June 24, 2011

1998: Vinny Testaverde Signs with Jets

On June 24, 1998 the New York Jets announced the signing of QB Vinny Testaverde, who had recently been waived by the Baltimore Ravens. It was the third stop for the 34-year-old veteran (he turned 35 during the ’98 season), who had 12 years of experience in the NFL.

Much had been expected when Testaverde was drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987. He starred at the University of Miami, winning the Heisman Trophy in ’86. At 6’5” and 218 pounds (he eventually filled out to 235), and with a strong arm, he had all the physical tools necessary to excel as a pro. However, the Bucs were not a good team and the young quarterback struggled, throwing 35 interceptions in 1988, his first full season as the starter, and leading the NFL again in ’89 with 22. Questions began to develop as to his decision-making ability, particularly under pressure.

After six disappointing years with Tampa Bay, Testaverde was dealt to the Cleveland Browns and replaced his former Miami teammate Bernie Kosar, who was abruptly released during the 1993 season. He had some better luck with the Browns, quarterbacking the team to the playoffs in ’94. When the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1996, Testaverde was still the starting quarterback and made the Pro Bowl after passing for 4177 yards and 33 TDs. However, his performance dropped off in ’97 and he was waived after the Ravens signed QB Jim Harbaugh.

The Jets, coming off of a 9-7 record in their first year under Head Coach Bill Parcells, had endured a quarterback controversy in 1997. Neil O’Donnell, who signed a five-year free agent contract in ’96 after leading the Steelers to an AFC Championship, was 8-12 in his starts with the Jets and had not enjoyed Parcells’ favor. He lost the starting job to fourth-year backup Glenn Foley, who brought a gunslinging style to the position. While a knee injury put him out of action for the last few weeks, it was clear that Parcells wanted Foley to start in 1998.

When O’Donnell indicated that he was unwilling to restructure his contract, his fate was sealed and he was waived immediately upon the signing of Testaverde. Dropping O’Donnell and signing Testaverde, who accepted a one-year deal with an option for a second year, saved the Jets $2.75 million against the salary cap.

“Glenn Foley has the benefit of the doubt,” said Parcells (pictured above with Testaverde) in the immediate aftermath of the deal, “but if Vinny plays at a level which is clearly better, he would be the starter.”

Foley did start the season, but he suffered a rib injury that put Testaverde into the lineup. After starting off at 2-3, the Jets went 10-1 the rest of the way to win the AFC East with a 12-4 record and make it into the postseason for the first time since 1991. The veteran quarterback had an outstanding year, leading the AFC in passing (101.6 rating) while throwing for 3256 yards with 29 touchdowns and just seven interceptions.

Testaverde was helped by another key acquisition on offense, RB Curtis Martin, who was signed away from the Patriots and rushed for 1287 yards, thus taking pressure off of the passing game. WR Keyshawn Johnson, the team’s first draft choice in ’96, blossomed in his third season, catching 83 passes for 1131 yards (10 for TDs) and gaining selection to the Pro Bowl. Less-heralded WR Wayne Chrebet contributed 75 receptions for 1083 yards and eight scores.

The Jets advanced to the AFC Championship game before succumbing to the Denver Broncos, 23-10. Still, for a team that had suffered through a miserable 1-15 season just two years before, it was a tremendous turnaround. It was also a turnaround for the often-maligned Testaverde, who showed consistency and received Pro Bowl recognition.

Unfortunately for Testaverde, the success did not last. He suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the 1999 opening game and missed the remainder of the season. The Jets slipped back to 8-8 with Ray Lucas and Rick Mirer starting at quarterback and Parcells resigned afterward (he remained in the front office for one year).

Testaverde came back in 2000, but with lessened mobility and without Parcells’ coaching. He returned to the old pattern of uneven performances, often struggling and prone to making mistakes while on other occasions getting into grooves in which his passing was nearly unstoppable. In the end, he went to the air a league-leading 590 times, completing 328 of those passes for 3732 yards, but throwing more interceptions (25, also a NFL-leading figure) than touchdown passes (21).

A new head coach, Herman Edwards, and offensive coordinator, Paul Hackett, arrived in 2001, and Testaverde found himself directing Hackett’s version of the West Coast offense. Foregoing the long ball for short passes, he averaged 6.2 yards per attempt and completed no throw longer than 40 yards, but he also cut his interceptions down to 14 (his TD passes totaled 15) and the Jets were 10-6.

Testaverde, who started slowly in ’02, gave way to Chad Pennington, and while the younger quarterback missed the first part of the season with a broken wrist in 2003, Testaverde, now pushing 40 years of age, went back to the bench when Pennington returned. In 2004, he reunited with Parcells in Dallas as a stopgap starting quarterback, returned to the Jets in ’05, and then sat on the bench behind Tom Brady in New England in 2006. When the Carolina Panthers ran into injury problems at quarterback in ’07, the old pro returned for one last campaign at age 44 and finally called it quits after 21 seasons in the NFL.

Overall, Testaverde passed for 46,223 yards with 275 touchdowns and 267 interceptions. While he could never fully overcome his early reputation for inconsistency, and particularly his penchant for forcing throws and making poor decisions that led to bad consequences, Testaverde also showed flashes of the outstanding ability that was expected of him – most notably in the 1998 season with the Jets.