clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Air Parcells

How the ones that got away might have transformed the 1998 Jets into the greatest passing team in the NFL.

Jason Miller

It has been a long time since 1967.  That was the year Joe Namath set the single season record for passing yards for a 14 game season: 4007 yards through the air, a record for a 14 game season that would never be broken, and still the Jets' single season passing record all these years later.  That Jets team led the AFL in offense, the only Jets team in the 54 year history of the franchise to ever lead the league in offensive yards.  Namath would go on to lead the Jets to a #2 offensive standing in 1972, the best Jets offense in the post merger era.  No Jets offense led by a quarterback other than Namath has ever finished better than 4th.   No Jets offense other than the 1998 team has finished in the top 10 in the league in more than two decades, and only three Jets offenses in the last 13 years have even finished in the top 50% of the league, an atrocious track record of generally putrid offensive achievements.  The biggest factor in this trail of tears has been the quarterback play, which, with the exception of a few years of Chad Pennington and one year of Brett Favre, has been nothing short of catastrophic.  Not far behind on the list of culprits has been the team's long litany of subpar wide receivers, who year in and year out struggle to achieve even league average status.

It wasn't always this way.  For most Jets fans who aren't old enough to remember the glory years of the late 1960s, thirty years later is as close as the Jets have come to a team that should have won a Super Bowl.  1998:  Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Romeo Crennel, Charlie Weiss; it was a dream team of coaches.  And the coaches were almost matched by the players.  The offense, led by a rejuvenated Pro Bowl quarterback Vinny Testaverde, ranked 4th in the NFL, the best showing by a Jets offense since the days of Namath.  This was a team with Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin in his prime. It was a team with the first pair of 1000 yard receivers in Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet since the mid 1980's tandem of Wesley Walker and Al Toon.  This was a team that, once Vinny Testaverde took over, was nearly unstoppable, rolling to a 12-1 record in games Vinny started.

But 1998 was also the year that almost never was.  Bill Parcells, in what would come to be known as one of his worst flaws as a coach, did what he nearly always did when a quarterback competition presented itself: he chose the wrong guy.  1998 started with Glen Foley being chosen as starting quarterback over Vinny Testaverde, and the Jets promptly dropped their first two games to the 49ers and the Ravens.  In a bit of bad luck for Foley and good luck for the Jets, Glenn Foley injured his ribs in Game 2, and Testaverde took the reins for the next two games, guiding the Jets to consecutive double digit wins over the Colts and the Dolphins.  The Jets were now 2-0 with Vinny and 0-2 with Foley, but Foley was healthy by game 5, and true to form, Parcells once again made the wrong quarterback decision and returned Foley to the starting job.  After an ineffective Foley bombed to the tune of 5-15 passing, 76 yards, 0 TDs and 2 INTs, Vinny stepped back into the fray in relief, led the Jets to a late TD in a 30-10 loss, and never looked back as the starting Jets quarterback for the rest of 1998.

What is sometimes overlooked in that magical year of 1998 is how drastically Parcells diverged from his reputation as the ultimate ground and pound coach.  In the context of how the game was then played the 1998 Jets were gunslingers, throwing the ball all over the lot.  They finished 4th in passing yards and 3rd in TD passes.  Parcells, a man who had won with the Giants using a rugged, dominant defense and a ground based, ball control offense, had transformed himself into one of the league's foremost proponents of the passing game, first with the Patriots, who led the league in passing one year of his reign, and again with the 1998 Jets.  Parcells took a team in the 1998 Jets with weapons built for an elite passing game and played to its strengths.  The result was a team one clean half away from a Super Bowl appearance.

That 1998 Jets team featured Pro Bowl quarterback Vinny Testaverde, Pro Bowl running back Curtis Martin, Pro Bowl wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson and 1000 yard wide rexceiver Wayne Chrebet.  What might not be remembered, however, is how close the 1998 Jets were to becoming a truly historic aerial attack, the likes of which the league has rarely, if ever, seen.   Aside from Johnson and Chrebet the 1998 Jets had few other weapons at wide receiver, with 2nd year receiver Dedric Ward clocking in as Vinny's third target, with 25 receptions for 477 yards.  There were no other significant contributions from the wide receivers.  But it almost was a very different story.

The Jets spent the years from 1989 through 1995 alternately drafting, then discarding, Pro Bowl receivers.  It started with the Jets' 5th round selection in the 1989 draft, which they used on wide receiver Tony Martin.  Martin never made it out of training camp in 1989, and didn't begin his NFL playing days until the following year when he was picked up by the Miami Dolphins.  He slowly developed as a receiver with the Dolphins, but after four years of just adequate play the San Diego Chargers picked him up, and from there his career blossomed.  From 1995 through 1999 Martin had four out of five years with more than 1000 yards receiving, including his Pro Bowl year of 1996 when he amassed 85 receptions for 1171 yards and a whopping 14 TDs.   He was the first of the 1990s Pro Bowl receivers the Jets let slip through their fingers.  He would not be the last.

In the 1990 supplemental draft the Jets picked Rob Moore with their first round selection.  Moore went on to become a Pro Bowl receiver with the Jets in 1994, only to be traded by Rich Kotite prior to the 1995 draft for running back Ron Moore and the 16th pick in the 1995 draft, which was used to select defensive end Hugh Douglass.  Rob Moore ultimately collected three 1000 yard seasons and became an All Pro receiver with the Cardinals in 1997, amassing 97 catches for 1584 yards and 8 TDs that year.

Incredibly, the Jets chose yet another Pro Bowl receiver in the same 1990 draft.  With the sixth round pick in the 1990 draft the Jets selected wide receiver Terance Mathis.  Mathis spent the first four years of his career as a bit player with the Jets, taking on kick return duties and never catching more than 28 passes in any of those years.  After four mediocre years the Jets allowed Mathis to become a free agent in 1994.  The Atlanta Falcons signed him and immediately installed Mathis as a centerpiece of their passing offense.  In 1994 Mathis caught an astounding 111 passes for 1342 yards and 11 TDs.  He made the Pro Bowl that year, the only year in which he did so.  Mathis went on to collect four 1000 yard seasons with the Falcons.

Recapping the receiving talent the Jets found in so short a time, in the 1989 and 1990 drafts the Jets selected a remarkable three Pro Bowl receivers, who among them combined for eleven 1000 yard seasons, four Pro Bowls, one All Pro selection, more than 27,000 yards receiving, and 190 TDs.  Yet by 1995, all the Jets had to show for all those great receivers was Hugh Douglass and an ineffective Ron Moore.  Moore rushed for only 122 total yards in two seasons with the Jets.  Douglass was shipped to the Philadelphia Eagles in 1998 by Bill Parcells in exchange for a 2nd round pick and a 5th round pick in the 1998 draft.  The 2nd round pick was then traded to the Steelers for a lower 2nd round pick, a 3rd round pick and a 5th round pick.  With those picks the Jets selected defensive end Dorian Boose, defensive back Kevin Williams, offensive guard Casey Dailey and offensive tackle Eric Bateman, all of whom were never anything more than scrubs.

By 1995, despite having drafted three different Pro Bowl wide receivers over the last six years, the Jets were so bereft of talent at wide receiver they traded a 4th round draft pick for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 5th wide receiver, an eminently forgettable player named Charles Wilson.  Expected to be installed as the Jets number one wide receiver, Wilson was promptly beaten out for the Jets top wide receiver spot by an undrafted no name too small too slow wide receiver from tiny Hofstra University, a guy who started his Jets career as the 13th wide receiver on a training camp depth chart of 13 wide receivers, and who ended it as a legend; a guy by the name of Wayne Chrebet.

Now, fast forward through the unmentionable Kotite years, all the way to 1998.  The Jets added Keyshawn Johnson in 1996 and now had two 1000 yard receivers; but what might have been?  Imagine the 1998 Jets with Chrebet and Johnson.  Now add Terance Mathis, who caught 64 passes for 1136 yards and 11 TDs that year, arguably his best year as a pro.  Then add Tony Martin, who caught 66 passes for 1181 yards and 6 TDs that year, probably the second best year of his career.  Finally add Rob Moore, who caught 67 passes for 982 yards and 5 TDs in 1998 and who was just one year removed from his monster All Pro year of 1997.  Now let's stir the pot a bit more and imagine Parcells making the right QB decision from the start for once and choosing Vinny from the get go.  What would that offense have accomplished?  One can easily imagine an offense every bit as legendary as the Air Coryell days in San Diego, or the 2007 Patriots, or the 2013 Broncos.  The Jets ranked 4th in the NFL in passing yards in 1998, less than 500 yards behind the league leading Minnesota Vikings.  It is not difficult to imagine that adding three Pro Bowl receivers might have placed the Jets ahead of the Vikings and in first for passing yards for the first time since Joe Willie's prime.   Who knows, there might even have been an outside chance at Vinny eclipsing Dan Marino's then NFL record of 5084 passing yards.  Imagine a passing offense in which Chrebet was the 5th wide receiver.  It boggles the mind for Jets fans, who are used to anything ranging from mediocrity down to dreck at the position.  It is not difficult to envision  that 1998 team being given the nickname Air Parcells; how cool would that have been?  The Jets finished 12-1 with Vinny starting that year.  What might they have done with Curtis and those 5 wide receivers, plus Vinny starting the whole year?  Might we have seen a 16-0 Jets team?

Of course, what might have beens are fun to think about, but more difficult and complicated than just undoing trades or cuts.  Here are just some ideas:  If the Jets had hung on to all 3 Pro Bowl wide receivers, what would the Boomer/Coslet years have looked like?  Would Boomer have finished his career with a flourish, maybe even enough for some Hall of Fame consideration?  Would the 1990s have been a Jets' golden age?  Would the Jets have been perennial playoff participants?  Would Kotite never have been hired?  If Kotite is never hired, would the Jets have muddled along with other coaches, and Parcells would have never come here?  If Parcells never comes, then Martin and Testaverde likely never make it here.  Would the Jets have never had a chance at Keyshawn?  Also, if Parcells never comes to New York, does Belichick never go to the Patriots?  Does Belichick ever even get another head coaching position after his less than inspiring performance in Cleveland?  Would the Patriots dynasty never have happened?  Would Tom Brady ever have become a starting quarterback in the NFL?  Would Wayne Chrebet never have been given a shot with the Jets?  It's awfully difficult to envision him making the team with Keyshawn, Martin, Moore and Mathis already here.  He barely made the team, initially as the fourth wide receiver on a four receiver team, with the 1995 team that arguably had less wide receiver talent than any team in the NFL.  If Chrebet never makes it with the Jets, would he ever have gotten a shot anywhere?  Hofstra undrafted free agents don't always get multiple bites at the apple.  Perhaps Chrebet would have never been invited to Jets camp or any other camp.  Does Chrebet owe his entire career to the Jets' front office incompetence in retaining wide receiver talent in the early 1990s?  What might have been boggles the mind.  And perhaps the most mind boggling might have been of all is, that 1998 team might have been a legendary offense on par with the league's all time great aerial attacks, if only the Jets knew how to hang onto their talented receivers.  Air Parcells.  Kinda has a nice ring to it.  Might have given the Jets a nice ring for their fingers too.