The 1986 New York Jets had one of the craziest roller-coaster rides the NFL has ever seen. They spent three-quarters of the season looking like a Super Bowl team, then completely collapsed, then won a playoff game and were on the verge of winning another. Then one more collapse left them home and a little dizzy after all the ups and downs.
New York was coming off a good 1985 season where they reached the playoffs as a wild-card team. They were hungry to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since Joe Namath took them to a memorable championship in 1968. The Jets had not even won the AFC East since its creation in the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Ken O’Brien was one of the less memorable names from the great quarterback draft class of 1983. In a group that includes John Elway, Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, O’Brien slid under the radar and had nowhere near the career of those Hall of Famers. But a first-round pick himself, O’Brien put up good numbers in 1986.
His 62% completion rate was near the top of the league and he averaged a solid 7.7 yards-per-attempt. O’Brien also threw 25 touchdowns. If there was a disappointment it was that he threw 20 interceptions. While interceptions overall were much more frequent in this era than in our own, O’Brien was still in the lower half of the league.
Freeman McNeil was an underrated, versatile running back and he rushed for 856 yards while catching 49 passes out of the backfield. Johnny Hector had a similar skillset, running for 605 yards and adding 38 receptions. Pro Bowl tight end Mickey Shuler also fit O’Brien’s short-passing style and Shuler caught 65 passes for 675 yards.
The Jets weren’t limited to throwing the ball underneath to the backs and tight ends. They had an ideal duo of wide receivers. Al Toon was a possession-type receiver and one of the best in the league. The University of Wisconsin product caught 85 passes for nearly 1,200 yards and was 1st-team All-Pro. On the other side, Wesley Walker was one of the top big-play threats in the game. His 49 passes generated nearly 21 yards a pop.
The quality of the skill-position talent put the Jets into contention. But they were a team that lacked playmakers elsewhere. There were no Pro Bowlers on the offensive line or the entire defense. The D still had some holdovers on the defensive front from the great “New York Sack Exchange” that hit its peak in 1981, but Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau were past their prime. At season’s end, the Jets ranked 22nd in the NFL on defense while sitting at 11th on offense.
New York opened the season at Buffalo and trailed 17-14 in the third quarter. The Bills were a bad team, but had Kelly at quarterback and weren’t that far from being a playoff contender. O’Brien threw a 71-yard touchdown strike to Walker to get the lead and the Jets went on to win 28-24. O’Brien finished 18/28 for 318 yards and Toon was a big factor in the offense, catching six balls for 119 yards.
Thursday Night games weren’t the norm in 1985, so it was a big deal when New York began their home schedule with a prime-time date against New England. The last time the Patriots had come to the Meadowlands was the previous year’s wild-card game.
New England won that one and went on to reach the Super Bowl. This game didn’t go much better for the Jets. New York led 7-6 at the half, but couldn’t get the running game going and completely bogged down after halftime in a 20-6 loss.
Week 3 saw Miami come to town and it would be one of the most memorable regular season games of the 1980s and one of the most memorable in Jets history. The Dolphins had won three straight AFC East titles and Marino would be the 1st-team All-Pro quarterback again in 1986. O’Brien went toe-to-toe with him in a dramatic shootout.
At a time when defenses had considerable more liberty than they do today, the quarterbacks rang up numbers. Marino was 30/50 for 448 yards and six touchdowns. O’Brien was 29/43 for 479 yards and he had the last word—the last two words actually. Trailing 45-38. O’Brien found Walker on a 21-yard TD pass to force overtime. In the extra period the same combination hooked up on a 43-yard play to win it 51-45.
After the two big battles with the Dolphins and Patriots, a letdown was understandable and the Jets didn’t play their best game in Indianapolis. Fortunately, the Colts were awful and couldn’t call them on it. There were nine combined turnovers and New York churned out a 26-7 win.
They hosted Buffalo in Week 5 and again struggled with the Bills for a while, trailing 13-7 in the fourth quarter. Again, they rallied. Hector had a big game, with 114 yards on the ground and 100 more receiving. O’Brien found Shuler for a touchdown pass to pull out the 14-13 win.
For some reason the schedulemakers decided to frontload the Jets’ divisional games and they played their sixth AFC East game in as many weeks on October 12 in New England (Indianapolis was in the AFC East prior to the realignment of 2002). New York kept rolling. They dominated the line of scrimmage, winning the rush yardage battle 177-17 behind 143 yards from Hector. Even though the pass coverage was shredded by New England’s Steve Grogan, the Jets pulled out a 31-24 win.
The 5-1 record had everyone’s attention, but if there was any doubt, New York went to Denver on a Monday Night and eliminated it. The Broncos were 6-0 and on their way to a Super Bowl. The Jets sacked Elway five times, dominated the ground game to the tune of 137-47 and were up 22-zip by halftime. They won 22-10 and were riding high atop the entire AFC.
New York came home to face mediocre New Orleans and O’Brien was razor-sharp. He hit Toon on an early touchdown pass from deep, 62 yards, and another one from close in, 6 yards. O’Brien finished 20/32 for 258 yards while the defense forced five turnovers. After taking a 28-6 lead, the Jets hung on to win 28-23.
Two more road wins followed, at a good Seattle team and then at mediocre Atlanta with O’Brien lighting it up both games. Against Seattle, the quarterback was 26/32 for 401 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. And he did it to the wide receivers, with Toon and Walker combining for 15 catches and over 350 yards. The rout was on in a 38-7 final. Down in Atlanta, O’Brien threw three second-quarter touchdown passes, one to Toon and two to Walker. The quarterback finished 26/33 for 322 yards, three TDs and no mistakes in a 28-14 win.
On November 16, the Jets had another sloppy game with the Colts, this time with ten combined turnovers and New York clung to a 17-16 lead in the fourth quarter. McNeil would rush for 104 yards while Walker caught five balls for 110 yards and the Jets were able to pull away down the stretch, 31-16.
The record was 10-1. O’Brien was an MVP candidate. All of New York was electrified at the prospect of a Jets-Giants Super Bowl (the Giants would go on to win it all). Everything was looking great. But the worm was about to turn and it couldn’t have done so more decisively than with what happened next.
New York went to Miami for a Monday Night game just prior to Thanksgiving. Marino carved up the defense again and this time there was no response. No running game and O’Brien did not play well. The loss per se was no big deal and hardly a surprise, even though the Dolphins slipped to a .500 this year. But to lose 45-3 on the national stage was more than a little embarrassing.
Nor did the schedule get easier with games ahead against playoff teams in the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers. NBC analyst Paul Maguire was making national waves with an audacious prediction that the Jets would not win another game.
And New York did their best to make him appear prophetic. They were crushed in the trenches against both the 49ers and Rams. Over the two games combined the rush yardage numbers were 336-127 against the Jets. On the scoreboard they lost 31-7 at home to the Rams and 24-10 in Frisco.
The lead in the AFC East was gone. The Jets were tied with the Patriots at 10-4 and New England had the better divisional record. New York still led the race for two wild-card spots and with a strong conference record their position in the tiebreakers would ultimately save them.
But after where they stood three weeks ago, just making the playoffs would be small consolation. An early Saturday afternoon home game with a weak Pittsburgh Steelers team looked like the antidote. Instead, in a 17-17 game, the Jets fell apart down the stretch. O’Brien threw three interceptions on the day, the last a Pick-6 that sealed his team’s doom in a 38-17 loss.
New England also lost, so there was still hope for the division title. The conference record position had made a wild-card spot official. Which was a good thing, because the Jets were destroyed by a fellow contender for one of those playoff spots, the Cincinnati Bengals. After Bobby Humphrey got the game off to a good start with a 96-yard kickoff return and a 7-0 lead, the Jets completely came undone.
O’Brien was an awful 13/27 for 106 yards and three interceptions. He was sacked four times. The Jets gave up over 200 yards on the ground and more than 400 in the air to Boomer Esiason. The final score was 52-21. The regular season meltdown was complete in a 52-21 loss.
There was still hope for the AFC East title—if the Patriots lost in Miami on Monday Night, it would change the tiebreaker equation in favor of the Jets. But New England pulled out an exciting 34-27 final. The Jets would still host the wild-card game against the Kansas City Chiefs, but now another factor was in the mix—O’Brien was dealing with a concussion and backup quarterback Pat Ryan would be forced into duty.
New York was installed as a three-point favorite, but it’s a mark of how far they had fallen that against a team widely seen as a fluke, the Jets were given nothing more than the field-goal courtesy oddsmakers assigned to home teams.
New York-Kansas City got the NFL playoff schedule rolling in the early afternoon on December and it seemed like the Jets were still in a funk when the Chiefs drove for a touchdown. But a missed extra point changed the momentum.
The Jets drove to the Chiefs’ 33-yard line and faced a 4th down. They went for it and called a keeper for Ryan that gained 24 yards. McNeil finished the drive with a one-yard touchdown run and New York was back and rolling.
McNeil got the ball 31 times and gained 135 yards. He caught a touchdown pass from Ryan set up by a turnover and then Ryan threw another TD pass to Al Toon. Ryan played an efficient football game, 16/23 for 153 yards and no interceptions.
In the third quarter, linebacker Kevin MacArthur put the game away when he picked off a pass and took it 21 yards to the house. The lead was 28-6. MacArthur’s play was the highlight of a defensive masterpiece that saw them completely shut down the Chiefs. No KC running back gained more than 15 yards on the day and the Jets chased starting quarterback Todd Blackledge, forcing him into a 12/21 for 80 yards day. The final was 35-15.
Six days later the Jets were in Cleveland for the early game on Saturday, which meant a 1 PM ET kick in the days prior to prime-time Saturday night football in the NFL playoffs. O’Brien was a go, but he was knocked out quickly, putting the team’s fate back in the veteran Ryan’s hands. When New York took a 20-10 lead with less than five minutes to play, it looked over.
Even when Mark Gastineau foolishly gave Cleveland life by roughing Kosar on a 2nd-and-24 deep in Cleveland territory, it still seemed over. When the Browns drove down the field and Kevin Mack plunged over from 1, it was anxious time, but any reasonable person would still think the Jets were going to hold on.
With under a minute to go, they punted it away and Cleveland had no timeouts. The punt pinned Kosar inside his ten. It was called back by a penalty. The re-kick set up the Browns at their own 32-yard line. A pass interference penalty moved it past midfield. Then Kosar found speedy Webster Slaughter down the sideline and it set up the tying field goal at 20-20. Unbelievably, this was going to overtime.
Cleveland missed a chip-shot field goal in overtime, but New York was unable to protect Ryan. They gave up a playoff-record nine sacks on the day and did nothing offensively in overtime. Early in the second extra session, the Browns won 23-20.
It’s hard to imagine a year with more wild ups and downs than what the 1986 New York Jets experienced. The season didn’t end the way the fans wanted, but no one could say it was boring.