The New York Jets had been a playoff team at the outset of the 1980s, reaching the postseason in 1981-82 and getting to the AFC Championship Game the latter trip. Then head coach Walt Michaels suddenly retired, Joe Walton took over and the Jets promptly went 7-9 the next two seasons. Walton needed to deliver a playoff season and that’s what he did, as the 1985 New York Jets contended all year for the AFC East crown and ultimately got in as a wild-card.
High-percentage passing was the order of the day for Gang Green. In our day, a 61% completion rate is something that’s usually achieved by two-thirds of quarterbacks. In 1985, clearing the 60 percent threshold was hardly the norm and that’s what Ken O’Brien did. Nor did it come at the expense of yardage, as he generated eight yards per attempt and accumulated nearly 3,900 yards in a Pro Bowl year.
The receiving corps was above-average, with Wesley Walker as a deep threat and 22-year-old Al Toon working as a possession receiver. Kurt Sohn was a competent third option. But O’Brien’s favorite targets, unsurprisingly, were those who excelled in the short game. Tight end Mickey Shuler caught 76 passes for 879 yards, while Freeman McNeil caught 38 more out of the backfield.
McNeil also ran for over 1,300 yards and made the Pro Bowl, while Johnny Hector was a solid change-of-pace back that ran for 572 more. The Jets’ offense ranked seventh in the NFL in points scored in spite of lacking Pro Bowl talent on the offensive line.
The defense was even better, ranking seventh in the league. Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau were holdovers from the “Sack Exchange” of 1981 fame, which harassed quarterbacks at a record-setting rate. Klecko, now 32-years-old, was 1st-team All-NFL at tackle with 7 ½ sacks. Gastineau was on the edge and recorded 13 ½ sacks en route to the Pro Bowl.
Barry Bennett wasn’t a part of the Sack Exchange, but he got in the spirit of things up front with 7 ½ sacks of his own. Inside linebacker Lance Mehl made the Pro Bowl, rounding out the most important parts of the 1985 defensive unit.
There was nothing to suggest a playoff run when the Jets visited the Los Angeles Raiders to open the season. Even allowing the Raiders were a playoff perennial, just two years removed from winning the Super Bowl and on their way to a 12-win season, this was still an embarrassment. The Jets ran for just 62 yards and were shut out 31-0.
A poor first quarter at home against the lowly Buffalo Bills followed, and the Jets trailed 3-0. Then the season immediately turned for the better. They scored 21 second quarter points, McNeil ran for 192 yards and New York won 42-3. The defensive dominance continued in a road game with Green Bay. The Packers were a mediocre team, but had a good offense. In a late afternoon start at old Milwaukee County Stadium, where the Packers used to play three home games a year, the Jets won 24-3.
New York hosted a subpar Indianapolis Colts team and used a well-balanced offense to win 25-20. O’Brien was 20/30 for 240 yards and no interceptions, while McNeil ran for 115 yards. A road win at Cincinnati, the third straight played in the late Sunday afternoon window, came by a 29-20 count. In a game where the teams combined for 29 penalties, O’Brien went 19/28 for 211 yards to make the difference.
The night of October 14 was going to be special no matter what. The Jets were retiring the#12 worn by the legendary Joe Namath on Monday Night Football. The opponent was the Miami Dolphins, who had reached the Super Bowl the previous year with quarterback Dan Marino winning the MVP award.
And the night became even more special for Jets fans by what happened on the football field. O’Brien went 18/28 for 239 yards and no interceptions, while the defense kept Marino contained, restricting him to short passes underneath. The final was 23-7 and really should have been worse, as the Jets bogged down for field goals inside the five-yard line twice in the first half and keeping Miami in the game until the second half.
New York came out of this win and went to New England to face a surging Patriots team that would join the Jets and Dolphins in the AFC East title race. It was an uncharacteristic day for O’Brien—he got the ball downfield, and Walker caught six passes for 140 yards. But he was erratic, only completing 15/21 passes. The running game was contained, the Jets lost the turnover battle 3-1 and ultimately fell 20-13 in a game close all the way.
Seattle had reached the playoffs each of the previous two years and were in contention to do so again when they came to the Meadowlands. The Jets trailed 7-0 and were driving to tie it up, when they fumbled and watched it returned 79 yards to the house. It would have been a good spot to fold, but New York didn’t. McNeil ran for 151 yards, they took over the second half and won 17-14. It would be the Seahawks, an AFC team prior to 2002, that faded from the playoff race.
New York traveled to Indianapolis to face the Colts, who were in the AFC East prior to 2002. The Jets dominated the trenches, outrushing the Colts 201-53, taking a 35-3 lead by halftime and winning 35-17. A big rematch with Miami took place on late Sunday afternoon in the old Orange Bowl.
The Jets trailed 14-3 until a pair of O’Brien touchdown passes gave them a 17-14 lead. The quarterback threw for 393 yards, but he was also sacked five times and Marino got the last say. The Dolphin QB threw for 362 yards, including a 50-yard TD strike in the fourth quarter to beat New York 21-17.
When the Jets went to Tampa Bay to face a horrible Buccaneers team, it looked like New York hadn’t gotten over the tough loss, as they spotted the home team a 14-0 lead. To say the Jets then took over falls in the category of understatement. O’Brien would throw for 367 yards and five touchdowns, with Toon being the lead target with 113 yards receiving. By the time the first quarter was over, the score was 17-14 and the Jets never stopped, piling on in a 62-28 win.
On the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving, New England made their visit to the Meadowlands in a game the Jets needed. Each team drove deep in the first quarter before settling for a field goal. McNeil was injured early in the game and had to leave. But O’Brien and Walker covered for the versatile back. O’Brien was 20/33 for 311 yards, with Walker catching six passes for 168 yards. They chiseled out a 16-13 win.
New York’s 9-3 record had them atop the AFC East, a game ahead of both Miami and New England. But they got stuck with a road trip for Thanksgiving, going to Detroit, who was a mediocre opponent, but always tough to handle at home in this spot.
McNeil was still out and even though Hector ran for 114 yards, the pass defense couldn’t stop Lion quarterback Eric Hipple in a 31-20 loss. The Patriots and Dolphins both won on Sunday to create a three-way tie for first. There were two wild-card spots available, but the runner-up of the Broncos-Raiders battle in the AFC West was going to be involved in that.
The Bills, in the midst of a 2-14 season, were the perfect opponent. A visit to Rich Stadium on December 8 started slowly with a scoreless first quarter. Then O’Brien threw a 20-yard touchdown strike to Shuler. Then backed up in the shadow of their own end zone, O’Brien and Walker hooked up on a 96-yard scoring play. The final was 27-7.
Both AFC East rivals won, while the Raiders beat the Broncos to take the AFC West lead. Denver was the only other competition for the two wild-card spots were now 9-5, a game back of everyone in the AFC East.
In a strict sense, New York controlled their destiny, because they owned the tiebreakers on the Patriots and Dolphins thanks to conference record. In a practical sense though, the Jets still had to play the Bears, who were in the midst of a 15-1 season marked by historic defensive dominance and that would end with a Super Bowl trophy. A Saturday afternoon game was in the Meadowlands and Chicago had everything all sewn up for the playoffs, but New York still couldn’t move the ball and lost 19-6.
Miami beat New England on Monday Night to take control of the division. Denver won and kept pace. The Jets entered the final week of the season needing either a victory over the Cleveland Browns, who led their division, albeit at 8-7, or a loss by Denver. There was a faint hope of still winning the division, but that would require the Dolphins to lose at home to the Bills.
On a Friday night TV special, Denver rallied to beat Seattle and put the pressure on. New York got a break on Saturday when a Pittsburgh loss meant that Cleveland clinched their division and had nothing to play for. The Jets-Browns game was tied 10-10 in the second quarter, but a short TD run by Hector gave New York a lead going into the locker room, another one in the third quarter gave them a cushion and the Jets just kept piling on, winning 37-10. Miami won as expected, but New York was returning to the playoffs and would host a game to boot.
A third Jets-Patriots game went down at the Meadowlands on the final Saturday of December with 20 mph winds blowing. What had been such a nice year ended up with a sour ending. The Jets turned it over four times and forced none of their own. O’Brien was concussed early in the game and the era before the protocols, kept playing before finally having to leave in the third quarter down 23-7. The team couldn’t run the ball and they lost 26-14. New England ended up in the Super Bowl, going through Miami in the AFC Championship Game.
It was still a nice comeback year for the Jets and they would keep the winning going for one more season, enjoying a playoff run in 1986 before sliding back to mediocrity.