Once again the Jets are considering taking a quarterback of the future in the NFL Draft. Over the past decade, this has been a recurring theme. It did not have to be, however. Twelve years ago the team owned the top pick in the Draft and appeared to be in prime position to land a potential franchise quarterback. Then Peyton Manning shockingly decided to return to Tennessee for his senior year. The following is a look at how history may have panned out had Manning not made that fateful decison. Today's focus will be 1998.
Expectations were high for the Jets as the 1998 season opened. After a stellar rookie season, Peyton Manning was expected to leap into the elite quarterbacking class. The team also made one of the biggest splashes of the offseason, landing restricted free agent running back Curtis Martin from New England. Pundits proclaimed Manning, Martin, and Keyshawn Johnson the new triplets, a nod to Dallas' quarterback, running back, receiver combo of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin earlier in the decade. In a move of less significance, the team released Neil O'Donnell and signed veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde to serve as Manning's backup.
The season started on a low note. Gang Green wasted a 400 yard passing game from Manning in Week 1 at San Francisco as Garrison Hearst's 96 yard touchdown run in overtime ended the opener in heartbreaking fashion. Things took off from there. A three touchdown game against Baltimore in Week 2 righted the ship and set the Jets on a run. The only game the team lost the rest of the way was on a trip to St. Louis in October. Much hyped divisional matchups against the Colts, featuring Manning and the top pick in the 1998 Draft, Ryan Leaf, both ended in New York blowout wins. A two game losing streak by Denver late in the year gave the Jets the top seed in the AFC Playoffs. Manning thrived under his new mentor Testaverde, a former top overall pick himself, and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. He threw 29 touchdowns against 7 interceptions in the regular season and posted a 101.6 quarterback rating. The team had a 4,000 yard passer (Manning), a 1,000 yard runner (Martin), and two 1,000 yard receivers (Johnson and Wayne Chrebet).
Coming off a bye, the Jets beat Miami in the Divisional round 41-10. That set up a showdown in the Meadowlands between the Jets and defending Super Bowl Champion Denver for the AFC Championship. With horrendous winds blowing all day, Manning helped erase a 10-0 third quarter deficit as the Jets rallied to win 23-10. The game turned in the third quarter. On the kickoff after the Jets scored to cut Denver's lead to 10-7, a gust of wind took the ball well short of its intended target. Kicker John Hall came out of the pile with the football in Denver territory. The Jets kicked the tying field goal on the drive and carried momentum the rest of the way. Bill Belichick's defense held John Elway to a 13 of 34 day passing in what would turn out to be the final game of his legendary career. Many viewed the game as a passing of the torch from Elway to Manning.
The Super Bowl was a rematch of a regular season game in which the Jets blew out the Falcons. The result was similar. Manning threw for over 300 yards and 2 touchdowns to take home MVP honors, becoming the youngest Super Bowl winning quarterback in the process at age 22. Thirty years after winning their last title, the Jets reached the pinnacle of the sport in Miami once again. Bill Parcells had his third Super Bowl title. It would be his last. As we all know, this, however, was only the beginning for Manning.