Thursday, March 18, 2010

NY Jets #42 - Part 3

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 do something that other people thought they couldn't either, like make the playoffs.

And it didn't work out. Neither did grad school. Well, that's not entirely true; I got my degree, so technically it worked out. The Jets? Not so much. That's been the story of my life, I suppose. My life has more or less worked out so far, though I've spent an awful lot of time unconsciously wishing for my team's success, even to the point of half-willing away my own happiness. As the poet says, "May no fate willfully misunderstand me/And half grant what I wish and snatch me away/Not to return. Earth's the right place for love."

Anyway, 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 who were at the tail end of their efficacy. As I recall, upon being signed, Lott said something to the effect that he hoped other talented NFL players would take the offers of the Jets' free agency cash. Ah, I always liked Ronnie Lott. Maybe he thought the Jets would make the playoffs in 1993. But younger, talented players around the league demurred. 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 course as a Met, despite (or because of) their sporadic appearances in the 1962 lineup. Lott is in Canton as a Niner. Monk is there as a Redskin.


There was once a time when the New York 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 some 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 free time in my high school library, trolling through spool after spool of Time magazine on 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 was ignoring the wake of cultural revolutions that were making it seasick. 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. Cliff McClain might have been part of a moment that could have changed the course of professional football history. As with anything else, it all rests with the little things.

Cliff McClain
You see him here in a small photo courtesy of WireImage against the Cincinnati Bengals in the last game of the 1971 season. The Jets won it, 35-21, but more importantly, Cliff McClain scored one of his two career touchdowns in it, a 63-yard run. I suppose this was his highlight as a pro. Otherwise, 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. It's the little things. 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 the start of what eventually 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. Once the Dolphins rallied, they would then go on to win every remaining game of the season handily and saunter into the playoffs. The Jets were their last real challenge before the postseason.

Now, imagine if the handoff had actually gone well, and then a variety of almost reasonably fortunate circumstances eventually led to a remotely possible Jets score - let's say, even another Namath touchdown pass, maybe to Rich Caster or Don Maynard. I know this is unlikely, but work with me. History is filled with options and possibilities that, reason tells us, could have happened. It is the responsibility of historians to find those turning points in history and see how much really rests on them. It's also the responsibility of a loyal fan of a traditionally losing franchise to waste countless hours of his thought conjuring all such similar moments, especially when such things provide an assurance that it's not just Fate, but luck - and bad luck, of course - that has traditionally kept your club from its appointment in your lifetime with destiny.

Thus, a Jets 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 - in order to win. According to what I know, there was enough time.

But imagine if they hadn't succeeded. The possibility is remote, I grant you. The Dolphins' third touchdown earlier in the game is indicative of how remote it would have been. This was scored by Earl Morrall, on a 31-yard bootleg. Morrall was 38 years old by that point, which means he was older than the number of yards he scampered on the play. According to Al Harvin's article in the Times the following day, Morrall said, "I think that must the longest run of my career," adding, "I think I ran 25 yards in college once." 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? So again, I grant you.

But consider the possibility of Cliff McClain not fumbling and suddenly you are taken down one circuitous route of conjecture after another: the Jets might have held on to win at the Orange Bowl, and then the 1972 Miami Dolphins would today be simply regarded as a great team but second to the 1985 Chicago Bears (whom I feel reign supreme) as the greatest ever, and they would never have held the one true record that has eluded the Patriots and the Colts in our era - that of complete perfection from September to February. The mind reels. Just as in high school, the mind evidently has nothing better to do.


Slimbo said...

Do you know Rogers Hornsby was a coach for the 62 Mets? He died shortly thereafter.

Anonymous said...

It only stands to reason. How much longer can I live as a Mets fan?