June 09, 2011 by
SOMEWHERE BACK IN TIME WITH:
The 1978 NEW YORK JETS
By Don Stokes–Contributing Writer-Football Reporters Online/Pro Football NYC
(Editor’s note: This is the start of a series of articles about different New York Jet seasons in their 51 year history. They were randomly chosen with each reflecting the joy and frustration of being a Gang Green fan. Each story will have a Jet player of importance from that specific season).
With the NFL in a self imposed lockout at the present with Billions (yes BILLIONS) on the table. I wanted to reflect on a simpler time period. While questions currently arise regarding a possible 18 game campaign in 2011, I recalled the last time the National football League changed the amount of their scheduled games: 1978. A thought occurred to me. High on a shelf in my bedroom closet in my Ohio home a very old box dry but slightly water stained caught my eye. Along with dated important papers (I’ve away felt compelled to keep for reasons unknown) I found an old 1979 New York Jet Yearbook. Its cover page now bent and fading from prolonged sun exposure was no longer in mint condition. The faces on this now over 30 year old magazine were familiar to most Jet fans over the age of 30.
Head Coach Walt Michaels, WR Wesley Walker and QB Richard Todd were all featured prominently on the cover. All three have a big place in the 51 year history of the Jets. But in the bottom right corner of the cover was a player wearing jersey number 17 who would not be so familiar to most. But for one season he was very important. From what I personally recalled from that 1978 season is it was a watershed year for the New York Jets. At the conclusion of that season the club expectations rose. The Jets suddenly were expected to contend for a playoff position for the seasons to come. But for this number 17 in the 1979 yearbook he wouldn’t be around to be a part of it. Flipping thru the old pages of auto dealership ads and 1978 team stats I noticed that one Jets player profile in particular.
Here is some of what the paragraph in the Jet yearbook read: “Brought energy and enthusiasm back to club not seen since the heyday of Joe Namath.” “Led team with 2002 passing yards and 13 touchdown passes which were the most since 1975” Another line went: “Formed a deadly combination with All-Pro Wesley Walker with a deep passing attack not seen since Namath to Maynard days”. I looked at the black and white photo of the long since retired former Jet quarterback. With a Tony Danza (From the show “taxi” not “Who’s the boss”) type haircut and sporting a thick Fu Manchu mustache was a smiling Matt Robinson.
Since he was a personal favorite of mine (I was one of the only teenagers in my North Bronx neighborhood who actually had a number 17 Jet jersey in 1978……I even cut my sleeves to resemble the way Robinson wore his uniform) why not seek him out for his point of view of the ’78 season. What’s the worst that could happen? He’d say no. He’d think I was a crack pot? Maybe so. But to my surprise he was very gracious and agreed to be a part of this story. I recently caught up with the former Jet QB Matt Robinson, now living in the Jacksonville Florida area. We’ll get to Matt’s reflections on his ‘78 season a bit later but first let me lace up the old Chuck Taylor Converse high top sneakers, put on my mood ring and rub my cool pet rock for a little needed background info. Let’s take a stroll.
10 seasons had now passed since the ‘guaranteed’ victory in Super Bowl III. For the 1978 Jets who were reeling after three straight 3-11 records any positive change of fortunes would be welcomed. Arriving with the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens New York, Shea Stadium the new home for both the NY Mets and NY Jets were to become the epitome of the new modern age multi sport stadiums. But soon Shea had become enervated and stale by the 1970’s. So true was the Jets franchise because by the mid 1970’s the Jet organization had become downtrodden and irrelevant. Big Shea along with the other tenant being the New York Mets baseball club being just as bad now was filled with fans disguised as empty seats had become a depressing place to attend a sporting event of any type.
With issues developing at Shea regarding the facilities and other leasing problems, NY State Supreme Justice Harold Baer allowed the Jets to open their 1977 regular season in New Jersey. This was a newly constructed stadium erected in the swamps of East Rutherford called the Meadowlands (A Jets loss 20-12 to the Baltimore Colts opened their 1977 home schedule). This was now the new home of the NY football Giants (another former shared Shea tenants with the NY Yankees, Mets and Jets all playing their 1975 seasons there………The natural grass on the field really took a beating) moving into their new area by 1976. The Jets would return to Shea Stadium for their second game of the 1977 season and remain there for the rest of the decade and beyond. But the Meadowlands now were on the Jet’s radar for future seasons. Perhaps a portent of things to come but that’s another story.
Since 1973 the NFL has a policy that the home team must sellout their stadium 72 hours before a game or that market will not be able to watch that home team play in that radius. With that in place many Jet fans during this period didn’t see home Jet games on local television. With no Shea Stadium sellouts when the Jets played at home for most of the decade the NBC local games that was broadcast were the Pittsburgh Steelers. As the Jets sunk deeper into mediocrity I watched, like so many Jet fans the team play only on the road for they were the only televised Jet games available. I decided I could follow the Jets play by play when they played home games with a transistor pocket radio. This item became a part of my Sunday wardrobe attire for the next 4 years. As of this writing 1977 was the last year that a New York Jet home game was blacked out locally.
By the mid seventies many of the Jet greats of the past like RB’s Boozer and Snell, WR Don Maynard, LB Ralph Baker and DE Gerry Philbin had been either released or simply retired. Their replacement gamely tried but was not as talented as their predecessors. The Jets free fall from media darlings to the lower half of the NFL was surprisingly quick. By the close of the 1976 season the Jets strongest link to their past Super Bowl glory QB Joe Namath also moved on. At his request Broadway Joe went to Hollywood to finish his career with the Rams in Los Angeles. Big shoes needed to be filled in Queens. And very quickly.
Earlier that same year the Jets had drafted a seemly gifted quarterback also from the same college Namath starred many years earlier. In 1976 the Jets chose University of Alabama’s quarterback Richard Todd. With rookie quarterbacks come growing pains. And Todd had plenty them while splitting playing time with Namath in 1976. With Joe’s departure Todd took the QB reins and started well in 1977. The Jets had gutted the veterans on the squad so now stood 17 first or second year starters on Offense, Defense and Special teams. They were eager but their rawness showed. When your team is young and inexperienced you tend to lose many close games. That was truly the case for the 1977 New York Jets.
Here are some examples:
On October 23rd at Shea, Richard Todd riddled the defending Super Bowl Champion Oakland Raiders with 396 yards (271 at the half) passing along with 4 touchdowns to put the Jets ahead at halftime 27-14. On that bright sunny Sunday afternoon I was one of the many walkups on the day of the game but was denied entrance because of a late large turnout and no tickets were available. The game unexpectedly had become a sellout. I returned home via the subway by halftime heartbroken and because of the NFL Blackout rule applied the game still was not shown to the New York City area. With my transistor in hand I listened intensely. The Raiders went ahead in the 3rd quarter and hung on for a 28-27 victory. This loss continued a losing streak that would finally grow to 7 in a row. Despite the defeat it seemed apparent Richard Todd was ready to become the next great franchise QB in Jet history. Two weeks later against the Dolphins at home during a 14-10 loss, a 3rd quarter knee injury placed Todd on the shelf for 2 games. It was during this contest that gave an opportunity to the backups, first to former Baltimore Colt Marty Domres.
Unfortunately for the Jets, the nine year veteran Ivy Leaguer from Columbia was nearing the end of his playing career and for two games both he and the offense were lifeless. A change once again was needed at starting quarterback while the incumbent Todd was still recovering. Enter the rookie from Farmington, Michigan QB Matt Robinson.
A 1977 9th round draft pick from the University of Georgia QB Robinson now had his opportunity. After two relief appearances for the starter Domres, Matt Robinson’s first NFL start would be against the Pittsburgh Steelers at home. A young quarterback as in Robinson’s case up against the Pittsburgh vaunted “Steel Curtain” defense. Just as expected with little running game both he and the offense struggled. The Shea Stadium fateful began a loud chant for Richard Todd to replace an ineffective Robinson. With the game close in the 4th quarter and needing an offensive spark, 1st Head Coach Walt Michaels sent in Todd to an adoring Shea gleeful crowd. But he was rusty and fared no better. On his first two passes came 2 straight interceptions occurred in the 23-20 home loss.
By the following week against the New Orleans Saints Todd returned fulltime and remained the starter for the final 3 games of 1977. For the NFL this would be the very last year where a 14 game schedule would exist. Before the 1978 season new major changes awaited the National Football league. With zone defenses become the norm during the early 1970’s the league had become a defensive paradise with once many strong offensive teams struggling both on the field and the gate. Despite the dominance of a few clubs the NFL had become a Big 10 type brand of football, three yards and a cloud of dust. Wide receivers were now marked men with constant muggings downfield by over aggressive defensive backs (see Oakland’s Jack Tatum and the Redskins Pat Fischer). League owners weren’t pleased with the defensive dominance across the board and the turn styles began to reflect it.
Example: In 1977 the Atlanta Falcons with their “Grits Blitz” defense gave up an NFL record low 129 points in 14 games with is an average of 9.21 points a contest but scored only 179 points. Atlanta finished 7-7 and out of the playoffs. By 1978 the Falcons gave up 290 points and scored 240 but improved with a 9-7 mark and made the NFC playoffs. Also in 1978 two additional teams were added to the playoff round increasing the total to 10 thus making the end of the regular season much more exciting with more teams in the playoff chase. For most teams running backs routinely led their team in receptions and that was the norm for majority of the decade.
With new rule changes the trend would begin to favor the more graceful wide receivers (Seattle’s Steve Largent and the Chargers John Jefferson for example) over the Don McCauley and McArthur Lane type running backs of that time period to open up the game. Another big help with the passing game occurred when the NFL put in the “Mel Blount” rule into effect. From now on there was to be no contact by a Defensive Back after 5 yards pass the line of scrimmage. More changes also occurred in pass blocking with offensive lineman now allowed to extend their arms and open their hands. By 1978 NFL teams with good passers like Dan Fouts of San Diego and Archie Manning of the New Orleans Saints (who was named NFC Player of the year in 1978) for example because of the new offensive changes flourished.
But also the rich got richer: For annual Super Bowl participants like Pittsburgh and Dallas they used their wide outs more than ever before and became even more potent. The game would truly evolve for big play wide receivers like Lynn Swann, John Stallworth and Tony Hill to excel into the next decade. Next the NFL regular season would begin 2 weeks earlier than normal, shorten the pre-season from 6 games to 4. Those 2 lost pre-season games were added to the regular season now making the season 16 games instead of the usual 14 games since the 1961 season. With no bi-week in place until twelve years into the future (1990 NFL season) all 28 clubs were on now unchartered territory. For the 1978 NFL season it was a whole new world.
But for one team, the Kansas City Chiefs with new head coach Marv Levy from the CFL it was a step backwards. Forsaking the pass for the most part they installed a “Wing T” offense which consisted of a three running back, two tight end formation. It helped very little in the victory column (from 2 wins in ’77 to 4 in 1978) for the Chiefs. While for other teams the change would be just cosmetic. For the first time the San Diego Chargers with new Head Coach Don Coryell now wore their white jerseys with the white lightning bolt gold pants for their 1978 home games. The Chargers with “Air Coryell” led the NFL in passing yards (3,375) in 1978. There was also new threads for the football team in flushing, New York. The Jets with new space age type uniforms awaited the players as they arrived at training camp for the 1978 season signaled a dramatic change from the past.
Now gone was the all white double green stripe helmets down the middle with the Kelly green NY Jets football logo on both sides. The new gear was an all solid Kelly green helmet with a green stripe in the middle. A new “Jets” logo resembling a sleek modern font like a wing of a fighter jet all in white blazed on each side. The facemasks on the helmets were no longer grey but now all white. The familiar Joe Namath 1960’s type jerseys with the home green with white sleeves and road whites with green sleeves had been replaced with an all home green with white piping and all white road jerseys with green piping. The uniform pants instead of the white trousers with two green stripes along the sides were still white but with no stripes. The socks were now all white but the hose underneath was solid green. And all Jet players now wore white shoes. This made for a more futuristic appearance. If anything this was an interesting fashion statement to say the least.
“Let’s talk about the Jet training camp of 1978. You had gotten some playing time in 1977 because of a Richard Todd injury. How much playing time did you expect in 1978 and also what were the expectations of the team in 1978?” I asked the starting quarterback of the ’78 Jets Matt Robinson, now a Co- founder and President of Home Team Equity, LLC a mortgage marketing company working with former athletes and lending organizations. He took time out of his taxing schedule and slowly began “Well, the number two QB in 1977 Marty Domres was not up to par physically any longer and had retired, so the number two quarterback job was up for grabs. Pat Ryan (the third QB on the roster) was just drafted in 1978 and was a rookie, so I knew I had a great shot for the number two QB job”.
I stated to Mr. Robinson that in 1978 the Jets were judged as having the NFL’s toughest schedule that year (1977 playoff teams included Miami, Denver, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Dallas) along with two 9-5 teams New England and Washington which was strange considering the Jets had the second worst record in the AFC (Kansas City was 2-12) record the previous season. Matt pondered then answered “ We didn’t pay attention to the schedule because at that time there weren’t as many experts or media outlets as there is now so we weren’t aware of it. We just took one game at a time and just played the games as they came”.
I asked Matt “Just how did you get along with the incumbent Richard Todd, the man who was chosen to replace the legendary Joe Namath?” Without hesitation he said “Richard and I got along great. I enjoyed being his teammate. Richard had it tough replacing (Joe) him. I, on the other hand had it a bit easier than him. When I played poorly I wasn’t ripped by the media. But when he (Todd) played poorly it was kind of hard. I wasn’t really expected to play that well because I was a low draft choice, so when I did play well I was treated great. Richard followed Joe which was a lot of pressure. I, on the other hand replaced Richard because of injury. I didn’t get the heat he did.
With Robinson locking down the number 2 quarterback job the 19th season in Jet history began with the Jets standing on top of the AFC East with a 2-0 record after two weeks. During wins against division rivals Dolphins and Bills, QB Richard Todd threw for 441 yards with 6 touchdowns with the Jets outscoring Miami and Buffalo 51 to 40. Unfortunately for him and the Jets the six touchdowns passes Richard threw during the 1st two games would be the last he would throw the remainder of the year.
After a tough week three 24-17 loss against the Seahawks, the Jets traveled to D.C. to play former Jet John Riggins and the Redskins in week 4. After 1 quarter the Jets went ahead 3-0 on a Pat Leahy field goal. But by the 2nd quarter “the Diesel” Riggins and the not yet named “Hogs” offensive line took over the game. Washington ran for over 250 yards with Riggins leading the way with 114 yards and to a 23-3 final score. During the 4th quarter of the blowout Richard Todd like the previous season was again injured, this time it was a fractured collarbone. Enter once again backup QB Matt Robinson. He explains his take on the Washington game. “You never wish anyone to get hurt but when Richard got hurt in the Washington game, I knew it was my chance to shine. I was a little nervous and uncomfortable but after my first completion I was ok. I just decided to go with it and just play.”
With Todd’s injury, Matt Robinson assumed control of the Jet offense. But it seemed to walk in baby steps. After a week 5 loss at home to Pittsburgh 28-17 which dropped the Jets to 2-3, Gang Green dashed off three straight wins against the Bills (45-14), Baltimore Colts(33-10) and St. Louis Cardinals (23-10). The Jets literally “ran” to each victory.
“Let’s talk about the 3 wins in a row against Buffalo, Baltimore and St. Louis.” I said.” During those three games the Jets ran for 605 yards but you threw but 44 passes”. I then proceeded to ask Matt about the play calling during that streak. “Was this just a conscience decision to run the ball with FB Kevin Long and HB Scott Dierking or did the coaching staff wish to simplify things for you since you was a 2nd year QB at that point?” I sensed a moment of pride as Robinson began “We were in the tough AFC East man. Every team ran the ball (ex. NE ran for a league record 3,165 yards in 1978). The team may have scaled the playbook down a little but I called my own plays. John Idzik was the Jet Offensive Coordinator and he had a lot of confidence in me and my ability. Like most QB’s of my day I was proud to call my own plays unlike today’s quarterbacks”
But I quickly added “Everyone’s quarterback called their own plays except that team who’s coach wore that funny looking hat on the sidelines”.
Matt immediately chuckled. We both knew who I was referring to. Former Cowboys Head Coach Tom Landry who wore the funny looking fedora for “America’s Team” of course. Robinson began a short story “Later that season I spoke with Danny (or was it Randy?) White of the Cowboys (The Jets opponent the final game in 1978) and he told me about all the scripted plays the Cowboys ran for every possible offensive situation. It was just nuts. Like what to do on 2nd down and 6. Or 3rd down and 7. Or 4th and 3. It was a big long sheet printed on computer printout paper. Most of the players on the Cowboys at the time thought you got to be kidding we got to learn this stuff. But you can’t argue with their success can you”?
After the three game winning streak the Jets now stood at 5-3 and headed to Foxboro to play the 6-2 Patriots for 1st place in the AFC East. A little independent movie named “Halloween” was released to the public on October 25th of 1978. The antagonistic character Michael Myers was introduced to audiences and became a cultural icon for years to come. In Massachusetts on October 29th, Halloween came early for the Jets because similar to the characters in that movie they too were hacked up by the Patriots. As stated earlier the Pats ran the ball well all season in 1978, setting the still standing NFL record for yards rushing in a season. This game was no different. New England ran for 240 yards and along with 4 touchdown passes from Steve Grogan the Jets were crushed 55-21. This score doesn’t indicate how badly the Jets played: They trailed 48 -7 heading into the 4th quarter. Stopping the run would be an on-going problem all season for the 1978 Jets.
Now at 5-4 New York was at the crossroads. After much promise how would the rest of the season play out? Would they go into the tank like previous seasons? Who was up next for the Jets: A trip to Denver to play the defending 1977 AFC Champion Broncos.
Heading into the Bronco game I asked Matt if there was concerns since the Jets were facing the “Orange Crush Defense” who was the AFC representative in the Super Bowl the previous January.
Matt’s reply:” We knew who they were (the Broncos) but we weren’t intimidated at all”.
The way the game began it looked as if the Jets may not have been intimidated but were a little taken back. Like in New England they fell behind 28-7 in the second quarter and the game and the season were slipping away. With the nearly 75,000 Mile High rocking loud and out of control, the Jets began the 2nd greatest comeback in team history. After closing the score to 28-17 at half the Jets then took control of the game. In the 3rd quarter running back Scott Dierking’s 3 yard run got the Jets closer at 28-24. Now late in the 4th quarter with Denver clinging to a 4 point lead would the biggest play of the game would take place.
I’ll have Matt Robinson explain the circumstances: “We knew we had the play whenever we needed it. Dan Henning (the Jets receivers coach) let us set it up. This game was a back and worth battle. Dan knew we could get the right match up on defense and when the right time opened up, we took it”. The plays end result? A game winning 75 yard bomb to Wesley Walker for the 31-28 lead. Walker blew past two Bronco defenders with Robinson hitting him in stride. After a missed FG by former Jet Jim Turner with seconds remaining the Jets soared out of Denver with a 31-28 victory. This was a big confidence builder for this young Jet team after the Foxboro Halloween Massacre. Broncos Head Coach Red Miller was quoted saying: “Robinson brings something special. He just has a certain Moxie about him”. Remember this comment by Miller. It would be important (see Post Script) later.
One would have thought this win would surely carry New York to the level of playoff contenders, right. Well it did not. The Jets soared into Philadelphia for a game against the Eagles. And crash landed in the Vet. Eagles QB Ron Jaworski hit WR Harold Carmichael for a 6 yard TD pass late in the 4th quarter increasing a 10-9 Eagle lead to a 17-9 Philly win against a flat Jet team. That loss should be nothing new because as of 2010 the Jets have never defeated the Philadelphia Eagles (0-8) in a regular season contest.
A November 19th rematch with the Patriots now awaited Gang Green, this time at raucous Shea Stadium.
The starter Richard Todd was now ready to return from his injury. Matt Robinson had played well in his absence but Todd was the incumbent. The Jet coaching staff had to make a tough decision. Go with the hot hand (Robinson)? Or go with the face of the franchise (Todd)? With a sold out Shea Stadium and a national television audience at hand Walt Michaels chose Richard Todd to start. Matt explains: “This was the coaches’ decision to start Richard. I understood the choice but I didn’t agree with it. There is an unwritten rule in sports that you can’t lose your starting job because of injury. Although the opposite did happened to me while I was starting at Georgia. I had broken a rib just prior to the season and when I was ready to play, Ray (Goff) just kept my starting job. In both cases I had to deal with it but I didn’t like it but I’d be ready if needed”.
The excitement generated upon Richard Todd’s return to the lineup unfortunately was short lived. He didn’t play very well as planned. Todd was mostly ineffective going 7-13 for 52 yards with 0 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. But surprisingly it was the Jet defense (a sore spot all season) that kept them in the game. Once again Matt Robinson entered the fray. And the team responded to his leadership. In the third quarter Pat Leahy tied the game at 10 with a 45 yarder in the swirling winds blowing off Flushing Bay. The Patriots ground game put them ahead in the 4th quarter 16-10. Then the magic of Robinson and Walker worked once again. Matt hit Wesley with a perfectly thrown 56 yard bomb putting the Jets on top 17-16 in a jubilant, rocking Shea.
The running game of NE brought them down to take the lead on a 24 yard field goal 19-17. I asked Matt what occurred when he got the ball back for the final drive with just a couple of minutes to go. “We got the ball back with not much time left on the clock. During the final last drive I just missed Wesley for a game winning TD down the sidelines. If I had held the ball just a second longer I would have hit him. That one bugged me for awhile. Wesley had very strong hips and thighs. You could never over throw him. I had all the confidence whenever I threw the ball he would get it. But we still had time and we drove the ball down to get close enough to try a game winning FG. The baseball markings were still on the field so we made the decision to try the FG near the pitcher’s mound near the left hash marks.” The Jet fans both on television and at Shea anticipated victory. Like me they all thought this was a chip shot for one of the better place kickers in the NFL. The Patriots called time out to try to “ice” the kicker, a common attempt which normally is not successful. No problem, I thought Leahy is a veteran kicker at that point (5 years) so this is nothing.
But remember this was Shea Stadium and the winds always changed direction thru out the game. On the mid range attempt in the swirling winds, Pat Leahy a reliable kicker throughout his career shanked it wide right. Game over……The final score 19-17 Patriots. The loss dropped the Jets to 6-6. This game cut deep because New York needed this win to keep pace for a playoff position. But there no time to cry: South Beach awaited the Jets for a return match up with Miami.
This was the contest Matt Robinson felt put him on the map with the national audience. With the Jets trailing 6-3 at the half, the Jet offense stalled by the Dolphin defense most of the game finally awoke. After two Jets rushing TD’s, Matt Robinson hit Wesley Walker for a 33 yard Touchdown in the 4th quarter sealing the victory 24-13. This game in Matt’s eyes was his most impressive of the 1978 season. “This was a really big win for us. It had been quite a while since we (the Jets) beat Miami in Miami. It was a nationally televised game on NBC and I played very well”. “This game” Matt added “put him on the map”. He was correct in that assessment. The Jets hadn’t beaten the Dolphins in Miami since the 1971 season. This game placed Matt who was 17 of 26 for 257 yards as the starting QB for the remainder of the season.
Returning to Shea against the Colts on December 3rd was to be a special event. This was the 10 year anniversary celebrating the 1968 Jets Super Bowl victory against Baltimore. All of the old Jets now retired were there, former coach Weeb Ewbank, John Elliott, Johnny Sample, George Sauer, etc. all took the field at halftime. This included a certain white shoe long hair recently retired Super Bowl MVP QB Joe Willie Namath. Only one player could not be part of the halftime festivities. That player was the starting left guard for the 1968 Jets Randy Rasmussen who was an 11 year vet and still an active starter on the Jets roster.
The Jet running game (202 yards) returned against the 3 straight (1975-’76 and ’77) former AFC East Champions but now stood at 5-9 Baltimore Colts. Robinson who said he wasn’t nervous with the old Jets in attendance played somewhat shaky (7-18 for 186 yards with 2 INT) but still threw 2 touchdowns to Wesley Walker fueling the 24-16 win. A good time at sold out Shea was had by all who attended. I would personally know of this: I was one of the 55,000 in attendance. The newspapers the next morning showed the most recent AFC standings. While the Jets who were now 8-6 would not catch the neither the Patriots nor Dolphins in their own division with some help they possibly could make the playoffs for the first time since 1969. It would be a nice touch with the Jet organization recognizing the ’68 Super Bowl team anything was attainable. But a cold reception awaited them in Cleveland as the Browns were up next.
A game in Cleveland is never fun especially when it’s under frigid conditions. The Lake Erie winds brought a bitter cold wind to Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium as the Browns faced the Jets. This was a game of many parts.
First the bad: In the 16 degree weather in the cold and blustery Cleveland the Jets fell behind big and quickly. Within a blink of an eye the Jets trailed 17-3. By the end of the 3rd period the score was now Browns 27 Jets 10. But I wasn’t upset to say the least because the games the Jets played in 1978 season this one was my favorite. As I continued to watch the game from the comfort of my living room I felt something special was going to happen.
Let’s get to the good: the 1978 Jets were a team of resilience and buoyancy, never giving up despite what the numbers on the scoreboard read. In 1978 quarterback Matt Robinson embodied that team spirit. Matt, struggling all day with his accuracy got hot in the 4th quarter. Suddenly the Jets offense awakened scoring 24 unanswered points to go shockingly ahead 34-27. I’m thinking this game is done as I watch the Browns offense take the frozen field with little left on the clock in the 4th quarter. Just one stop by the Jet defense needed and the Jets win and go to 9-6 and still remain in the playoff race.
On to the ugly: These were the pre-Cardiac kids, the not yet the Cleveland Browns of the upcoming seasons ahead. And the Browns had a future NFL MVP in Brian Sipe at quarterback. After stalling for the majority of the second half he drove the Browns down the field. With seconds left Sipe hit Calvin Hill with an 18 yard pass for a touchdown tying the game at 34-34 thus sending the Municipal Stadium fans into a frenzy. Now in overtime the Jets after stalling on offense now punted to the Browns Greg Pruitt who returned it 31 yards setting up the 22 yard game winning field goal by Don Cockroft. The final score Browns 37 Jets 34.
Instead of returning home at 9-6 and possibly with a great effort against Dallas would finish 10-6 and a playoff chance. The Jets came back to Shea Stadium wounded and defeated. And flat. An uninspiring 30-7 loss to the 1977 World Champion Cowboys at home finished the Jets season at an 8-8 record. Still this was a very good year to be a Jet fan. The Jets had won nearly more games (8) in one season than the previous three seasons (9) combined.
The Jet offense was explosive they finished 3rd in the NFL with 359 points. At WR was a deep threat with All-Pro Wesley Walker, who in his 2nd season led the NFL with a 24.4 average and 1169 yards receiving. New York had a solid running game with Kevin Long (954 yards) and Scott Dierking (681) leading the way. Although on defense which had many holes to fill (only the Colts with 421 points gave up more than the Jets 364 in the NFL) but did have some gifted players like 2nd year DE Joe Klecko, who made the all AFC second team in 1978. And also a good run stopping tough as nails Linebacker in 3rd year pro Greg Buttle from Penn State. Last but not least there would be a legitimate battle for the starting QB job in 1979. In one corner the physically gifted heir apparent to a legend from the same college (Richard Todd). Or, the new gunslinger that resembled Broadway Joe with his looks (the Fu Manchu ‘stach) and his bombs away style of play (Matt Robinson) in the other corner. Who would win the job in 1979? The future of the Jets was in good hands. Or was it?
1978 JETS TEAM LEADERS:
PASSING: Matt Robinson 2002 yards 13 TD
RUSHING: Kevin Long 954 yards 10 TD
RECEIVING: Wesley Walker 48 catches 1169 YDS
INTERCEPTIONS: Burgess Owens & Bobby Jackson 5
1978 Post Script………..With the inspired play of Matt Robinson in 1978 the QB job was up for grabs in 1979. Robinson clearly outplayed Todd in the pre-season. After the final pre-season game while showering Matt was told by Head Coach Michaels that he, not Richard Todd had won the starting quarterback position. He was elated of course.
Matt Robinson tells the rest: “The Saturday night before the 1979 season opener against the Browns, I along with some of the players and a few of the coaches went out for a beer or two. Nothing really special to it just a little team bonding, that’s all. DE Joe Klecko and I had an arm wrestling contest, still no problems. I shared an apartment with WR Bobby Jones and I was helping him move in. There were unpacked boxes on the floor behind me. I fell backwards and in doing so fell on my thumb on my throwing hand. The next day was game day of course and when I woke up my thumb was now swollen.
I told the trainer (Bob Reese) about and had it wrapped up with tape. During the pre-game warm ups I tried to hide it but was questioned by Walt (Michaels) about it and I told him I was good enough to play. So now I’m in deep water because I lied and the trainer didn’t tell Walt about it either. Against the Browns I thought I played well. Although I did hit Wesley with a long pass but it was underthrown and he didn’t score on the play. Anyway we (the Jets) go ahead very late in the game. So, thinking the game was over I start to take off the tape on my swollen thumb. But Sipe and the Brown tied the game. In OT because of my now un-taped thumb I played poorly and threw an interception. The Browns kicked a FG and we lost. After the game Walt was pissed and said I personally let the team down. I always liked Walt but after the Browns game he was done with me”.
Walt Michaels named Richard Todd the starter for the next game against the Patriots (a 56-3 whipping by NE). And Todd remained the starter for the rest of the 1979 season. As for Matt Robinson he never threw another pass for the NY Jets again.
After the ’79 season the Jets shipped Matt Robinson to the Denver Broncos for QB Craig Penrose and a second and fourth round pick. The Broncos Head Coach Red Miller recalled Robinson when he led the Jets to the comeback win against the Broncos in 1978 and was still impressed. Matt was to be the young stud to replace the aging veteran Craig Morton (37) at quarterback in 1980.
Matt explains: “In Denver Rod Dowhower was the offensive coordinator. He tried to change my throwing motion and in doing so it ruined my career. I didn’t play great my first season in Denver but I did have a winning record (4-3) compared to Morton (4-5). The Broncos were getting eliminated from the playoffs earlier and earlier each year since 1977. A new owner Pat Bowlen brought with him a new Head Coach Dan Reeves from the Cowboys. He (Reeves) was at one time Morton’s roommate in Dallas when they played together. He was even Morton’s best man at his wedding. They brought in a Dallas type offensive system. He was a pro-Morton guy. I knew I was done and I went on to Buffalo to back up Joe (Ferguson)”
After a stint in the USFL Jacksonville Bulls by 1986 Matt’s football career was over. Although his time in New York was brief, He had his shining moments.
Matt commented “The fans in New York were great and it was fun. I miss Shea and I really enjoyed playing in the Big Apple”. For those who recalled watching him in 1978 it was fun us also.
Former Jets born in 1978:
DE John Abraham 5/6
RB Thomas Jones 8/19
RB Lamont Jordan 11/11
WR Justin McCareins 12/11
I will end each article the same way until the Jets once against win a Super Bowl with:
AND THE JOURNEY CONTINUES…………………….
Don Stokes is a senior mid west writer for Football Reporters on line which has covered football since 1975. And he still has his mood ring.