The 1981 NFL season was one of those seminal moments in the history of the league. The NFC Championship Game produced the triumph of the new dynasty (the Bill Walsh 49ers) over the fading old dynasty (the Tom Landry Cowboys).
This game produced the iconic image of 49er receiver Dwight Clark leaping to snare Joe Montana’s pass for the winning touchdown. That was just the most enduring moment of a season that produced a lot of great storylines…
*San Diego and Miami played one of the most dramatic playoff games in NFL history, a 41-38 overtime win for the Chargers.
*The city of New York was united in the final week of the season. The Giants had never made the playoffs in the Super Bowl era that started in 1966 and the Jets had been out of the postseason since 1969. When the Jets played the Packers in the finale, they were playing to put both themselves and the Giants in the playoffs. When the Jets won, the singing of New York, New York was never more appropriate.
*We haven’t even gotten to the league’s MVP. Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterback Ken Anderson had a brilliant season and took home the award. He also led the Bengals to their first Super Bowl, where only a dramatic goal line stand by San Francisco probably kept Cincy from the Lombardi Trophy.
*The surprise fade of the Philadelphia Eagles was another significant development. Dick Vermeil had turned this team into a consistent playoff team that had reached the Super Bowl in 1980. After a 6-0 start, the Eagles looked here to stay. But they faded, barely hung on to make the playoffs and lost the first game. Then they faded from the scene and Vermeil went into early retirement.
*Other playoff teams included the Buffalo Bills, with their last good team of the Chuck Knox era. And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with Doug Williams at quarterback and Lee Roy Selmon at defensive end won a close NFC Central race marked by four teams of roughly equivalent mediocrity.
This compilationincludes the game-by-game narrative of all ten playoff teams. Each article is published individually on TheSportsNotebook.com, drawn together here and edited to form a cohesive story of the 1981 NFL season through the eyes of its best teams. Download it from Amazon today.
It had been twelve long years since the passionate fans of the New York Jets had tasted the postseason. Not since Joe Willie Namath led the franchise to its historic Super Bowl III upset win and back to the playoffs the following year of 1969, had the Jets advanced.
There was some brief hope in 1978-79 when the team went 8-8 under Walt Michaels, but regressed to 4-12 in 1980. Michaels was back and there didn’t seem a lot to indicate that this 1981 New York Jets team would in fact be the team to quench the postseason drought.
It was the defensive line that keyed the resurgence. Mark Gastineau at defensive end and Joe Klecko at defensive tackle each made the Pro Bowl, with Klecko a 1st-team All-NFL selection. The Jets led the league with 66 sacks and the front four became known as the “New York Sack Exchange.
Free safety Darrol Ray took advantage of the duress opposing quarterbacks faced and intercepted seven passes. With Gastineau doing his colorful sack dances back at a time when the NFL still allowed its players to have some color, the Jets ranked 8th in the NFL in points allowed.
The offense got similar results–9th in the league in points scored–with a similar formula. The Jets were tough up front, with center Joe Fields a Pro Bowler and right tackle Marvin Powell a 1st-team All-NFL pick. Quarterback Richard Todd played very well, with a 56 percent completion rate, over 3,200 yards passing and a 25/13 TD-INT ratio that was solid by the standards of the early 1980s.
New York didn’t have one particular standout at the skill positions, but they spread the ball around. Rookie running back Freeman McNeil led the team in rushing with 623 yards and he got help from Mike Augustyniak, Bruce Harper and Scott Dierking. McNeil and Harper were both able receivers, with Harper’s 52 catches leading the team. Augstyniak and Dierking were more ground-and-pound runners.
Wesley Walker was the top wideout, with 770 receiving yards and speed that could stretch defenses. Jerome Barkum was a reliable target at tight end and would come up with some of the season’s biggest catches.
It took a while for all this to come together. The Jets opened the season at Buffalo against the defending AFC East champion Bills and only gained eight first downs in a 31-0 loss. The offense got rolling at home against Cincinnati. Todd hit Barkum with a 40-yard touchdown pass and threw another TD to Walker to get a 17-3 lead.
The quarterback finished 18/29 for 251 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions. But the Bengals rallied and moved ahead 31-23. Todd found Barkum for another touchdown, but with no two-point conversion available, the game ended 31-30.
The loss looks much better in retrospect–Cincinnati won the AFC crown and their quarterback, Ken Anderson, won the MVP award. At the time, it was a home loss to another franchise that was struggling to get back to the playoffs and had gone 6-10 the year before.
However it looked, the Jets were 0-2 and they dropped a third straight with a no-show in Pittsburgh, giving up 343 yards on the ground to what had become a mediocre Steelers team now two years removed from the Steel Curtain Dynasty. The final was 38-10. An 0-3 record with two blowouts didn’t exactly have anyone thinking playoffs.
Todd stepped up with a big game at home against the Houston Oilers, going 25/39 for 312 yards and three touchdowns, with the bulk of the damage being done by Walker. Houston had been to the playoffs three straight years, though they were in the process of slipping below .500 this year. Even so, holding the great running back Earl Campbell to 88 yards was a big deal for the defense in a 33-17 win.
A road trip to Miami to face a contending Dolphins team produced a back-and-forth game. Todd threw for 310 yards and four touchdowns, while the running game generated 242 rush yards. Walker had his second straight game with eight catches for 100-plus yards.
Miami backup quarterback Don Strock came in and had a big day of his own, and the Jets lost the turnover battle 3-0. The game went to overtime at 28-28 and no one could win it. New York was in a 1-3-1 hole.
The New England Patriots were on their way to a 2-14 season, but an inordinate amount of their losses were close games. Todd threw a couple first half touchdown passes to Barkum and then the Jets had to hang on for a 28-24 win.
New York appeared to be turning their season around when Buffalo came in to old Shea Stadium. The Jets pounded a good defense for over 200 rushing yards with their balanced attack. They hung on to a 20-14 lead and the Bills were driving, when Bobby Jones took a fumble 61 yards for a score. The Jets had a big 33-14 win…but they gave it right back with a 19-3 home loss to the lousy Seattle Seahawks, turning it over four times and this time giving up 200-plus rushing yards.
If the season appeared to turn around with the Buffalo win, it really did turn for good when the Jets crossed over into the Meadowlands to their future home stadium to play the Giants, who were already there.
Lawrence Taylor was in his rookie season and on his way to Defensive Player of the Year, but it was the Jet defense that was the collective star of this day. They held the Giants to 55 rush yards and won easily 26-7.
The Jets were now 4-4-1 and took care of consecutive road games against the worst teams in the league, the Baltimore Colts and New England. Todd threw for 277 yards in Baltimore, spreading the ball to ten different receivers in a 41-14 win. Stiff defense, combined with a 166-96 rushing edge keyed the win in Foxboro, 17-6.
New York was right in the thick of a three-team AFC East race, with Buffalo and Miami. They were in the hunt for one of two wild-card berths, with the AFC West in a three-team race of its own between Denver, San Diego and Kansas City. A national audience would see the Jets-Dolphins game from Shea on a late Sunday afternoon.
It would be a classic regular season game. The Jets maintained control of the tempo, but kept settling for field goals. They trailed 15-9 as dusk settled over Shea and it looked like another frustrating loss awaited. Todd then drove the team to the 11-yard line with 16 seconds left. He dropped back and saw Barkum over the middle. Todd put the ball on the money amidst a crowd and the tight end hung on. The Jets prevailed 16-15.
New York and Miami were tied for first at 7-4-1 and it was the Jets that held the tiebreaker. Buffalo was a half-game back at 7-5. New York kept rolling at home against Baltimore (the Colts were an AFC East team prior to the realignment of 2002), holding them to 49 rush yards and winning 25-0.
A road trip to Seattle was next. The Seahawks were an AFC team prior to 2002 and the scheduling format of the time called for the two teams in each conference who had finished last in the five-team divisions (which were the AFC East & AFC West, the Central having only four teams) to play twice. It was the reason why the Seahawks would be most responsible for the reason the Jets didn’t ultimately win the AFC East.
New York played better in this game then they had against Seattle in Shea, but got away from the running game and had Todd throw the ball 51 times. Seattle got a 57-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter and won 27-23. Miami moved into first place. The Jets were a half-game behind 9-5 Buffalo, while the AFC West had two wild-card contenders at 8-6.
An early afternoon game on Saturday was in Cleveland on December 12. The Browns were struggling to 5-11 season, but they made a game of it. The Jets got 76 rushing yards from Dierking, part of a 164-74 edge on the day and were able to escape 14-13. Buffalo and Miami both won and ensured that the Bills-Dolphins finale would settle the AFC East.
New York still controlled its playoff fate. If they won their finale–at home against the Green Bay Packers–the Jets would play the Bills-Dolphins loser. If they lost, they would need for San Diego to lose a Monday Night home game with Oakland, who was 7-8.
On the Saturday of the final week, Miami clinched the division, and over in the NFC, the New York Giants kept themselves alive. This is significant because all the Giants needed to make the playoffs was for the Packers to lose. Jets and Giants fans would be united in a spirit of brotherhood, with a Jet victory meaning two playoff berths for the Big Apple.
With the winds of Shea swirling at 21 mph, the Jets simply dominated a pass-dependent Packers offense. New York built a 14-3 lead and then Todd found speedy Lam Jones for a second-quarter touchdown to make the lead seemingly insurmountable at 21-3. A 38-yard strike to Walker removed all doubt and the final was 28-3.
The Jets were in the playoffs and the complete turnaround of their season is captured by this single stat—after getting only eight first downs in the season-opening loss to Buffalo, New York held Green Bay to just eight first downs in the season-ending win.
New York was a three-point favorite at home against Buffalo, but the Bills had playoff experience and perhaps that was the difference early on. The Jets lost a fumble that was turned it into a touchdown and gave a long pass for another score. They were in a 24-0 hole before getting themselves turned around.
Todd battled heroically, going 28/50 for 377 yards and he pulled the team almost all the way back. The score was 31-27 and the Jets were driving for the win. But Todd also threw four interceptions and the last one came on the goal line with two seconds left.
A great season had ended in heartbreak, something Jets fans have become all too familiar with over the years. But it was still…well, it was still a great season. And the Jets would build on this, come back strong in 1982 and not only make the playoffs, but win some games when they got there.