The Jets Half-Century of Misery

Gang Green has been in a holding pattern since 1969


One of the most famous Twilight Zone episodes is “The Odyssey of Flight 33,” which aired in February 1961, about a jetliner that somehow cracks the time barrier and is doomed to wander back and forth across the centuries in an eternal holding pattern.

Two years later, music and talent executive Sonny Werblin and partners purchased the New York Titans, part of the American Football League, and renamed them the Jets. They were destined to become one of the worst franchises in NFL history.

Like Flight 33, the Jets started out on an amazing flight path, one that changed pro football. In 1965, Werblin coaxed Alabama head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant into coaxing the most sought-after college quarterback in the country, Joe Namath, into signing with the Jets, of the fledgling AFL, rather than with a team in the older, established NFL. Namath received the then staggering sum of $427,000 for three seasons. 

Werblin’s investment paid spectacular dividends: In his third season, Namath, by this time known as Broadway Joe for his flamboyant lifestyle avidly covered by the New York gossip columnists, led the Jets to an apocalyptic upset of the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in the 1969 AFL-NFL championship game. (It was not yet officially designated the Super Bowl—it would be retroactively labeled as Super Bowl III by the NFL some years later). The victory heralded the start of a glorious future for the Jets, but one that was quickly hobbled by Namath’s fragile knees. Even before their championship season, Werblin’s partners, among them founder and owner of the fuel empire, Leon Hess, forced him out, although he had produced a winner. Hess thought he could do even better. He was wrong.

Among almost countless bad decisions during the long Hess reign, in 1995 he announced that Pete Carroll was out as head coach, to be replaced with Rich Kotite. Carroll went on to two national championships with the USC Trojans and a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks. Kotite lasted two seasons, in which the Jets overwhelmed four opponents and underwhelmed 28. Hess’s stated reason for hiring Kotite was classic: “I’m 80 years old, I want results now.” Jets fans knew exactly how he felt.

Hess made one positive contribution to the team. In a move worthy of Logan Roy, the patriarch in Succession, The New York Times reported that Hess had specified in his will that “my interests in the Jets be disposed of unaffected by any desire of family members to participate in the club’s future ownership.’’

The National Football League as we know it began in 1970, the year after the Jets championship, when teams from the AFL merged with the existing NFL. But in the half-century since, the Jets are one of three teams—along with the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions—who have not made it to the Super Bowl since the merger in 1970.  Two other newer franchises, the Jacksonville Jaguars (1995) and the Houston Texans (2002), also have never appeared in the big game. However, bad management has not cost the Jets’ owners. This year, Forbes listed the New York team’s worth at $4.05 billion, easily outpacing the Browns’ $2.6 billion and the Lions’ $2.4 billion.

Never in the history of American football has so much been squandered by so many to produce so little. 

The Jets awfulness is many-sided. Since the 1970 merger, the New England Patriots are .576, third-best in the NFL behind the Steelers and the Cowboys. The Jets media guide claims New England as “a marquee rivalry” on the order of Yankees-Red Sox. The truth is that the .432 Jets are rivals to the Patriots in the same way that Wile E. Coyote is rival to the Roadrunner.

Indeed, the Patriots were the beneficiary of the Jets’ blunder of blunders in 1999, when Bill Belichick was named head coach to succeed Bill Parcells. Belichick called it quits the next day to take the reins of the Patriots—the rest is etched in Super Bowl history. The rivalry boils down to this: New England has been to 11 Super Bowls, the Jets to one—and remember, that wasn’t even called a “Super Bowl.”

In 2000, Johnson & Johnson heir Woody Johnson became the Jets’ new owner, with a winning bid of $635 million. His sins as owner have long had Jets fans saying, “Come back, Leon, all is forgiven.”

Like Hess, Johnson tended to step back from team affairs except when there was a really bad decision to be made. Several of those decisions had more to do with marketing than with football. In 2008, the Jets signed Brett Favre—Super Bowl winner, three league MVPs, 11 Pro Bowls. But at 39, Favre had seen his best years—he went 9-7 but led the league with 22 interceptions. Having successfully postponed their future for one more year, the Jets released Favre at the end of the season.

Still looking for a quick fix, in 2012 the Jets brought the Tim Tebow media circus to town. The 2007 Heisman Trophy winner had failed to catch on as a pro, going 8-6 in two seasons at Denver. By the time he came to the Jets, he was more famous for kneeling in prayer on the field—“tebowing,” as it became known on social media—than football. He only started in two games for the Jets, and midway through the season, the team gave up on the Tebow experiment, having never really given him a chance.

The signings of both Favre and Tebow smacked of cynicism. Rumors were rife that they signed both QBs just to sell jerseys and tickets, although in 2012, at the height of Tebow fever, Johnson denied that to the press. And when Tebow left, the team was still in a holding pattern.

This year for Halloween the Jets dressed up as real football players and defeated the Cincinnati Bengals 34-31, in what the sports press reported as “a shocking upset,” which is superfluous, as every Jets win is a shocking upset. Starting QB Zach Wilson was on the sidelines with a bad knee, the victim of the pounding that Jets passers have become accustomed to. Acquiring quality pass blockers to protect their QB has never been a priority for the team.

The Jets got their treat against the Bengals when Mike White, a 26-year-old backup whose last start in organized football was for Western Kentucky in 2017, stepped in and threw for 405 yards, 3 TDs, and even caught a 2-point conversion. The trick came the next week: White started the game against the Colts but left with an arm injury, replaced by third-stringer Josh Johnson. The Jets lost 45-30.

On Sunday, November 14, the White era hit a brick wall when he threw four interceptions in a crushing 45-17 defeat by the Buffalo Bills, for the seventh loss in nine games. No definite word when Zach Wilson be back. 

SNL, Larry David, Seth Meyers, and Trevor Noah have all been having a rollicking good time at the Jets’ expense. Seth Meyers said that the Jets 15-point loss to the Colts was “good for Late Night because we need easy punch lines about the Jets sucking.” On The Daily Show, in a piece about Singapore requiring non-vaxxed people to pay their own medical bills, Trevor Noah asked indignantly, “What’s next? Will Jets fans have to pay for their own antidepressants?”

Could White be the pilot who will finally land the Jets in a Super Bowl? Will Zach ever fly again? Fifty years of the Jets’ patented formula of chaos and holding patterns suggests that with this flighty franchise, whoever takes center snaps will just create more fodder for late-night comedy.   ❖

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