Maybe the best way to summarize the New York Jets' season is to say that they have won as many games as any National Football League team without a Refrigerator.
Coach Joe Walton's Jets are 9-3, in first place in the AFC Eastern Division with one month left to hold the fort, beginning Thursday in the Silverdome, where Detroit (6-6) is 5-0.
If the thought of first place doesn't sound nostalgic to the Jets -- they haven't finished a season there since 1969 -- then the two new signs affixed to the wall inside their home at Giants Stadium surely must. One sign pictures a jersey with the name "Namath" and the other pictures a coach's jacket with the name "Weeb." In the Jetworld, those names spell G-L-O-R-Y D-A-Y-S.
But has anybody looked atop the list of league-leading quarterbacks lately? Check it out. The Jets' Ken O'Brien is numero uno. The former Cal-Davis star, the team's former first-round "blown pick" of 1983, merely possesses the best touchdown-to-interception ratio in the league (19 to 6), the highest completion percentage (61) and the lowest interception rate (1.8 per 100 passes), and he is just a fraction shy of San Diego's Dan Fouts with an average of more than eight yards per attempt.
Shouldn't someone point out that Namath threw for 18 touchdowns with 15 interceptions in 1965 and that was the best ratio he ever had with the Jets?
"It's his intelligence that sets him apart," Mike Hickey, Jets director of player personnel, said of O'Brien. "It separates him from a lot of folks. It's the same kind of intelligence that allowed (New England's) Steve Grogan to last and survive and the same kind of intelligence that allowed (Cincinnati's) Ken Anderson to play for Augustana (College).
"(O'Brien) is tough and a leader, with one extremely strong arm."
O'Brien, who turns 25 Wednesday, has progressed rapidly. He threw for five touchdowns (one shy of Namath's club record) and 393 yards in a 62-28 victory over Tampa Bay two weeks ago. He has shocked many in the NFL who thought he'd never leave the closet of the 1983 draft, in which he was the fifth of six quarterbacks selected in the first round.
Since that draft, Miami's Dan Marino (taken after O'Brien) has broken every passing record in sight; Jim Kelly (taken second) has spurned Buffalo to win an MVP award in the U.S. Football League; Denver's John Elway (first) has earned a $1 million signing bonus and a division title; New England's Tony Eason (fourth) has set club records for accuracy; Kansas City's Todd Blackledge (third) recently unseated Bill Kenney as starter.
O'Brien should be told that NFL laws of etiquette and common decency (respect to elders, etc.) explicitly state that you're not supposed to be leading the league in passing when your career measures 17 starts. "And he's just starting to emerge," Hickey says.
They've been howling "Tooooon!" with great regularity in the Meadowlands this season. Al Toon, the team's top draft pick from Wisconsin, had back-to-back 100-yard games, catching O'Brien passes in every direction. This just goes to show that a few acrobatic catches will make even the most ornery fans forget that you were a contract holdout only a couple months ago.
Toon gives O'Brien a target other than tight end Mickey Shuler, a guy whose magnet hands have pulled in 119 passes (51 this year) over the past two seasons.
Furthermore, the emergence of Toon has given more space to veteran receiver Wesley Walker, who caught six passes for 178 yards in a 16-13 overtime victory over New England Sunday. Walker's haul included an 88-yard scoring pass that came after O'Brien audibled when he sensed a blitz. The blitz came, O'Brien's release was perfect and Walker was gone. By the time he reached the end zone, confetti was raining from the upper deck.
It was the Jets' third-longest pass play in history. Joe Namath had scoring plays of 91 and 89 yards to former tight end/receiver Richard Caster years ago.
It's not as if the Jets haven't had adversity this season. They lost their opener, 31-0, to the Raiders and they lost to Miami, 21-17, two weeks ago when they allowed Marino to throw a game-winning 50-yard scoring pass to Mark Duper with 41 seconds left. Those are the types of losses that could crush a weaker team's spirit.
The Jets have won even though defensive end Mark Gastineau has had his right thumb in a cast for much of the season, causing him to miss four starts and to accumulate just 9 1/2 quarterback sacks. They have won even though running back Freeman McNeil has been bothered by an ankle injury. Although he was limited to five carries Sunday, McNeil has rushed for 1,102 yards, fourth best in the league. He is listed as questionable for Thursday's game.
The Jets have persevered even though their veteran kicker, Pat Leahy, missed three mid-range field goal tries in that four-point loss to Miami. It was Leahy who revived to convert a 32-yard game-winner in overtime Sunday.
The Jets have received an all-pro effort from nose tackle Joe Klecko, who plundered veteran Patriots center Guy Morriss Sunday to get three of the Jets' five sacks.
"It's scary what (Klecko) is doing to centers," says Hickey. "He's probably the premier inside lineman in football right now. He may be one of the first people to make the Pro Bowl playing his third position: from (defensive) end to tackle to nose tackle."
And when you ask Klecko what has made the Jets' defense so good, to pinpoint what has allowed the Jets to allow 196 points (fourth best in the league), he says only two words: "Bud Carson."
Carson is the Jets' new defensive coordinator, the guy who helped mold the Steel Curtain in Pittsburgh in the mid-70s and the guy who directed the Rams' defense when that team made it to the Super Bowl in 1979. Carson has been coaching football for 30 years. He knows his business.
The Jets' defense is allowing fewer than 290 yards per game, rating in the upper third of the league. Lance Mehl remains one of the league's most underrated linebackers. The Jets have forced five turnovers in four different games this year.
It might be because all of this first-place business is so new to these Jets that they never dare mention the playoffs. They know that Don Shula is just one game behind, waiting for the Jets to slip, to seize the 12th division title in the past 15 years for Miami.
"Until we can beat them consistently, we have to look at them. They are at the top of the mountain, the guys who are always there," Hickey said of Miami.
"Unless you can beat the guys that win, you're never going to be the guys that win," Hickey added, pausing long enough to add, "How's that for a Yogi-ism?"