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The Lou Holtz Error: The New York Jets Fantastically Bad 1976 Season

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NCAA Football: Louisiana Tech at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps the best thing that could be said about the New York Jets’ 1976 season is that it is over- John Facenda on “Mayday: the 1976 New York Jets”

On the surface, it is hard to understand why many consider the worst single season performance by a New York Jets team to be the 1976 team, coached by college football legend and amateur magician Lou Holtz. Sure, the 3-11 record recorded in 1976 was nothing to be proud of, but Holtz’s team recorded two more victories than the 1996 Jets who at 1-15 still hold the franchise’s worst single season record. The 1975 and 1977 Jets also posted 3-11 records. So what made the middle year of a three year stretch where the Jets posted a combined 9-33 record so incredibly awful in the minds of Jets fans?

Before we get to the stories, let’s start with the numbers. The 1976 Jets averaged 12 points on offense (not a typo) and allowed 27.2 points a game, a -15.2 average point differential , by far the worst in Jets history and the 8th worst since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. It should also be noted that these Jets were not outscored 384-169 because of a few large blowouts. The smallest margin of defeat the Jets recorded that season was an 11 point loss to the 49ers when an Ed Marinaro touchdown and a missed extra point in the game’s final minutes made the final score 17-6. More than a third (6) of the Jets 17 Offensive TD’s in 1976 were scored late in the 4th quarter after the game was already lost, and they only scored 3 touchdowns in the 3rd quarter the entire year. (Let that one sink in for a moment.) The two teams that the Jets did the defeat, the Bucs and the Buffalo Bills (twice), were a combined 2-25 against the rest of the league. The Jets turned the ball over 53 times, more than three times the amount of touchdowns they scored and the 2nd highest average of turnovers per game (3.1) since 1970. This team was historically awful on so many levels that Rich Kotite’s tenure starts to look semi-competent. Ok maybe not but still the point is those numbers are awful.

“We’re making progress; now we can break out of the huddle without anybody getting killed in the confusion”- Lou Holtz, optimist.

The man in charge of this historic mess, Lou Holtz, was coaching in the NFL for the first and only time at age 38. Due to Holtz’s success at North Carolina State, the Jets were one of three teams to offer Holtz a head coaching position. Holtz would later tell Steve Sabol of NFL Films (R.I.P. Steve, you are missed.) that he accepted the Jets offer because, “The New York Jets, there aren’t many better jobs than that!” To say Holtz had little knowledge of the NFL is an understatement. Holtz admitted to Sabol that he never watched a NFL game before his first preseason game with the Jets. This is where I seriously have to question the Jets’ hiring process. How do you hire a man who not only never played pro football but never saw one game? Are you kidding me? How incompetent do you have to be to let this happen? I don’t care how successful the coach is in college; the conversation should have started and ended with this:

Jets Executive: Hi Lou, thanks for coming to this interview.

Lou Holtz: Thank you very much for having me.

JE: Have you ever seen an NFL game?

LH: No.

JE: Goodbye Lou.

I do think the Veer can succeed in the NFL- Lou Holtz in 1976

I didn’t think the Veer was going to work, but I didn’t know much else- Lou Holtz, 35 years later and after the statute of limitations was long over.

The fact Lou Holtz had knew nothing about the NFL could explain Lou’s insistence before the preseason that the Veer, the option play that brought Holtz great success in North Carolina State, could work in the NFL. Anyone who had watched one Jet game in 1975 could tell you that Joe Namath, who had two busted knees and a torn hamstring, was less likely to successfully run the option than win the lottery without a ticket. If Namath’s mobility in 1976 had been ranked in a Madden game, it would have been in negative numbers. Pigs would have flown in a blizzard in hell before Namath would have shook off a defender and run for a positive gain at that point. Holtz eventually realized this and had the newly drafted Richard Todd run the option offense in a preseason where the Jets lost the first three games. Holtz had to learn the hard way that to run the option in a league where the players are much faster and stronger than in college, you must be willing to have multiple quarterbacks die in agony. Holtz told NFL Films before the preseason that “I’m looking forward to spending the rest of my life with the New York Jets.” After just three preseason games, Holtz told the New York Times “If I knew the NFL was this tough,I would never have taken the job.” It’s amazing how people’s minds can change in less than a month.

We are going to move the ball. I just hope to God it’s forward- Lou Holtz, wishful thinker.

When the Jets won their last preseason game, Holtz handed out papers containing the unthinkable, a team fight song that the Jets would sing after every victory. If you did not know that this was a thing, feast your eyes on this travesty, sung to the tune of “The Caissons Go Rolling Along” (Note: This might not be the full song. I couldn’t find the full lyrics anywhere, but I pieced it together from a bunch of articles and videos)

Win the game, fight like men

We’re together win or lose

New York Jets go rolling along …

When behind don’t despair

Because we will win if you care...

And wherever we go

We’ll let the critic know

That the Jets are here to stay!

After being told by Holtz that the team would sing this, um, fight song after each victory, Namath lead the rest of the very reluctant team in song. The fact this scene was not captured on video or at the very least audio is a loss for all of mankind (and especially for the fans of our division rivals I guess). It should not be ruled out that the players may have tried to lose during the regular season in an effort to never sing this song again. I mean what would you do? With Holtz trying to implement a college offense and the utter lack of talent on the roster, they probably didn’t need to worry. Losing was pretty much guaranteed most weeks. John Riggins, one of the two Jets selected for the Pro Bowl in 1975 (the other was TE Rich Caster), and overall their top offensive player left the Jets for the Washington Redskins before the 1976 season. Riggins later claimed he left because he would never be the team’s top dog and sole focus as long as Joe Namath was still around. This is where I again question the competence of the Jets front office. Holtz was hired by the Jets on February 10th 1976. Namath requested a trade 5 days later and Riggins signed with the Redskins on June 10. I have no experience running an NFL team, but getting rid of Namath and his two busted knees in order to keep your best player would seem to be the logical move here especially when the new coach’s offense would feature him. Instead, Riggins would continue his Hall of Fame career with the Redskins, Holtz would resign with one game remaining, and Namath was released after the 1976 season. Holtz also claimed that he asked Jets executives if he could have Namath’s number when he was first hired. Holtz said he was told him they didn’t have it, but they had the number of Joe’s agent. Joe’s agent told Holtz’s that he couldn’t give him Joe’s number but he would tell Namath that Holtz called and “if he wants to” he will call Holtz back. And people are surprised the Jets didn’t have a single season with a winning record during the 1970’s…

I’ve heard it said before you never want to get into a urinating contest with a skunk you are going to come out second best and if you are down 31-3 and you try throwing it all over the lawn you aren’t going to look good- Lou Holtz, speaker of English.

Not one member of the 1976 Jets was selected for the Pro Bowl, something even the 2-12 Buffalo Bills managed to accomplish with O.J. Simpson and Joe DeLamielleure. Namath and Todd combined for 7 passing TD’s , 28 INT and a 37.6 passer rating. If a quarterback would drop back and only throw the ball at the ground 20 times a game for incompletions, he would record a 39.6 passer rating, two points higher than what Namath and Todd combined for the year. The defense ranked 26th in points and 25th in yards allowed out of 28 teams. The Buccaneers and Seattle Seahawks were playing their inaugural seasons and took the 27th and 28th spot in both categories. The season’s low point may have occurred during Week 6, when the Jets were shellacked 41-7 at the hands of the Patriots on Monday Night Football.(Apparently getting killed by the Pats on MNF has been a thing for 40 years), where MNF color commentator Alex Karras gleefully sang Holtz’s fight song to millions of viewers before the game The Jets definitely weren’t singing it that night. After the Jets suffered a 37-16 defeat to John Riggins and the Redskins to drop their record to 3-10, Holtz had enough and announced his resignation with one game remaining to coach the Arkansas Razorbacks, a move that would become known as a Petrino after Bobby Paterno did the same thing with the Atlanta Falcons more than 30 years later. Holtz said “God did not put Lou Holtz on this Earth to coach in the pros”, referring to himself in 3rd person which rexthejet finds very interesting.

Although Lou’s reign in the NFL might have been an epic failure, Holtz did hire Walt Michaels, future Jets head coach as his defensive coordinator and drafted an undersized linebacker named Greg Buttle in the third round despite protests from the Draft room. Holtz’s departure before the last game gave interim head coach Mike Holovak the opportunity to ditch the Veer and let Namath start in what would be his final game in a Jet uniform. Namath rewarded Holovak’s confidence by throwing 4 interceptions and no touchdowns on 4 for 15 pass attempts for 23 total yards in a 42-3 thriller. The game was a “thriller” in the sense that the season was now over and everyone, the fans, the players and both head coaches were thrilled about that. The Jets’ 3-11 in 1976 was the 7th year in a row the Jets did not record a winning record, a losing tradition Walt Michaels, Richard Todd and the New York Sack Exchange would break in 1981,

It appears both the Jets and Lou Holtz learned from the failed experiment that was the 1976 season. Holtz would never return to the NFL despite numerous offers throughout a college career that included bowl game appearances with 6 different teams and a National Championship with Notre Dame in 1988. The Jets (thankfully) have not hired a head coach straight from the college ranks since Lou “didn’t get into an urinating contest with a skunk” Holtz. With a team like the New York Jets, the fact they learned from a past mistake is a monumental victory and should be celebrated...in song!