We kick off Hall of Fame week today with the first of our tribute articles. Look out for more over the rest of the week. For the first time ever, we decided to let you choose the first of our TJB Hall of Fame inductees for 2014. The winner, with 30% of the vote, just three votes ahead of Chad Pennington and six votes ahead of Vinny Testaverde was Ken O’Brien.
Bent, TheJetsBlog.comMy first introduction to NFL football was a Jets-Dolphins game in 1986 that just so happened to be one of the finest performances of Ken O’Brien’s career. O’Brien out-duelled Dan Marino that day, as me and my Dad – who had been in North America when Joe Namath won the Super Bowl – rooted for the Jets. Who knows where I’d be without that performance?
At the time, I knew nothing of the way Marino’s shadow was destined to always hang over O’Brien, following the decision of the Jets to draft him over Marino in 1983. Jets director of player personnel, Mike Hickey, was a man with a reputation for over-thinking picks and trying to hard to outsmart everyone. True to form, he had decided to take the relatively unknown 6-4 kid from a small school in California rather than the golden boy from Pitt who had somehow fallen into the Jets’ laps at 24 amidst unsubstantiated rumors of recreational drug use and a poor wonderlic score.
Marino would go to Miami three picks later, with the Jets bearing the brunt of the media’s criticism for letting him slip through their fingers. While many other teams had passed on him too – including his hometown Steelers, who needed a replacement for Terry Bradshaw and five other teams who drafted first round quarterbacks – it was the Jets that were the easiest target, especially after O’Brien sat out all of his rookie season and most of year two. With Marino already setting records by that stage, albeit while making the most of being able to join a top team with a Hall of Fame coach, the Jets unsettled quarterback system made missing out on him even worse. The fact he was lighting it up with a divisional rival would add further fuel to the fire.
However, O’Brien would finally get his chance and went on to enjoy a successful career with the Jets, where he currently sits in second place in virtually every passing category (apart from interceptions, where he is third). He would attend two Pro Bowls, lead the league in passer rating and get the Jets into the postseason three times over the course of a Jets career that saw him pass for over 24,000 yards and 124 touchdowns.
While he would play his entire career with Marino’s sceptre looming over him, facing off against Marino typically brought out the best in O’Brien, who won more times than he lost (8-7) against Marino with the Jets. That included some of the better performances of his career and – with Marino being one of the most enjoyable opponents to beat in franchise history – that’s as good a reason as any to pay tribute to O’Brien today.
While many Jets fans originally thought the Jets had drafted “some hippy from California,” O’Brien actually grew up in New York and rooted for the Jets (and Namath) as a child. O’Brien was excited to come to New York, but spent his rookie year warming the bench as the Jets went a disappointing 7-9 in Richard Todd’s last season.
In 1984, O’Brien was named as the starter in preseason, but was forced to relinquish the starting job to Pat Ryan after he missed a load of practice time due to a court case that dragged on for three and a half weeks. O’Brien and defensive end Mark Gastineau had been charged with misdemeanor assault following a nightclub incident. O’Brien was acquitted, but Gastineau did end up being found guilty on one of the charges against him, although both players maintained his innocence. In any case, the time wasted on that definitely was a setback in O’Brien’s career development.
As the Jets fell out of postseason contention, O’Brien got the chance to start the final five games of the year. In just his second start, he’d end up facing Marino on Monday Night Football, but he handled the big stage well. While Marino’s Dolphins won the game this time, 28-17, O’Brien impressed by throwing for 267 yards and a touchdown. He also had six passes, including another potential touchdown, dropped. The following week, he threw for over 350 yards against the Giants and then the week after that he led the Jets back from a 17-7 halftime deficit to beat the Bills 21-17 on Tony Paige’s fourth quarter touchdown run. Hopes were high that he could carry this momentum into his first full season as a starter.
In 1985, O’Brien actually exceeded hopes, reaching the Pro Bowl, earning recognition as the AFC Player of the Year and leading the NFL in passer rating. They won 11 games that year – only three teams won more – but unfortunately the Patriots (eventual AFC champions) and Dolphins (12-4 and the only team to beat the Bears all year) were strong too. The Jets split with both during the regular season, but lost to New England in the wild card round. O’Brien was an efficient 13-for-17 with a touchdown pass and an interception, but found himself benched for Ryan in the third quarter as head coach Joe Walton tried to give the team a spark when they fell behind.
That season had some notable performances, not least of which was against the Bucs, where he threw for five touchdowns and the Jets scored a franchise-best 62 points. He also threw a 96-yard touchdown pass to Wesley Walker, another team record, in a win over the Bills and an 88-yarder to the same player in an overtime win over New England. He had also found Walker for the game-winning score in a come-from-behind win over Seattle and led the team to a playoff-berth clinching blowout of the Browns on the last day of the season.
Entering 1986, hopes were high that O’Brien would continue to ascend. Sure enough, that’s what happened. With five games to go in the season, the Jets were 10-1, on a nine-game winning streak and had O’Brien looking like a lock for the MVP as he had a rating of 111 with nobody else over 100.
The win streak had commenced with that Jets-Dolphins game, which happens to be the first NFL game I ever saw. I wrote in detail about it here, but the short version is that it was a wacky shootout that saw O’Brien best Marino again with 479 yards and four touchdowns, including one as time expired to send the game to overtime and another to win the game in the extra session. The combined 927 yards for the two quarterbacks was an NFL record until the Packers and Lions broke it in a meaningless late season game (that game where Matt Flynn threw six touchdown passes) in January 2012.
O’Brien also made history in a big win over the Seahawks that November. He threw for 432 yards and four scores, ending up with a perfect QB rating. Nobody has ever thrown for that many yards and had a perfect rating. In fact, until last season when Nick Foles did it, nobody else had gone over 400.
O’Brien wasn’t done there though, as the following week he completed 23 of his first 25 passes against the Falcons, including a franchise record 17 in a row, just three short of the NFL record at that time.
The Jets had suffered a scare in week six, with O’Brien’s late touchdown to Mickey Shuler being required to earn them a one-point win, but since then had been winning in routine fashion every week, starting with a 22-10 win over the then-unbeaten Broncos, who had been the league’s highest scoring team. O’Brien had been unable to start that game due to a sore knee, but ended up coming off the bench to lead the win. The streak extended to nine with a routine 15-point win over the Colts, but — as the Jets prepared for another meeting with Marino and the Dolphins — that’s where it all started to unravel.
As a rookie Jets fan, here would be my introduction to the “Same Old Jets” mantra. A 45-3 drubbing kick-started a five game slide to culminate the regular season that almost saw the Jets miss the postseason altogether despite their incredible start. Injuries were the main reason for the slide, with O’Brien struggling over the last five weeks as he dealt with the effects of a broken finger.
Ryan would lead the Jets to a win in the wildcard round, but O’Brien would have to relieve him during the divisional round matchup in Cleveland. He played better than he had in any of those last five games and had the Jets in position to win – up 20-10 with four minutes to go. It wasn’t to be and the Jets would miss out on a chance to face another quarterback from the vaunted “Class of ’83” in the AFC title game: John Elway.
Elway would eventually lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl and, while they would fall short against the Giants, that would still represent the third year in a row that someone from that class would lead their team to the big game. Elway would make it four the following year and, although all four had been losses, this continued to pile pressure on O’Brien. As it turns out, someone from the Class of ’83 would be the losing quarterback in nine of the ten Super Bowls from 1984 onward. None of them won one until Elway finally did in 1998 (and again the year after).
1987 began in promising fashion for O’Brien and the Jets as they were 2-0 with O’Brien boasting a quarterback rating of well over 100. Unfortunately, fate intervened with the player’s strike taking all the momentum out of the season. The Jets’ replacements lost two games and then – thanks to Ryan breaking the picket lines to lead them to an overtime win – edged Miami to move to 3-2 on the year. After 10 games, all five teams in the division were tied at 5-5 and the Jets won their next game, on a blocked field goal return by Rich Miano, to move to 6-5 but lost their last four to drop out of contention again.
1988 ended in similar disappointment, although the Jets did win their last three to end up with a winning record and had some memorable moments, not least of which was O’Brien leading a game winning drive on the final day of the season. O’Brien would hit Al Toon for a last minute score to eliminate the Giants from playoff contention. Two weeks earlier had been another classic Jets-Dolphins shootout. O’Brien hadn’t started this one, but when he came off the bench with the Jets down by 10 in the fourth quarter, he found Mickey Shuler and Walker for touchdowns to once again top his old adversary, 38-34.
With 1988 finishing on a high, the Jets were unable to carry that momentum into 1989. They won just four games and then followed that up by winning just six in 1990. At least in 1990 he was able to start all 16 games for the first time since his pro bowl season in 1985. It was also the first time since then that his quarterback rating had improved upon the previous season. While there weren’t too many memorable moments over those two seasons, he did once again beat Marino in another forgotten Jets-Miami shootout, throwing a late touchdown pass to Roger Vick to lead the Jets to a wacky 40-33 win. That was the third time the teams had combined for over 750 passing yards and 70 points with the Jets victorious in all three.
In 1991, the Jets returned to the postseason and O’Brien returned to the Pro Bowl, albeit only as an alternate after two players dropped out. Still, they broke the four year playoff drought in memorable fashion as they won a winner-takes-all final game of the season against who else but Marino’s Dolphins in Miami. Although it was Johnny Hector’s long run that set up the tying score as time expired, O’Brien put the Jets in position to win in overtime with a perfectly floated long pass on which Rob Moore made an over-the-shoulder catch.
In truth, the Jets should already have been in the postseason, but once again proved to be their own worst enemy. They were 7-5 with four games to go, but then lost their next three to set up the showdown in Miami. That was after they had already thrown four games away that they could – and in a couple of cases should – have won. Despite this, the Jets were not exactly dominant, as Pat Leahy won three games with late kicks and the Jets escaped New England with a seven point win on O’Brien’s late scoring toss to offensive lineman Trevor Matich.
The Jets would fail to advance in the playoffs, losing 17-10 in Houston where they had come from behind to win earlier in the year. That was another “one that got away” as the Jets twice turned the ball over at the three-yard line in the second half.
That would basically be it for O’Brien as the Jets starter. The Browning Nagle era began in 1992 with a sensational debut (366 yards and two scores in a narrow defeat) but that proved to be a false alarm as he never threw for more than 200 yards in a game again. O’Brien did start three more games that year and even threw for three touchdowns to beat Marino again in his best game of the year.
His departure from the Jets was somewhat undignified, as the Jets traded for Boomer Esiason – the only losing Super Bowl quarterback from 1984 to 1993 that wasn’t drafted in the first round in 1983 – and gave him O’Brien’s No. 7, announcing that O’Brien would be traded. He was eventually traded to Green Bay, where he was going to be Brett Favre’s backup, but never played for them and ended up with the Eagles where he played one more season, starting four times. Since retiring, he has been a real estate investor and still roots for the Jets.
While O’Brien’s Jets career seems like a collection of missed opportunities, his talent was undeniable and when he was on-song, he was able to put up some of the best quarterback performances in franchise history. Unfortunately, when the Jets offense was good, their defense let them down and for much of his tenure the offense wasn’t good. That’s widely acknowledged as being due to the Jets’ porous offensive line for much of his time as a Jet, though. As Walton said in 1989, “Pressure makes great quarterbacks look ordinary”.
When they were able to protect him, O’Brien was capable of being great. Walton had some high praise for him in 1986, saying “I’ve been around a lot of tough, smart guys who won even though they couldn’t throw the football that well. Billy Kilmer with the Redskins, Fran Tarkenton with the Giants, they didn’t have a lot of physical ability, they did it by being tough and smart. But in addition to being tough and smart, Kenny O’Brien can throw the football.” That toughness was a common theme too. Check out this quote from the late Dr. James Nicholas, the Jets’ orthopedist: “Ken’s the toughest guy I’ve ever seen. Ken’s even tougher than Joe Namath because he gets hit more than Joe did.”
O’Brien was also underrated as a leader. Marty Lyons claimed the team rallied round him after a Dolphins player criticized him in 1989. Walker recalled to the New York Times how he was disconsolate over a fumble that he had thought was going to cost the Jets the win in that first Dolphins shootout, but O’Brien calmly told him to forget it and ultimately Walker would go on to catch the tying and winning scores.
In terms of statistics, O’Brien is second in franchise history to Namath in terms of yards and touchdown passes and second to Chad Pennington in terms of quarterback rating. He didn’t have the propensity to throw a lot of interceptions that usually accompany big passing numbers, either, three times leading the NFL in terms of lowest interception rate. He’s also the only quarterback in franchise history to throw for 25 touchdown passes twice and, as noted, holds several other team records.
Looking back on my childhood, football was new and exciting for me and Ken O’Brien was a big part of that. While the team didn’t win as much as we’d have liked, sometimes that can have the effect of enhancing the flaws and masking the strengths when we look back upon those days. O’Brien was painfully slow (he never rushed for a touchdown) and had a hard-headed refusal to throw the ball away when pressured, something he acknowledged himself in 1988. However, he threw a beautiful long ball, showed poise, accuracy and intelligence and had the guts and determination to make tough throws under pressure.
Moreover, he was capable of piling up points and, since that time, the Jets offense has never been as exciting as it was when O’Brien was at his peak. As a result, O’Brien brought Jets fans plenty of memorable moments over the years.
I’m pleased to be able to honor O’Brien and welcome him to the TJB Hall of Fame as the first inductee of the Class of 2014. It’s nice to finally be able to associate him with a different class as, for once, we can consider O’Brien’s merits in his own right.
Note: Information contained in this article was compiled from the New York Times archives. Picture credit: Getty Images, via ESPN.