November 15, 2010

1981: Jets and “New York Sack Exchange” Dominate Patriots

The 1981 season had not started out in a promising way for the New York Jets, as they lost their first three games and gave up a total of 100 points in the process. Head Coach Walt Michaels was on the hot seat. But by the time they took on the New England Patriots at Schaefer Stadium on November 15, the situation looked much better. The Jets had won four of their past five games and brought a 5-4-1 record into the contest.

The Jets offense was coming on thanks to improved play by QB Richard Todd and an outstanding line anchored by OT Marvin Powell and C Joe Fields. But it was the defense that drew attention, in particular the line that became known as “the New York Sack Exchange”, comprised of DE Joe Klecko, DT Marty Lyons, DT Abdul Salaam, and DE Mark Gastineau (pictured above in that order). The nickname was apt, as they were leading the league in sacks with 38.

The Patriots, under Head Coach Ron Erhardt, had been contenders in 1980 but had fallen on hard times in ’81. There was plenty of talent, as there had been through several prior underachieving seasons, but key injuries, poor play on the offensive line (other than All-Pro guard John Hannah), and a defense that couldn’t stop the run or mount a strong pass rush negated the benefits of a good offensive backfield and experienced and effective wide receivers in Stanley Morgan and Harold Jackson. Quarterback Steve Grogan missed half the season due to a knee injury, and third-year backup Matt Cavanaugh struggled in his place. They were ill-prepared to deal with the spirited team that they had already lost to once earlier in the season.

The weather was windy and rainy in Foxboro, Massachusetts, further favoring the defense. Neither team could mount much offense in a scoreless first quarter. In the second quarter, New England’s John Smith kicked a 42-yard field goal into the wind that just made it over the crossbar and gave the Patriots the lead.

Later in the period, New England drove to the Jets’ 19 yard line before LB Greg Buttle intercepted a pass from Grogan at the 15 and returned it 12 yards. 14 plays later, HB Bruce Harper ran four yards up the middle for a touchdown and the Jets were ahead 7-3 with 2:30 remaining in the period.

On the next series, Patriots RB Mosi Tatupu fumbled after catching a pass from Grogan at his own 36 yard line and Buttle recovered for the Jets. Pat Leahy kicked a 47-yard field goal with eight seconds left to play in the half, and New York took a 10-3 lead into the intermission. The defense had made the big plays, in particular Buttle, who set up possessions that resulted in 10 points with the interception and fumble recovery.

In the third quarter, FB Tom Newton capped another long drive by the Jets with a five-yard touchdown run to make the score 17-3. It was more than enough as the aggressive defense kept New England from threatening the rest of the way – all the Patriots could muster was another field goal by Smith, of 29 yards, and that provided the final score of 17-6. It was the first win for New York in Foxboro since 1975.

In all, on a day when conditions made it difficult for either offense, the Jets outgained the Patriots by 226 yards to 197. New York’s defense recorded eight sacks and forced two turnovers (as opposed to no sacks and one turnover for New England). Joe Klecko and Mark Gastineau had three sacks apiece (still a year away from being an official statistic). Following the game, Klecko was (unofficially) leading the NFL with 15.5 sacks with Gastineau right behind at 14.

As for the offense, Richard Todd completed just 6 of 13 passes for 56 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. WR Wesley Walker, normally a potent deep threat, gained just 25 yards on three catches with a long gain of 11 yards. Running effectively, the Jets gained a total of 166 yards on the ground, with rookie RB Freeman McNeil leading the way with 50 yards on 13 attempts and Tom Newton right behind at 45 yards on 14 carries.

Steve Grogan and Matt Cavanaugh combined threw 34 passes and completed just 14 of them for 153 yards and with one picked off, thanks to Greg Buttle. RB Andy Johnson was New England’s leading receiver with 6 catches out of the backfield for 61 yards. Only one pass was completed to a wide receiver (Stanley Morgan) and it gained just four yards. RB Tony Collins gained 66 rushing yards on 13 attempts.

“It's nice to come up here and finally beat them,” said Buttle (pictured at bottom) afterward. “It's also a lot easier to play in November when you have something to play for and this is the first time since I've been here (six years) that we have something to play for in November.”

“The weather wasn't pretty. The game wasn't as scientific as we'd like it to be. But the most important thing is we're in the middle of the playoff race,” summed up Walt Michaels. “We said all along that if we continued to work hard and play hard and be aggressive, we would start turning things around. And we have.”

“We were pretty well dominated on both sides,” said New England Coach Erhardt. “We just couldn't stop them once they got going. They throttled us up both ways. Give the Jets credit. They are playing good football. There are a lot of people who think they may be the best team in the division right now.”

The Jets stayed hot, losing just once more in the regular season to finish second in the AFC East with a 10-5-1 record, their best since 1969. Qualifying for a wild card berth in the postseason, they lost to Buffalo in the first round. Things continued to go badly for the Patriots, who ended up at the bottom of the division along with the Colts with a league-worst 2-14 tally (Erhardt was dismissed as head coach).

“The New York Sack Exchange” continued to terrorize quarterbacks for the remainder of the season, as the Jets easily led the NFL with 66 sacks (runner-up Oakland had 52).