I was in Memphis, visiting my parents when I saw the news that Ronnie Lott #42 was joining the New York Jets. This would be summer of 1993, after my horrific first year of graduate school that saw at least one major anxiety attack and certainly one nervous breakdown. Some things just look like good decisions from the start, and even though most of my professors thought I was wholly unprepared to do what I was trying to do, I was deluded into thinking they were wrong. I'm not sure that has anything to do with Ronnie Lott, but I was similarly deluded into thinking that when we signed Lott, Leonard Marshall and Art Monk, the Jets were trying to so something that other people thought they couldn't do, like make the playoffs.
And it didn't work out. Neither did grad school, though I got my degree, so technically it worked out. The Jets? Not so much. Instead of being like the 1990 San Francisco 49ers, the Jets ended up looking more like the 1962 New York Mets, gathering future Hall of Famers - and NFL All-Time Team members, I think - like Monk and Lott at the tail end of their efficacy. As I recall, upon being signed, Lott said something to the effect that he hoped other talented players would take the offers of free agency cash that the Jets were handing out back then. I was always liked Ronnie Lott. Maybe he thought the Jets would make the playoffs in 1993. But younger, talented players demurred his suggestion. He pulled an average year in 1993 and started 15 games in 1994, a legendary season among Jets' collapses. Duke Snider is in the Hall of Fame as a Dodger, Richie Ashburn as a Phillie, neither of them as a Met, despite their sporadic appearances in the 1962 lineup. Lott is in the Hall as a Niner. Monk is in as a Redskin.
There was once a time when the Times allowed you to read any of their articles online for free so long as you were a member. Obviously those days are over, and I half convinced myself that a downloading binge I went on two years ago was responsible. "There's an idiot in Philadelphia who's pulling up every article on the New York Jets' seasons in the 1970's, and we're not seeing anything in return!" Obviously that's not the case, but I'm a serious person. When I was 13 and apparently friendless, or at least certainly without the possibility of anything resembling a girlfriend, I spent most of my time in my high school library trolling through spool after spool of Time magazine microfilm, reading back issues going back at least 20 years. It was as if I had returned to consciousness after a two-decades long coma, trying to find out about all I had missed. More likely I was what I was - a baffled child in the Reagan years of nationalist sleepwalking when all the country seemed nettled by the cultural revolutions of its recent past but insisted on going on acting as if they had never happened. I'm not sure Time really helped clarify all that, but, again, I was 13. And there was no Interwebs.
Anyway, I just paid the New York Times $4.50 to double-check some information on Cliff McClain #42, Jets' running back from 1970-73. Maybe it's an extravagance when for the same amount of money I can buy myself an afternoon's on-street parking in Center City Philadelphia, sure, but bear with me. What I'm about to share with you might have changed the course of professional football history.
Cliff McClain had a fairly ordinary football career; at the risk of offending the subject himself, one might even go so far as to say his career was not particularly successful and that he probably saw little play time. He gained around 400 yards over four seasons, and he retired a Jet.
On November 19, 1972, the Jets traveled to the Orange Bowl to play the undefeated Miami Dolphins. By this time the Jets were 6-3 while the Dolphins needed only one more win to clinch the AFC East. The Jets had been a split-personality team in 1972 - a "jittery" one, as Sports Illustrated called them. The truth is that they were almost a good team, certainly not a great one, playing what most people believe (not me) was the greatest team of them all. And by the start of the fourth quarter, the Jets were winning, 24-21. One of the hallmarks of the Dolphins that season is that when they went down, they always came back, and they did come back and win that game, 28-24, clinching it on a Mercury Morris touchdown. No surprise.
No surprise either also that the Morris touchdown was enabled by a Jets turnover in Miami territory, in this case, on what is reported to be a muffed handoff between Namath and Cliff McClain with the Jets ahead. We are free to place blame all around if we like. I'm sure there are ways of finding out what happened, but it's true that this particular turnover midway through the fourth was what sent the Jets to the showers. Instead of placing blame, let us suggest instead that Cliff McClain was simply witness to a piece of history, a crucial turning point. The Dolphins would win every game handily after that one and then saunter into the playoffs. The Jets were their last real challenge of the regular season.
Imagine if the handoff had actually gone well and then a variety reasonably fortunate circumstances lead to an ever more remote Jets score - let's say, even, another Namath touchdown pass, maybe to Rich Caster or Don Maynard. Yes, the idea of this is unlikely, but work with me. History is filled with options and possibilities that, reason tells us, could have happened. A touchdown later in the game would have meant that the Dolphins would have had to have mounted an even greater comeback, which, in all likelihood, they would have had to make in order to win. According to what I know, there was enough time. But imagine of they didn't.
The possibility is remote, I grant you. The Dolphins third touchdown earlier in the game is indicative of how remote it is. This was scored by Earl Morrall, on a 31-yard bootleg. Try to understand that Morrall was 38 years old by that point, which means he was older than the number of yards he scampered on the play and that everyone, including Earl, was absolutely slackjawed at how much room he had been given to lumber. If Earl Morrall could find that kind of hole, how much more would the Jets have given up to a rallying Miami offense late in the game? Again, I grant you.
But consider the possibility of Cliff McClain not fumbling and you entertain, down one circuitous route of conjecture after another, that the Jets might have held on to win at the Orange Bowl, that the 1972 Miami Dolphins would be regarded as great but probably second to the 1985 Chicago Bears (whom I feel reign supreme) as the greatest football team ever, and would never have held the one record that has been most elusive to the Patriots and the Colts in our era, that of complete perfection, from September to the Super Bowl. The mind reels. Just as in igh school, my mind evidently has nothing better to do.