Joe Walton's Jets could have been the best team in the NFL

Joe Walton, who deceased Sunday at the age of 85, presided over what I consider “The Age of Jets That Never Was”. He led the team from...


Joe Walton, who deceased Sunday at the age of 85, presided over what I consider “The Age of Jets That Never Was”.

He led the team from 1983 to 1989. There were times when they looked like the best professional football team. And there was the doldrums when fans bellowed “Joe Must Go!”

In some ways, I believe, his career is an uplifting sports narrative, an arc of an American dream.

He was from Beaver Falls, Pa. – yes, the same town as Joe Namath. And he played at the University of Pittsburgh as a tight end, a position he played after turning pro.

Walton was not very tall, but he worked extremely hard. And he was smart, not just in his knowledge of the game. He joined the Jets in 1981 as an offensive coordinator under coach Walt Michaels. The team had been in a constant struggle to return to their one brilliant moment – when they won Super Bowl III at the end of the 1968 season as an 18-point underdog. Since then, the club had often struggled, its low points amplified because it played in the media epicenter that is New York. No coach had left him with a winning career record.

Walton joined a team that had fallen to a 4-12 record in 1980. But he instituted a complex offensive system, and his quarterback, Richard Todd, his running back, Freeman McNeil, and one of his wide receivers, Wesley Walker, have generated a formidable seasons.

The defense roared through their opponents, their defensive line carrying the title of “New York Sack Exchange” – Joe Klecko, Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons, Abdul Salaam. The Jets went 10-5-1.

They gained national attention and Gastineau later became a media celebrity due to his romance with actress Brigitte Nielsen. The team even made it to the American Conference Championship the following year in a shortened season, losing to the Miami Dolphins.

But Michaels was fired by management after embarking on a frenzied tirade on the return charter flight after dropping that game in Miami. He claimed the home team Dolphins deliberately kept the pitch wet during a rainstorm to prevent the Jets’ much-vaunted running game from taking hold.

And so, Joe Walton took over in 1983 as head coach. His training was intense and I noticed that the players came off the pitch as if they had just played a game. Just before the season opened, I learned that one of his key players, cornerback Jerry Holmes, was going to join the new United States Football League.

I had Walton’s home number. I had called him there several times. At the time, most reporters had the head coach’s home number. But it was late at night – in fact, midnight. When he heard my voice and my question, he said, “Jerry, I’m going to do two things: I’m going to hang up and tomorrow morning I’m going to change my phone number.” The next day at Jets practice, I greeted Elsie Cohen, Walton’s secretary, and asked, “What’s up?”

“Very strange,” she said. “The first thing Joe told me this morning was to change his home phone number.”

Years later, while writing a book about (mostly) Jets chess, “Gang Green”, I called Walton and asked him about that call.

“When you’re a head coach,” he explained, “you have a lot of different pressures. It’s not just the pressure to win but the pressure to keep a team together and you have to face over 40 guys and a whole staff.

Walton’s first two years as head coach of the Jets produced records of 7-9, but the club then came back strong with two winning seasons. They had their ups and downs after that and then entered the 1989 campaign.

When teams lose, the head coach is often blamed for doing the same things he did when he was winning. In Walton’s case, it was his obsession with perfection, with the practices that often dragged players down, past when the real game started. The wounds have accumulated on the wounds.

Walton was nostalgic when he spoke of 1989. “I still would have had a winning record without it last year. “

That last year was 1989, when the Jets were 4-12. It was over for Walton. But he eventually ended up at Robert Morris University, outside of Pittsburgh, where he created his football program and had a 20-year career. He was so popular there that the school named his stadium for him. Walton remains a legend there, not the least reason being that in Robert Morris’ first year of football in 1994, he led the team, made up of freshmen, to a record 7-1- 1.

I spoke to him during his college tenure and about fame and victory. There are cities in which nothing less than a championship will suffice. He considered this thought from his college home in a small town.

“If you stay long enough and you don’t win the Super Bowl, you’re fired,” he said. “And sometimes when you win the Super Bowl, you get fired.”

At Robert Morris University, Joe had no worries. He could be himself. I have often wondered how his tenure with the Jets could have ended if he had allowed himself this luxury.

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