situations?
There is something really exciting about watching electrifying kick return specialists. They are true game changers that can change the momentum of any game in one play.
In today's NFL, that electrifying player is Devin Hester. Bruce Harper was Devin Hester before there was a Devin Hester. Harper led the NFL in Kickoff returns and Kickoff Return-Yardage in each of his first three seasons. He is the all-time kick returner in New York Jets history with 5,407 kick return-yards.
As a running back, Harper averaged nearly five-yards-per-carry in limited rushing duty. His total yards are 11,429, 1,829 rushing yards, 2,409 receiving yards, 1,784 PR yards and 5407 KR yards.
Harper's jersey is the jersey worn by uber-diehard Jets fan (and leader of the J-E-T-S chant) Fireman Ed. If Fireman Ed wears his jersey, you know he must have been a special player.
What if he could have avoided all of those concussions?
When Al Toon was taken by the Jets with the 10th pick in the 1985 NFL Draft, he came to the team as a renowned athlete with large expectations. He was an All-American Wide Receiver at The University of Wisconsin where he also starred in track and field as a triple jumper and long jumper.
Toon did not disappoint Jets fans. His speed and explosiveness made him a force among wide receivers. In 1988 Toon led the league with 93 receptions.
Unfortunately, Toon will probably be most remembered as yet another snake-bitten former Jet whose career was cut short due to the lingering effects of post-concussion syndrome.
Toon is believed to have suffered nine concussions in eight seasons. Still, Toon finished his career with 517 catches for 6,605 yards and 31 TDs in his eight year career. As Jets fans have become accustomed to, a career of great promise ended with great tragedy.
What if he hadn't thrown that interception in the 1981 playoff game against the Bills?
Now I know I'll catch some grief for including Todd on this list but if you look at the situation Todd was thrust into and look at his numbers, you will see why I've included him on this list. It is never easy to replace a legend. Richard Todd had to do it not once but twice.
Jets fans remember Joe Namath as "Broadway Joe" but before that he was the "Pride of the Crimson Tide" at The University of Alabama.
Todd was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama and he watched the exploits of Namath at Alabama and for the Jets before succeeding Namath for both the Alabama Crimson Tide and the New York Jets.
In 1981, Todd led the Jets to their first winning record (10-5-1) since 1969. Todd's 3,231 yards passing and 25 touchdowns paced the offense while Gastineau and Klecko anchored the "Sack Exchange" and the Jets defense.
I will never forget watching him in the AFC Wild Card Playoffs when he led the Jets back from a 24-0 deficit before falling short with a late game INT.
In 1982, Todd led the Jets to the AFC Championship Game against the Miami Dolphins, but lost. Controversy surrounded the game as it was played in a muddy Orange Bowl after the Dolphins did not cover the field during a rainstorm leading up to the game.
Another "what if?"
Todd finished his career with 1,610 of 2,967 completions for 20,610 yards and 124 touchdowns, with 161 interceptions. He also rushed for 932 yards and 14 touchdowns. Despite his playoff performances, Todd is probably best remembered for a 1980 game against the San Francisco 49ers in which he set the NFL record with 42 completions.
The record stood for fourteen years and is still one of the most memorable games in New York Jets history.
What if there had not been a strike-shortened season in 1982?
In 1982, the NFL endured a 57-day long players' strike which reduced the season from a 16-game schedule to a 9-game schedule. That season, second year sensation Freeman McNeil was the best back in the league, validating the jets decision to draft him No. 3 overall in the 1981 NFL draft.
McNeil rushed for 786 yards on 151 carries. He averaged a gawdy 5.2 yards-per-carry and scored six touchdowns.
McNeil was the picture of consistency for his career, being one of only a handful of NFL running backs to play for at least 12 seasons and never average less than 4.0 yards-per-carry. McNeil finished his career with three trips to the Pro-Bowl, 8,074 yards and an impressive 4.5 yards-per-carry for his career.
McNeil only started 16 games in a season once in his career and never quite lived up to the glimpse of what 1982 showed Jets fans but one has to wonder how he would be viewed today if he had a full 16 game season in 1982.
What if he hadn't been blind in one eye?
Wesley Darcel Walker is one of the greatest stories in the history of sports in America. Walker was the 33rd pick in the 1977 NFL Draft and even though he was an All-American at Cal, many believed that it would be almost impossible for him to overcome the fact that he was legally blind in one eye and make a significant impact in the NFL.
Boy were those critics wrong.
Walker was a burner with great hands and a great feel for the game. He averaged a ridiculous19 yards per reception for his career.
He led the league in receiving yards in 1978, his second season in the NFL and he was voted to the Pro Bowl twice, in 1978 and 1982. In 1978, he was voted team MVP. Not bad for a second year player who was legally blind in one eye.
Walker rose to national prominence during the Jets 1982 NFL Playoff run. In two postseason games, he caught 15 passes for 314 yards and 2 touchdowns, as the Jets went on the road and beat the Cincinnati Bengals and the Los Angeles Raiders.
Both of these are all-time memorable performances in the minds of all Jets fans.
His best season came in 1983, when he caught 61 receptions. In 1986 he had a career-best 12 receiving touchdowns. Four of those touchdowns were scored in the third week of the season, as he caught three touchdowns plus the game-winning touchdown from Ken O'Brien in overtime to give the Jets a wild shootout win 51-45 over their hated rival, the Miami Dolphins.
When Walker retired, he had caught 438 passes for 8306 yards and 71 touchdowns. Beyond the numbers, Walker carved out a special place in my heart and the heart of many Jets fans for his grit and determination in persevering and overcoming what would have been a career ending obstacle for most players.
That is why Wesley Walker will always be No. 1 on my "What if?" list.