Parcells added a little green to his diet when he came to the team in 1997. [Willens, AP]
Today, in the first of a three-part series recapping the Bill Parcells era in Jets’ history (1997-99), we’ll look back upon the team’s 1997 season.
The 1997 season marked a major turnaround for the Jets. Bill Parcells became the team’s new head coach, and the Jets improved from their league-worst 1-15 record in 1996 to 9-7 in 1997 under his guidance.
From New England with love
The story of how Parcells, the Patriots’ coach since 1993 and already a legendary figure in New York because of his two Super Bowl championships with the Giants, came to become Jets’ coach is one of complexity. Parcells was unhappy in New England, wanting more control than owner Robert Kraft would give him. The unhappiness of the “Big Tuna” as Patriots’ coach came in spite of the team’s fortunes—he had guided them to Super Bowl XXXI following an 11-5 regular season in 1996.
The Jets, conversely, badly needed a competent head coach, a leader who could save a sinking ship. Under New York native Rich Kotite, the Jets had played to a NFL-worst 4-28 record over the previous two seasons. Though a seemingly good man, Kotite was a terrible coach; he made poor decisions and was unable to motivate players.
A marriage between Parcells and the Jets seemed beneficial on paper for both parties, but Kraft would not go down without a fight. Though Parcells’ contract allowed him to leave New England after the 1996 season, the Pats still controlled his rights through 1997. New England’s owner was angered by Parcells—he had made the Patriots’ run to the Super Bowl miserable for Kraft—and he would not let the coach go to the Jets without substantial compensation.
Eventually, the Jets won the war for Parcells, and current Pats’ Head Coach Bill Belichick would play a major role in New York’s victory. The Jets decided to hire Belichick, the former head coach of the Cleveland Browns and the secondary coach for the Patriots in 1996, as head coach for 1997 only; Parcells, meanwhile, would serve as a consultant for the team and take over as head coach in 1998, at which time he would officially be free from his Patriots’ contract.
Both Kraft and then-NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue were skeptical of the Jets’ hiring of Parcells as a consultant—he was likely to exert major influence on the team regardless of his official title. Eventually, however, Tagliabue convinced Kraft to accept four draft picks from the Jets and officially relinquish control of Parcells. The saga was now over—Parcells was Jets’ head coach.
More into the season after the jump....
Start your engines and keep 'em on
New York opened the 1997 season with a road game against the Seahawks at the Seattle Kingdome. Seemingly unleashing all of the talent that hadn’t come out in 1996, the Jets rolled to a 41-3 victory. QB Neil O’Donnell threw for 270 yards and 5 TDs in the game. Rookie placekicker John Hall, who was signed by the Jets as an undrafted free agent, nailed his first NFL field goal attempt, a 55 yarder in the first quarter. Though Hall would be a fixture with the Jets through the 2002 season, this was the longest made FG of his career.
After suffering a 28-22 loss in their home opener to Buffalo, the Jets traveled to Foxboro, Mass in Week 3 to take on Parcells’ former team. Down 24-17 in the fourth quarter, O’Donnell found WR Keyshawn Johnson, who the Jets had selected with the first overall pick in the 1996 NFL Draft, for the game tying score. Unfortunately for Gang Green, Hall had his game-winning 29-yard field goal attempt blocked as time expired in regulation, and New England prevailed in OT on a 34-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri.
The Patriots’ loss, which dropped the Jets to 1-2 on the season, marked the final game played by the Jets on TNT television to date. TNT, which held the Sunday Night Football broadcast rights for the first half of each season from 1990 to 1997, would cede the entire Sunday Night Football schedule to ESPN beginning in 1998.
The Jets rebounded by winning their next three games, a home game against the Raiders and road contests at Cincinnati and Indianapolis, respectively, to improve to 4-2.
The Week 4 contest against Oakland was arguably the Jets’ most exciting victory of the season. Down 22-10 at halftime, the Jets pulled to within 22-16 on two Hall field goals. In the fourth quarter, Raiders’ kicker Cole Ford, who had previously missed three field goals and an extra point, had a field goal attempt blocked by Jets’ safety Corwin Brown. DB Ray Mickens picked up the loose ball and returned it 72 yards for the winning tally in New York’s 23-22 victory.
After a 31-20 home setback to Miami dropped the Jets to 4-3, the team hosted the Patriots in Week 8. O’Donnell struggled; he passed for only 59 yards (6-15) and was pulled in favor of backup QB Glenn Foley. In relief, Foley played well, passing for 200 yards (17-23) and finding FB Lorenzo Neal for the game winning TD in the fourth quarter. With the 24-19 victory, the Jets entered their bye week with a 5-3 record.
In a 19-16 overtime victory over the Ravens in week 10, Foley again relieved O’Donnell and was subsequently named starter. However, the Jets lost his first start at Miami, and in their next game, a 23-15 win at Chicago, Foley suffered a season-ending knee injury. Though Parcells wanted Foley to be starting QB because of the up-tempo pace he allowed the offense to run, injury had forced O’Donnell to start again.
In an inter-conference showdown at the Meadowlands on Nov. 23, the Jets led the Vikings 23-7 entering the fourth quarter. QB Brad Johnson, though, promptly led Minnesota on a pair of touchdown drives, and the visitors were a two-point conversion away from tying the game in the final seconds. The Jets survived, upping their record to 8-4, when they easily blew up the two-point try, a running play up the middle.
On Christmas Eve, Gang Green earned a 31-0 win over Tampa Bay at the Meadowlands. Though O’Donnell was mediocre at best in the game—he threw for 112 yards (14-22) and one interception—New York’s defense and special teams stole the show with big plays. DB Otis Smith returned two Trent Dilfer interceptions for touchdowns in the second quarter, before RB Leon Johnson also went the distance, returning the second-half kickoff 101 yards to pay dirt.
The Tampa victory was much needed after New York had dropped two straight games to drop to 8-6. The second of these defeats was a humiliating 22-14 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts, who entered the game with a 1-11 record. The Jets trailed the Colts 22-0 before O’Donnell threw a couple of late TD strikes to WR Alex Van ****.
Now or Never
Gang Green controlled its own destiny entering the season finale at Detroit—a win and the Jets were in the playoffs only one year after finishing 1-15.
The Detroit game was arguably one of the most surreal contests ever. After the Jets jumped out to a 10-0 first quarter advantage, two interceptions helped destroy New York’s playoff chances, and neither pick was thrown by O’Donnell. With the Jets up 10-7, backup QB Ray Lucas threw a costly interception on a pass over the middle to kill the drive. Then, after Detroit took a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter, Parcells called an option pass for Johnson in a goal-to-go situation; Johnson’s pass was intercepted by DB Bryant Johnson on the right side of the end zone, killing the Jets’ chances of attaining, at miminum, the tying field goal. To make matters worse for Jets’ fans, replays showed that Westbrook was out of bounds and without control of the ball on his interception. As instant replay wasn’t introduced until the 1999 season, the call stood.
Hall of Fame Lions’ RB Barry Sanders torched the Jets, rushing for 184 yards and a TD, which proved to be the winning score. He became only the third player in NFL history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season, after O.J. Simpson and Eric Dickerson.
Lions’ LB Reggie Brown left the game on a stretcher due to a spinal cord contusion suffered while making a tackle on Jets’ RB Adrian Murrell. Emergency surgery was performed, and though Brown’s career was over, his life was fortunately saved.
The Lions defeated the Jets 13-10, eliminating New York from playoff contention with a 9-7 record. Miami, which also ended the season 9-7, won both the tiebreaker over the Jets and the AFC’s final playoff spot as a result of its head-to-head sweep of Gang Green.
The 1997 finale was the final Jets’ game aired on NBC-TV until their 37-0 win over Cincinnati in week 17 of the 2009 season, the last game ever played at Giants Stadium. NBC, which had held the AFC broadcast rights since 1970, lost this package to CBS in 1998.
Though the season-ending loss in Detroit was painful for Jets’ fans to swallow, 1997 was a great turnaround season for the franchise. No longer the laughing stock of the league, the Jets now had a foundation for winning, and they had high expectations entering 1998.