The New York Jets had started a new era in 1990 when they hired Bruce Coslet, fresh off his work as coordinator on the high-powered Cincinnati Bengals offenses in the late 1980s. Coslet inherited a 4-12 team and made modest improvements to 6-10. He continued the improvement in 1991 by reaching .500 and making the playoffs in a AFC field.
Quarterback Ken O’Brien was the team’s only Pro Bowl player and his primary virtue was game management. O’Brien was in the bottom half of the league in both completion percentage and yards-per-attempt, but he was top five when it came to avoiding interceptions. He was surrounded by veteran receiver Al Toon and Rob Moore, who each caught 70-plus passes and running backs Blair Thomas and Brad Baxter, who were each respectable. The Jets managed to rank 11th in the league in scoring.
The defense ranked 10th and was keyed by a pretty good front four. Marvin Washington, Dennis Byrd and Jeff Lageman all did a nice job pressuring the passer and they combined for 23 sacks. None of it was particularly exciting or flashy, but Jets fans were just looking for some respectable football and signs of hope. They got both in 1991.
Thomas keyed a season-opening 16-13 win at home over lowly Tampa Bay, rushing for 92 yards. A road trip to Seattle went awry with four turnovers and resulted in a 20-13 loss. None of it was promising as New York went into a difficult schedule stretch against contenders Buffalo, Chicago and Miami.
But they started playing some decent football. They held the potent Bills offense to 64 yards rushing and controlled the ball for forty minutes even though a late touchdown pass beat them 23-20. A similar script was followed on Monday Night in Soldier Field. Leading 13-3 in the fourth quarter, the Jets gave up two touchdown passes to Jim Harbaugh and ultimately fell in overtime, 19-13.
Miami came into East Rutherford for a late Sunday afternoon kickoff and the season was already on the line. The Jets build off the promise shown in the two tough losses. They pounded the Dolphins on the ground, with Thomas, Baxter and Freeman McNeil leading an attack that produced 206 yards. They won 41-23. New York then went to Cleveland and got an efficient 19/23 for 195 yard performance from O’Brien in a 17-14 win.
A visit from Houston, again in the late Sunday afternoon window, was a good game, but another case of not-quite-enough against a playoff-bound opponent. There was no running game and O’Brien couldn’t keep up with Warren Moon in a 23-20 loss. O’Brien was more than enough to beat the horrible Indianapolis Colts on the road, going 14/19 for 205 yards. The 17-6 win had the Jets at .500 when they went into their bye week at the end of October.
The bye didn’t exactly help lift New York to a higher level. They barely escaped the lousy Green Bay Packers at home, needing eight catches for 109 yards from Toon to survive in overtime, 19-16. And a visit from the still-winless Colts went worse (Indy was an AFC East team prior to 2002, along with the division’s four current teams). The Jets trailed 28-21 in the fourth quarter, drove into the red zone twice and each time settled for field goals. The 28-27 loss was an embarrassment and looked like it would be difficult to overcome in a packed AFC playoff race.
Another bad opponent was on deck in the New England Patriots and after taking a 21-0 lead, New York barely avoided another embarrassment. After giving up three straight touchdowns to cough up the lead, the Jets ultimately won the game on a three-yard touchdown pass to Trevor Matich, an offensive lineman who reported eligible. It was Matich’s biggest moment before he became an ESPN analyst in his post-playing days.
New York played its best game of November against mediocre San Diego, forcing four turnovers, grabbing an early 14-0 lead and cruising to a 24-3 win at home. The Jets were somehow 7-5 and in the lead for the final wild-card berth.
But the schedule was going to turn difficult. They had road trips to Buffalo and Detroit, both teams that would end up with first-round byes in the playoffs. O’Brien threw two interceptions against the Bills and they were unable to take advantage some sloppiness by the home favorite in a 24-13 loss. The Lions game wasn’t any better, with five turnovers and five sacks allowed leading to a 34-20 loss for the late Sunday afternoon national audience.
New York now trailed Miami by one game, but they had the head-to-head win over the Dolphins and the rematch would be in the season finale. The Jets still controlled their own destiny when they hosted the Patriots. With the winds gusting at 30 mph, New York failed in the kicking game. Pat Leahy missed a 23-yarder and had to be sidelined for sciatica afterwards. New England got two field goals from 40-plus yards and that was the difference.
The 6-3 loss meant the Jets had to watch and hope when Miami took the field in San Diego later that day. New York got the help they needed—the Dolphins lost and even at 7-8, the Jets were playing a winner-take-all game for the playoffs in the season’s last week.
New York needed a kicker and they signed one who was familiar to Big Apple fans—Raul Allegre had been kicking for the Giants from 1986 until his release earlier this season. He would get an opportunity to make a difference in this game.
In today’s NFL world, this would have been flexed to the Sunday Night spot. In 1991, it was just played in the 1 PM ET window. The Jets were a (+5.5) underdog, but they got 132 yards on the ground from Johnny Hector. McNeil chipped in 55 yards and they shut down the Miami running game. New York led 17-13 late in the game.
But the Dolphins had Dan Marino and when he led a drive that culminated with a touchdown pass, it looked like the playoff bid was finally going to be over. But O’Brien got Allegre a last chance and the new kicker delivered a 44-yard field goal that tied it 20-20. In overtime, Allegre came through one more, a 30-yarder that sent the Jets into the playoffs.
New York was a nine-point underdog in Houston in the fourth and final game of wild-card weekend. Their defense played well, sacking Moon four times, two from linebacker Mo Lewis. The Jets only trailed 17-10 into the fourth quarter. But failure to execute in the red zone ended their season. One of O’Brien’s three interceptions came inside the Houston 10-yard line. They were stopped on downs two more times in the fourth quarter. The 17-10 score stood up.
There was still reason for good feeling in the offseason, as the franchise continued incremental improvement under Coslet. But with the Jets, these stories haven’t had happy endings since the Namath era. The team collapsed back to 4-12 in 1992 and in spite of returning to .500 in 1993, Coslet was fired. The flash of hope in 1991 was doused quickly.