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David Wyatt Hupton | November 12, 2014

Just Short of the Promised Land

The New York Jets and the 1982 NFL Strike

The 1982 NFL season was cut short due to a players' strike, and the New York Jets came one game away from the Super Bowl for the first time since being crowned champions in 1968. In a season that was cut short, the Jets finished the season with a 6-3 record and advanced to the AFC Championship game where they were defeated 14-0 by divisional rivals, the Miami Dolphins. In a season that the NFL has seemingly tried to sweep under the carpet, the Jets almost conquered the football world.

In 1982, Mark Moseley of the Washington Redskins, a placekicker, won the National Football League's MVP award. He never received a trophy, just a phone call. Moseley made 20 of 21 field goals on the season for a success rate of 95.2%. He was named MVP over the likes of Dan Fouts, who averaged over 300 yards a game and finished the season with 17 touchdowns in 9 games. Marcus Allen of the 8-1 Raiders had 697 yards and 11 touchdowns and San Diego Chargers receiver Wes Chandler had 1,032 yards receiving with 9 touchdowns. There were plenty of options available. However, for some reason the panel chose the kicker.

Moseley made a ridiculous amount of clutch kicks. In week one, he kicked a 48-yarder to tie the game in the 4th quarter and then a short 26-yarder to win the game. He kicked all 12 points in the win against the St. Louis Cardinals, the game-winner against the Giants and two kicks in the Super Bowl itself. I'm not sure if this warranted the MVP award, but it deserved some recognition, and as we can't re-write history, that's how it's going to have to be.

The 1982 season lasted just two weeks before an eight-week strike began, and each team completed their regular season on a nine-game schedule. Richard Todd played under center for the New York Jets, and the league enjoyed quarterback play from the likes of Fouts, Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, and Joe Theismann. It was an era where the quarterback wasn't protected half as much as he is now, but excellence was the minimal requirement. Eight teams from the American Football Conference and eight teams from the National Football Conference progressed to the playoffs, leading to the eventual championship games and Super Bowl XVI.


Courtesy of Sporting News via Getty Images

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Circa 1982: Negotiations in the National Football League players strike resumed Saturday in New York with player representatives, from left to right, Gene Upshaw, Dick Bertelsen, Stan White and Tom Condon, joined owner representative Jack Donlan, Ed Garvey, executive director of the NFL players union and mediator Sam Kagel to attempt at settling the NFL strike circa 1982. Upshaw played for the Raiders from 1967-81.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1982, labor issues were bubbling under the surface. Although the season started without any issues, it lasted only two weeks before the decision was made for the players to go on strike. The owners and the players union were at loggerheads, and although you may not have seen picket lines, riots or anything resembling that, the bitterness towards each other was palpable. The NFL Players Association thought they were being treated unfairly, while the owners thought the players were getting greedy.

The NFL Players Association Director Ed Garvey had fired up the players.  However, the compensation they were seeking was vastly different to the agreement they eventually signed. Under Garvey's original proposition, the owners would have had to pay the players an estimated total of $1.6 billion of its assorted gate receipts and television and radio money between 1982 and 1986; understandably the owners refused and made all stadiums, practice fields and equipment off-limits to players.

However, the revenue was not the only issue at hand. The establishment of a minimum salary that guaranteed members pay based on years of active service as well as training camp and playoff pay increases was on the agenda. Players wanted medical, insurance and retirement benefits. In the end the NFLPA accepted a one-time $60 million payment to return to work, along with a number of benefits and upgraded minimum salaries. The pendulum and momentum swung towards the players, if not entirely how they had envisioned. The strike of 1987 would bring much larger benefits; however, it was Ed Garvey and the '82 strikers who started the momentum.

Walt Michaels and the 1982 New York Jets weren't the finest team in the league.  In fact they finished in sixth place in the AFC, only just getting into the postseason. When the strike began after a Monday Night Football game in New York, the Jets were sitting at 1-1 having been comfortably beaten by the Miami Dolphins (45-28) and having beaten the rival New England Patriots handsomely (31-7).

However, that victory would come with quite the cost. During the game, standout defensive end Joe Klecko was lost for 14 weeks with a ruptured patella tendon. Just one year after the nickname "New York Sack Exchange" had been coined during a game in 1981, where fans held up a bed sheet with the name emblazoned on it, one of the members was lost for the season. Klecko had started strong, recording 2 sacks in 2 games. However, the Jets would continue to be an outstanding defensive unit, only allowing 20 points or more on two occasions, against the Kansas City Chiefs and their opening day loss against the Dolphins.

However, without Klecko the defensive line never lived up to the expectations they had previously set. Mark Gastineau would record six sacks in '82, whereas the following two years he would record 19.0 and 22.0. Joe Klecko would record 6.5 in 1983 in comparison to the two he recorded in 1982. Marty Lyons would record 4.0 sacks in '83 rather than the 1.5 he managed in 1982. In short, the Jets defensive line was good, but it was on the cusp of being great.


One day after defeating the Patriots, the players took decisive strike action and the scheduled Jets games against the Baltimore Colts, Houston Oilers, Denver Broncos, Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, New England Patriots, and Pittsburgh Steelers were lost. The announcement was made by Gene Upshaw, the Association President:

"It has left us no choice but to use the only weapon we have to force management to bargain with us." "At the conclusion of tonight's game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers," he said, "all N.F.L. training facilities will be struck. There will be no practices, no workouts or training. No games will be played until management abandons its unlawful course, engages in collective bargaining and executes a fair and equitable agreement."

OCTOBER 13, 1982: Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association speaks at a news conference on October 13, 1982. Upshaw played for the Raiders from 1967-81.

Courtesy of Sporting News via Getty Images

Following the announcement, the NFL Management Council held a three-and-a-half hour strategy meeting, which included Jack Donlan, the Council's Executive Director, and six members of the Council's executive committee that included Jim Kensil, the Jets' Team President. With both sides throwing accusations at each other and the union claiming Donlan was a liar for saying there was $1.6 million set aside to cover player costs, the strike was on.

"The owners have made a big mistake."

"They have greatly underestimated the union's strength," said Mark Murphy. "The players are very unified. Management's attempts to divide us have made us stronger."

The Jets player representatives Marvin Powell and his alternate Wesley Walker attended a new conference but refused to discuss the strike action because they were not members of the player committee that was made up of seven members. Regardless, the vote to strike was passed, 7-0.

The strike came at a terrible time for a Jets team stacked with talent. In 1981 the team finished 10-5-1 and qualified for their first playoff appearance in twelve seasons. Unfortunately for the Jets, they lost to the Buffalo Bills in a heart-breaker 31-27. In the 1981 season, the Jets finished off the year with a 8-1 record over the final nine games and expectations for 1982 were at an all time high. The offensive line had talent with Powell and Joe Fields coming off Pro Bowl years. The Sack Exchange was coming into its own with Klecko and Gastineau coming off big Pro Bowl seasons. Richard Todd was coming off a season where he threw for 25 touchdowns, the most in his career, and the Jets had plenty of talent with Freeman McNeil being drafted in 1981 and Wesley Walker putting together an excellent season in 1981 where he caught 47 passes for 770 yards and 9 touchdowns.


Courtesy of Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 23, 1983: Richard Todd #14 of the New York Jets goes back to pass during the AFC Championship game against the Miami Dolphins on January 23, 1983 in Miami, Florida.

Unfortunately for the Jets, the injury bug hit hard with the team having seventeen players receiving treatment before the opening game against Miami. The franchise decided to keep two quarterbacks but four running backs. Todd was struggling with tendonitis in his throwing arm. Klecko, Marty Lyons and Abdul Salaam all missed practice before the opening game against Miami and all of them would have some kind of nagging injuries throughout the season.

The 1981 draft saw the Jets select a number of players who would not amount to a great deal in the NFL. However, they used their first round selection (#3 overall) on Freeman McNeil, a running back from UCLA.. He would play for the Jets for twelve years, leaving the team as the leading rusher and having his name entered into the team Ring of Honor. The first round of that draft contained two Hall of Famers, Lawrence Taylor, who was taken #2 overall by the New York Giants, and Ronnie Lott, taken #8 overall by the San Francisco 49ers.

Before the draft, it was generally accepted that the New Orleans Saints would take George Rogers #1 overall and the Giants would take Taylor #2 overall. The Jets had three players they were interested in, and everyone knew that one of these players would become a Jet. The decision came down to either Hugh Green, Lott, or McNeil. Many expected Green to be the choice, as he was considered a fine athlete at an area of need for the Jets.  However, after some deliberation, the Jets took McNeil. Hindsight is 20/20 and some would swap that pick for Lott, but with the Jets needing a running back, linebacker and safety, the decision to draft McNeil was both logical and a good selection.

Heading into the 1982 draft, there were a lot of areas the Jets needed to reinforce. Walker was often injured and Johnny Lam Jones was developing a lot slower than expected, so wide receiver was definitely among them. The offensive line could do with reinforcing with Randy Rasmussen coming to the end of his career at left guard. However, the Jets desperately needed help in the linebacking unit and the secondary. After passing on Green in 1981, most Jets fans were calling for a linebacker. It was generally accepted that there was no real talent available in the draft in the secondary, which was reflected when the first cornerback wasn't taken until the #25 pick overall when the Cowboys selected Rod Hill.


Courtesy of Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 23, 1983: David Woodley #16 of the Miami Dolphins scrambles against the New York Jets during the AFC Championship Game on January 23, 1983 in Miami, Florida.

However, the kicker is that in 1981 the Jets implemented a new defensive system which saw the middle linebacker only play in 52% of defensive snaps. The play of middle linebacker Stan Blinka was largely poor, but it was hard to justify a first round draft pick on a player who would only play half the snaps. On passing downs, Michaels and his defensive coaching staff liked to substitute the linebacker for a defensive back, adding more speed and athletic ability to the unit.

Joe Gardi, the Defensive Coordinator, explained: ''We're going to experiment in the secondary this season, look at Johnny Lynn as a strong safety. I would think the secondary would be a priority in the draft, but I understand there isn't much around. I'm not too psyched about the draft. Not that we can't use a good player. I don't want to say I'm in love with all my players - no coach should say that - but you're not looking to replace them. We were first in total defensive yardage.''

According to Coach Dan Sekanovich, the team didn't need help on the defensive line either: ''Right now in the N.F.L., offensive people aren't satisfied with 8 yards. They want 70. They play right into the Jets' hands. We're thinking of designated rushers this year. It looks like they would come from Kenny Neil and Ben Rudolph, who backed us up last year. I'm happy with the people I've got. The Jets can draft in other areas.''

In truth, the Jets had a lot of talent across the board, so much so it was genuinely believed that they would be drafting for depth and any first round pick wouldn't be able to just come in and start. According to Mike Hickey, who ran the draft for the team, ''We're drafting people now for quality backup. I don't know where on our team you could start.''

After all was said and done, the Jets drafted a linebacker, an All-American from the University of Notre Dame. Bob Crable had a lot of talent, and he still holds the career record for tackles at Notre Dame with 521, as well as recording 187 in a single season. He was always around the ball and was known as a highly intelligent player. Although he was considered slow for the position, the Jets thought that because they substituted their middle linebacker on passing downs, they could mitigate this aspect to his game.

Crable played seven years with the Jets before retiring from football to start his own business. He was an average player for the majority of his career, never quite reaching the heights expected of a first round pick. He finished with 43 starts and 10 sacks to his name. Although not a middle linebacker, the Patriots would draft linebacker Andre Tippett in the second round, a player who would go on to enter the Hall of Fame, and finished his career with 100 sacks. The Jets never found the answer at defensive back, due in large part to a poor pool to select from.

There was one puzzle the Jets just couldn't find an answer to, in the form of the Miami Dolphins. The Jets would lose four times in 1982, and three of those losses would come against their bitter divisional rivals. On the opening day at Shea Stadium the Dolphins ran out comfortable winners with a score of 45-28. Todd would pass for three touchdowns, but unfortunately he would also throw three interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The Dolphins also returned a punt for a touchdown in the same game scoring 21 points on either defensive scores or special team plays.

There was something about the Dolphins defense that year that Todd just couldn't crack. He threw 13 interceptions all season, and 10 of them were against the Dolphins. The Jets would drop a heart-breaker in Miami later in the season, losing on a fourth quarter field goal by Miami kicker Uwe von Schamann. However, the game showed the Jets that they could hang with Miami, a team with plenty of talent but whose quarterback was nothing special in David Woodley. Of course, we all know the Dolphins drafted their franchise quarterback the year after in Dan Marino.


Courtesy of Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 23: Richard Todd #14 of the New York Jets goes back to pass during the AFC Championship Game against the Miami Dolphins on January 23, 1983 in Miami, Florida.

Despite the two losses to Miami during regular season play, the Jets marched themselves to the post-season with victories against the New England Patriots (37-7), Baltimore Colts (37-0), Green Bay Packers (15-13), Detroit Lions (28-13), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (32-17) and the Minnesota Vikings (42-14). The only other loss on the 1982 Jets came against the Chiefs, a game in which Todd would pass for just 109 yards on 29 passing attempts (14 completions) with no touchdowns and one interception that was returned for a touchdown. However, their effort was good enough for a 6-3 final record and a 6th placed seed in the playoffs.

#1 Los Angeles Raiders Washington Redskins
#2 Miami Dolphins Dallas Cowboys
#3 Cincinnati Bengals Green Bay Packers
#4 Pittsburgh Steelers Minnesota Vikings
#5 San Diego Chargers Atlanta Falcons
#6 New York Jets St Louis Cardinals
#7 New England Patriots Tampa Bay Buccaneers
#8 Cleveland Browns Detroit Lions

The Raiders and the Redskins were largely considered the superior teams in the playoffs. With the Jets finishing as the #6 seed, they traveled to Ohio to face the impressive Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium. Despite falling behind early 14-3, McNeil put the Jets on his back en route to a 210-yard rushing display with a touchdown and a passing touchdown on a half-back option play. Walker contributed with a 145 yards receiving and a touchdown, while Todd contributed 269 yards and a touchdown. The Jets would post up 517 yards of total offense on the day and upset the favored Bengals in front of their home crowd.

Prior to the game against the Bengals, Walt Michaels had an interesting motivational technique. Lyons later confirmed that the Friday before the game:

"We were going to play in Cincinnati, and before he came into the locker room with a sack of hundred-dollar bills. He had five thousand dollars in there and said, 'Hey, there's five thousand dollars in here. You want this? Win!"

The Jets reward for beating the Bengals was a trip to the heavily favored number one seed, the Los Angeles Raiders. With Jim Plunkett under center and budding rusher and future Hall of Famer Marcus Allen in the backfield, very few people gave the Jets a chance. However, it was the Jets who raced out to a 10-0 lead on a Walker 20-yard touchdown reception and a Pat Leahy 30-yard field goal. However, the Raiders stormed back to a 14-10 lead in the third quarter with a touchdown by Allen and a strike from Plunkett to Malcolm Barnwell. The Jets managed to move the ball to the Raiders one yard line late in the fourth quarter, and with under four minutes to play, Scott Dierking bulldozed his way into the end-zone to give the Jets a 17-14 lead

When linebacker Lance Mehl intercepted a Plunkett pass with around two minutes to play, many fans in the stadium decided it was time to leave. However, in perfect Jets fashion, the game wasn't close to being over. On the ensuing possession, McNeil, who had been so impressive in the post-season with back-to-back 100 yard games, coughed up the football. There was a sense of inevitability about the whole scenario, the game seemingly in the bag when the ball was turned over. You can almost sense Jets fans saying, "Here we go."

However, this Jets team had backbone and Mehl wasn't finished, and with the clock running down, he intercepted Plunkett again, which finally allowed the Jets to run down the clock. You can sense the excitement from Gastineau's infamous sack dance:

The Jets were going to the AFC Championship game, having defeated both the Bengals and the #1 Raiders. Expectations were high, and confidence was soaring. However, the Dolphins had just smashed the Chargers to stroll into the AFC Championship game, knowing they had already beaten the Jets twice during the season.

On January 23rd, 1983, the Jets traveled to the Orange Bowl in Miami to play what became known as the Mud Bowl. The game became filled with controversy and has gone down as one of the most frustrating losses in franchise history. After the game, a red-eyed Gastineau commented, "It's the toughest loss I've ever had in my life. It's something I didn't expect at all. Maybe we should have been more prepared for Miami's offense and defense and come down here with a better attitude. It's just hitting me right now, but tomorrow I'll probably start crying for three days. To be so close to the Super Bowl and yet so far, and to see the Dolphins so joyous and us staying home, is terrible. But Miami beat us fair and square and you've got to give them credit."

MAR 31 1983; The somber look on New York Jet coach Walt Michael's face didn't last long after the Jets took the lead for good in the last quarter;

Courtesy of Damian Strohmeyer/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Head Coach Walt Michaels added, "We were prepared; we just didn't execute properly. There are some days when you shouldn't get up in the morni., Today was one of those days."

The loss was tough on everyone; it was tough on the players, it was tough on the team in general but nobody took it worse than Michaels. At first he wouldn't criticize the Dolphins for the condition of their field. However, after sleeping on it, he pointed the finger at the Dolphins organization saying they broke every rule in the book for not covering the field with a tarp. Seventeen days after the loss, Michaels decided to step down as coach of the New York Jets and promptly retired from football.

Was it because of the loss that he retired, or was their internal pressure for him to step down? Both have been hypothesized for his departure. He had anger issues, which can't be doubted. He famously tried to break down the door of the officials following the Heidi Game in 1968 as a Jets assistant, and he accused Raiders owner Al Davis of calling the Jets locker room at half time during the 1982 playoff win. He also failed to attend his media obligations following the Dolphins defeat in the AFC Championship game. In short, his time was up.

In truth, there were a lot of factors that led to the Jets losing the game in Miami. The field conditions certainly didn't help. With the field soaked and the footing unsteady, the Jets were never able to establish their running game with McNeil, the man who had enjoyed back-to-back 100 yard rushing games. It also took a little speed away from the defensive line. A huge factor was the play of Todd, who threw 5 interceptions on his way to his worst performance in his career. At the end of the game, his stat line read 15-37 for 103 yards, 0 touchdowns and 5 interceptions.

For a nine-game season, his stat line on the season was acceptable:

Cmp. Att. Cmp. % Yds TDs INTs
153 261 58.6 1961 14 8

When you look at that performance, it's amazing to think the Jets only lost the game 14-0. The Jets defense was outstanding on the day, limiting the Dolphins to just seven points. The other seven points came on an interception return by A.J Duhe, a player who backed out of his blitz to cover a screen pass that he read perfectly, and when he returned the pass to make it 14-0 with 2:08 remaining, the game was dead and so were the Jets chances of progressing to the big dance.

There was one controversial moment in the third quarter as Greg Buttle appeared to cause a fumble by Dolphins running back Andra Franklin. However, the referee ruled that forward progress had been stopped and as a result the ball was dead. According to Buttle, the two officials closest to the play were allowing it to continue, yet it was the furthest official away who made the call. The Jets were steaming about the decision to begin with. It was made worse when Woody Bennett rushed in on the drive to break the 0-0 tie and put the Dolphins up.

Was it a fumble? The Jets were convinced of it. According to Mark Gastineau, "I think it was clearly a fumble." Safety Ken Schroy stated, "I saw it, everyone saw it. Franklin's knee wasn't on the ground. That one play didn't beat us, but it didn't help either." Buttle added, "I don't think it was a fumble, I know it was a fumble. That's the drive they got a touchdown on, and that's the game."

In truth, the way the Dolphins played that day, the Jets should have beaten them. Todd made some of the dumbest decisions you're ever likely to see on the football field. He was erratic and his performance raised several questions of his ability to lead the team in clutch situations. His star wide receiver caught just one pass for 0 yards. The Jets did draft a quarterback immediately following this five interception game by Todd. However, they decided to take Ken O'Brien in the 1983 draft instead of Marino, a mistake that would haunt them for decades.

The season that wasn't was the season the Jets should have.

The Jets had a fantastic opportunity to challenge the Redskins in the Super Bowl if they could have navigated past the Dolphins. The Redskins would go on to fight back against the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII, eventually winning a rather forgettable game 27-17 in Pasadena, California. Could the Jets have defeated an impressive Washington side? That's obviously debatable. However, with their pass rush, they have had as good a shot as any.

Many fans still speculate what would have happened had Michaels stayed on as Jets coach, as he had built quite the team and the momentum was in their favor after back to back playoff appearances. Lyons would later comment, "I truly believe that if Walt had stayed, we would have won a Super Bowl, because he had already gotten us so close. He was an intimidating coach. I remembered being very intimidated by him my rookie year. He didn't care about player personalities in the locker room, he played everything straight."

Unfortunately for the Jets, the Joe Walton Era that followed wasn't quite as successful. He went 7-9 in 1983 and the same in 1984 before taking the Jets to the post-season in 1985 and 1986. He was fired after the 1989 season, when the team went 4-12. The Jets wouldn't make it back to the AFC Championship until 1998, a gap of sixteen years.

What would have happened had Todd just played to form against the Dolphins? What would have happened had Klecko not been lost for the season in week two? What would have happened had the Dolphins actually owned a tarp to cover the field to protect it from the rain? What would have happened to this team? We'll never know. In the end, the Jets came up just short of the promised land.

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