Jets Fight to Expunge Demons: Legacy of Failure Follows New York to Pittsburgh

Dave WhalenCorrespondent IJanuary 20, 2011

Marino's clock play lives in infamy.
Marino's clock play lives in infamy.Simon Bruty/Getty Images

It was Sunday after Thanksgiving 1994, and the New York Jets were hosting the Miami Dolphins in a contest to help decide the AFC East.

The New York Times reported that the game’s attendance was the biggest in Jets history, and as Gang Green built a 24-6 third quarter lead, the Meadowlands was ready to party.

Then, in typically spectacular Jets fashion, the roof caved in.

Dan Marino connected with Mark Ingram on a pair of touchdown passes, drawing Miami to within three in the fourth quarter. With a chance to salt the game away, Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason was intercepted, granting Marino a final opportunity.

What happened next lives on in the nightmares of Jets fans as “the clock play.”

Working from the Jets’ 7-yard line with seconds remaining, Marino appeared to direct his linemen to prepare to kill the clock. Oblivious Jets defenders largely quit playing and milled around on the field, waiting for the inevitable spike. 

Only it never came.

Unknown even to most of his teammates, Marino had signaled Ingram to run a play—a bullet into the end zone that the receiver snagged for his third touchdown of the quarter. The Dolphins won the game and the division; the Jets did not win again that year.

And so it has gone for a franchise that has spent most of its existence in a woebegone stupor. Oh yes, there was that little guarantee in Miami and some traipsing about the sidelines in mink—a period in the sun that expired faster than you can say Beautymist pantyhose.

But in more than four decades since Broadway Joe’s finger-wagging exit from the Orange Bowl, the Jets have oscillated between mediocrity and something less, carving out space among the perennially downtrodden in sports and rarely passing on a chance to twist the knife in the gut of Gang Green nation.

Marino, Jets fans will tell you, should never have played for the Dolphins. Miami drafted Marino with the 27th pick of the 1983 NFL draft, three spots after the Jets selected quarterback Kenny O’Brien, who in 10 years at the helm of the franchise never won a playoff game.

Those twice-yearly meetings with Miami and their stud gunslinger grew into painful reminders of what might have been, and by the end of his time in New York the Jets thought so little of O’Brien that they gave away his No. 7 jersey to Esiason even before they got around to cutting him.

As if the O’Brien over Marino fiasco were not enough, seven years later the Jets selected Penn State running back Blair Thomas with the No. 2 pick of the first round. The next running back drafted that year was a junior from Florida who went on to collect three Super Bowl rings and break the all-time NFL rushing record.

Emmitt Smith ended his career with more than 18,000 rushing yards—about 16,000 more than Thomas amassed in four much-maligned seasons as a Jet.

But hey, poor early drafting at least ensures that you get to keep trying it, and in 1996 the Jets used the No. 1 overall pick to select USC receiver Keyshawn Johnson, whose 1-15 debut season provided enough fodder for the precocious and utterly tone-deaf rookie to pen a memoir eloquently titled Just Give Me the Damn Ball.

Under Bill Parcells, the Jets did, riding Johnson and the bionic arm of Vinny Testaverde to the AFC Championship Game where, not expected to win, they didn’t.

Enter Bill Belichick.

Exit Bill Belichick.

Belichick was technically the head coach of the Jets on two occasions yet never coached a game with the team and in 2000 became perhaps the only coach in sports history to quit at his introductory news conference. Displaying the same economy of language that would confound reporters in later years, the future greatest coach of all time scribbled his resignation letter moments before taking the podium, writing simply, “I resign as HC of the NYJ.”

There have been other meltdowns, notably the 1986 collapse in Cleveland, or the premature demise of the New York Sack Exchange, its ringleader, Mark Gastineau, retiring under the cloud of anabolic steroids to pursue a boxing career that was subsequently derailed by charges of match fixing.  

Can a single win undo a legacy of failure and buffoonery? For Jets fans, it is enough to hope that, with a win this weekend, it can all be over—gone to the same place as the Boston curse and the Rangers jinx and all your Eli Manning jokes.

To reach Dallas, the Jets will have had to go through three teams that have controlled the AFC for the last decade. Mark Sanchez will need to play as efficiently as he did in New England, and Rex Ryan’s defense must do what a Georgia district attorney could not and lock down Ben Roethlisberger. A tall order, though by any measure these swashbuckling, not-your-big-brother’s Jets have a shot.

But if, in the waning moments, Roethlisberger calls for a spike—please, someone remember the clock play.