Why the New York Jets Have Been So Bad for So Long

Blame decades of mismanagement by owners and coaches uninterested in long-term solutions.
AP / Patrick Semansky

To paraphrase Georges Clemenceau on Brazil, the New York Jets are the team of the future—and always will be. In 1969 the Jets tossed the pro football world on its head when the AFL upstart Jets were led by Joe Namath to a Super Bowl victory over the NFL old-guard team Baltimore Colts. Since then, the Jets have accomplished nothing—despite intermittent reboots of team management and proclamations that the future will soon be brighter.

The team has never been back to the Super Bowl; four times they were one victory away and lost. That makes one Super Bowl appearance from 1969 till now. Only the Detroit Lions and the Arizona (formerly the St. Louis) Cardinals have a worse won-lost record among franchises that have been around at least half a century.

Why has the team been so bad for so long? Blame a persistent shortsightedness among its leaders over the year.

Much of the Jets’ history of futility can be traced to Leon Hess, an oil-company billionaire. Hess, along with Sonny Werblin and three other investors, purchased the franchise in 1963 and by 1984 had bought out the other investors to become the team’s sole owner. Hess was well liked, but fans complained in those years that the team didn’t seem to be run by “football people”—that is, management grounded in the strategy, tactics, and economics of the game. Hess seemed more interested in the prestige of owning a pro football team and treating his friends to a box-seat view than in building a solid franchise.

After Hess died in 1999, the Jets were sold for $635 million to Woody Johnson, heir of the Johnson & Johnson fortune. He has proved he knows as little about the game as Hess did. A September a headline in the New York Daily News called him “clueless,” one of the kinder descriptions of his football acumen.

This inept line of owners has resulted in a series of false starts for the Jets. Nearly every new coach hired over the years has brought with him the promise of a new day. Walt Michaels, after four seasons (1977-1980) without a winning record, took the Jets to a 10-5-1 record in 1980 before losing in the first round of the playoffs. One year later, Michaels was gone. In 1985, coached by Joe Walton, they were 11-5 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. In Walton’s seven seasons he won just one playoff game. Pete Carroll grabbed a national championship with the University of Southern California and is currently having great success with the Seattle Seahawks, but when he came to New York in 1994 the best he could manage was 6-10. In 1995, Hess fired Carroll and announced he was hiring Rich Kotite because, “I want results now.” He got them, but not the kind he was looking for: The Jets were 4-28 in two seasons under Kotite.

In 1998 the Jets finally got a football man to head the team; Bill Parcells had won two Super Bowls with the Giants and in 1996 had coached the New England Patriots to the big game. Even Parcells could do no better in three seasons than a 29-19 with a 1-1 record in the postseason.

And so on. In 2009, with management once again impatient to win—Woody Johnson told the press, echoing Leon Hess, “I think our fans deserve a winner now” —Rex Ryan was hired to fill the head job. Rex had no head coaching experience but did have a great pedigree as the son of beloved NFL coach and one-time Jets defensive guru Buddy Ryan.

In 2009 and 2010, Rex went 20-12 and won four of six playoff games, losing the conference championships in both years in tough games. But in those losses the Jets showed enough heart for their fans to think that in this dawn the sun would surely rise. Since then, the Jets have won 19 and lost 24. 

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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