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The biggest ‘what if?’ questions in New York Jets history

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The New York Jets’ franchise history is riddled with regrets

The New York Jets’ 2023 season ended four plays in with a major “what if?” Aaron Rodgers’ injury after all the hype would seemingly be the biggest such question in team history. However, the truth is that Jets franchise history is littered with what-if questions. It must be for a team with a 13-year playoff drought (and counting) and a 55-year title drought.

Here are some of the other what-if questions that rank right up there with Rodgers.

Quarterback woes

What if Joe Namath, Vinny Testaverde, Chad Pennington, Brett Favre, and Aaron Rodgers hadn’t gotten injured?

The Jets have had a miserable history of quarterback play, but it was further depressed by constant injuries. It started with Joe Namath‘s knee problems; he had four different knee surgeries while with the Jets. From 1970-73, Namath played in only 28 of 58 possible games, and the Jets went 4-10, 6-8, 7-7, and 4-10. What if Namath hadn’t gotten injured? Would the Jets have another Super Bowl under their belts, or at least a few more playoff wins?

The Jets went to the AFC Championship Game in 1998 after finishing the regular season 12-4. Expectations were sky-high in 1999, headlined by 1998 Pro Bowl quarterback Vinny Testaverde. In Week 1, though, Testaverde ruptured his Achilles, ending the Jets’ season before it even began. What if Testaverde had stayed healthy? What if Bill Parcells had inserted Ray Lucas earlier instead of sticking with Rick Mirer?

The Jets selected Chad Pennington with the 18th overall pick in the 2000 NFL draft. He played sparingly in his first two seasons before putting up one of the finest seasons ever by a Jets quarterback in 2002. That season, his 68.9% completion percentage and 5.5% touchdown percentage led the NFL, as did his 104.2 passer rating. (In fact, if passer rating is adjusted to properly count yards per attempt, Pennington’s passer rating would have been in the top 10 all-time.) He did not garner any honors to show for it, but it showcased a promising future.

In 2003, Pennington fractured his left wrist during the preseason, missing six games. In November 2004, he sustained an injury and missed three games, returning to quarterback the Jets through the second round of the playoffs. However, after the season, the Jets revealed that Pennington tore his rotator cuff. They rushed him back for the opening game of 2005, only to play poorly for three weeks and then miss the rest of the season with a re-torn rotator cuff. From there, his arm strength was completely sapped, although he still managed to lead the Jets to the playoffs in 2006.

What if Pennington hadn’t had the shoulder injuries? Before tearing his rotator cuff, Pennington had a 65.7% career completion percentage, a 49:22 TD:INT ratio, a 94.7 passer rating, 7.3 yards per attempt (when that was a top number), and a 19-11 career record. When Pennington got hurt in 2004, the Jets were 6-1, and he had an 8:2 TD:INT ratio and a 99.1 passer rating. What if he hadn’t gotten hurt in 2004? The Jets made it within a hair of the AFC Championship Game with a compromised Pennington; how much further could they have gone? And what if it was a healthy Pennington leading the 2008 squad (having not left the Jets due to superior play)?

The quarterback who actually led the Jets in 2008, Brett Favre, was also bitten by the Jets’ star-crossed history. He led the Jets to an 8-3 record and a tie atop the AFC East, only to tear his biceps and falter down the stretch. The Jets finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. What if Favre didn’t get hurt? It was a Jets team littered with Pro Bowlers that had a chance to make a deep run. Mind you, Favre then returned to post an elite 2009 season (68.4% completion percentage, 4,202 yards, 33:7 TD:INT, 107.2 passer rating) — what if that was with the Jets?

The last chapter in this sorry tale is all too familiar for Jets fans. With Super Bowl aspirations and sky-high hype, Aaron Rodgers and the Jets took the field for Week 1 of the 2023 season. Testaverde tossed the coin — and then Rodgers proceeded to replicate Testaverde’s fate from exactly 24 years before. Four plays into the season, Rodgers ruptured his Achilles, effectively ending the Jets’ season. With how the Jets’ offensive line and receiving corps fell apart, it’s unlikely that they would have competed for a title, but it’s possible considering the strength of their defense.

What if the Jets had taken Dan Marino over Ken O’Brien?

This is such a typical sorry Jets tale. Three Hall of Fame quarterbacks came out of the first round of the 1983 draft, one of whom was picked after the Jets selected — but the Jets ended up with the non-Hall of Famer. Dan Marino fell into their laps, but they took Ken O’Brien instead. What would the Jets have looked like in the 1980s and 1990s with Marino at the helm instead of their revolving door of inept passers? And what about the 1986 season, when Marino threw for 4,746 yards and 44 touchdowns while the Jets started 10-1 and made it to the Divisional round?

What if Peyton Manning had come out of college in 1997?

Another just miss on a Hall of Fame quarterback. The Jets had the No. 1 overall pick in 1997, and Peyton Manning was the consensus No. 1 pick. However, Manning decided to go back to college for his senior season, reportedly because Parcells would not guarantee that he would take Manning at No. 1 overall. (Parcells admitted later that he would have done so.) Instead, the Jets traded out of the No. 1 pick, and the Rams would go on to select Hall of Fame tackle Orlando Pace. The Jets took James Farrior at No. 8 overall (another what-if in his own right, as he became an excellent player with the Steelers).

But what if the Jets had Manning? Though the Jets never had a Marvin Harrison-Reggie Wayne tandem, they had many years with better defenses than Manning’s Colts teams and enough offensive talent at other positions. Would they have won multiple rings and challenged Tom Brady in the AFC East?

What if Mo Lewis didn’t injure Drew Bledsoe?

Speaking of Tom Brady, perhaps his legend never would have grown if Mo Lewis hadn’t injured Drew Bledsoe. It’s easy to think that Bill Belichick knew what he had in Brady, but if that was the case, Brady never would have made it to the sixth round of the draft. Bledsoe had just signed a 10-year contract and was a three-time Pro Bowl passer. Would the Jets have saved themselves decades of heartbreak?

What if Kirk Cousins signed with the Jets?

This one can still make the blood boil. In the 2018 offseason, the Jets offered Kirk Cousins a fully guaranteed three-year, $90 million deal. Cousins used that leverage to get Minnesota to up their offer, signing a three-year, $84 million deal with them. The Jets traded up three spots in the draft to land their supposed quarterback of the future, Sam Darnold.

What if Cousins signed with the Jets? They traded three second-round picks (two in 2018 and one in 2019) to move up from No. 6 to No. 3 for Darnold. They could have used those picks to fortify the team. It wasn’t exactly an inspiring offensive unit that Darnold joined in 2018 — Bilal Powell, Robby then-Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, Chris Herndon, and an inferior offensive line — but what if Cousins had been under the helm?

The Colts ended up taking Quenton Nelson at No. 6 overall. What if the Jets had taken him? He’s a six-time Pro Bowler and a three-time first-team All-Pro in six NFL seasons.

Alas, Cousins spurned the Jets for Minnesota.

What if Braden Mann hadn’t made that tackle?

The last circle in the Jets’ quarterback misfortunes was the 2021 NFL draft. The Jets were tanking for Trevor — until they weren’t. The 0-13 Jets faced the 9-4 Rams in what should have been another clear loss. However, with the Jets leading 23-20 with 5:33 remaining in the fourth quarter, Nsimba Webster was streaking toward a 77-yard punt return touchdown when punter Braden Mann made a game-saving tackle. The Jets won the game, falling behind Jacksonville for the rights to draft Trevor Lawrence. A win over the Browns the following week sealed the Jets’ fate.

What if the Jets had lost out and selected Lawrence? The “generational” talent has failed to live up to expectations thus far despite his $55 million-per-year price tag. Still, he’s a viable NFL quarterback, unlike Zach Wilson, who is one of the biggest busts in NFL history. As talent-poor as the 2021 Jets team was, they had a respectable enough offensive line performance for a better quarterback than Wilson to be decent. Mike LaFleur was a reasonably creative offensive coordinator.

Then again, would the Jets have had the No. 4 overall pick with Lawrence at the helm? Would they have ended up with Sauce Gardner? The Jaguars finished with the worst record in the league in Lawrence’s rookie season, so it’s certainly possible that the Jets still would have gotten Gardner. With Lawrence under center in 2022-23, the Jets would likely have been a playoff team. Then again, they wouldn’t have Aaron Rodgers.

It’s hard to know what the Jets would have looked like with Lawrence.

Coaching questions

What if Walt Michaels wasn’t forced to resign?

Walt Michaels was the Jets’ head coach from 1977-82. He went 8-8 in his first three seasons before enduring a miserable and controversy-laden 1980 year. In 1981, the Jets started 0-3 but finished 10-6, only to lose in the first round of the playoffs. In the 1982 strike-shortened season, the Jets went 6-3 and won their first two playoff games over the Bengals and top-seeded Raiders. The season ended in heartbreak when the Jets lost 14-0 in the AFC Championship.

Despite a successful season, Jets owner Leon Hess reportedly forced Michaels to resign due to his temper. Michaels had had a run-in with team president Jim Kensil and a shoving match with a bus driver, and the incident with Kensil was what made Hess force the issue.

What if Michaels stayed, though? Would the Jets have taken Marino over O’Brien in 1983? Would they have found a way to win a championship in the 1980s?

What if they kept Pete Carroll and never hired Rich Kotite?

Pete Carroll became the Jets’ head coach in 1994 after serving as their defensive coordinator for the previous four seasons. The Jets started 6-5, but Marino’s fake spike started a spiral they never recovered from, finishing 6-10. The Jets fired Carroll after that one season and hired the infamous Rich Kotite. Two seasons and a 4-28 record later, Kotite was fired, never to coach in the NFL again.

What if the Jets had kept Carroll? He went on to win a division title with the Patriots before coaching in college for a decade. His return to the Seahawks included two Super Bowl appearances, a championship ring, and numerous division championships and playoff appearances.

The Jets never really gave Carroll a shot. What if they had kept him around rather than hiring the inept Kotite? They likely wouldn’t have landed Parcells, but they could have been more successful in 1995-97.

What if Bill Belichick hadn’t resigned as HC of the NYJ?

What if Bill Belichick had taken over for Parcells as intended? Belichick didn’t have a great head coaching resumé to that point, posting a 36-44 record in five seasons with one playoff berth. Still, he was known as an excellent defensive coordinator tracing back to his days with the two-time Super Bowl champion Giants.

Would the Patriots have gone on to be a dynasty without Belichick? Would they have even drafted Tom Brady, let alone started him? Could the Jets have been the well-coached powerhouse in the 2000s?

Big-game regrets

What if Don Shula didn’t leave the field uncovered?

In the infamous Mud Bowl (2.0) AFC Championship in 1982, Don Shula purposely left the field uncovered in a downpour to give his team the advantage, as the Jets were the faster team. Miami linebacker A.J. Duhe picked off Richard Todd three times, including a pick-six that made the game 14-0 and put it out of reach for the Jets.

What if Shula hadn’t manipulated the game conditions? The Jets were the better team. Would they have gone on to the Super Bowl? Ultimately, the Dolphins lost in the Super Bowl, but would the Jets have been able to overcome the then-Redskins?

What if Mark Gastineau didn’t rough the passer?

In 1986, after limping into the playoffs, the Jets blew out the Chiefs, 35-15, in the Wild Card round. In the Divisional game vs. Cleveland, the Jets led 20-10 when Mark Gastineau took a roughing the passer penalty for a hit on Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar. The Browns rallied from there to win 23-20 in overtime.

What if the Jets had won that game? The Browns ultimately lost the AFC Championship to the Broncos in the game known for “The Drive,” but it was a 23-20 outcome. The Jets probably would have lost to the Giants in the Super Bowl, but that game was 10-9 Broncos at halftime. Who knows?

What if Jason Elam’s kickoff hadn’t gone awry?

In the 1998 AFC Championship, the Jets were leading 10-0 at one point. The Broncos scored a touchdown to make it 10-7. On the ensuing kickoff, Jason Elam accidentally kicked the ball very short, and the ball bounced around before Denver recovered. This allowed them to kick the game-tying field goal, and they eventually pulled out the win, 23-10.

Of course, with the final differential at 13, it’s hard to point to Elam’s kick as the turning point in the game. Still, absent that fluky play, perhaps the outcome would have been different.

What if Doug Brien made either field goal?

Doug Brien‘s two missed field goals caused the Jets’ defeat to the Steelers in the 2004 AFC Divisional. With two minutes to go and the game tied at 17, Brien missed a 46-yard field goal. Then, after an interception from Ben Roethlisberger, Brien lined up for the game-winning kick with four seconds on the clock. Once again, he missed it, allowing the Steelers to win in overtime.

Ultimately, the Jets likely would have lost to the Patriots the following week. The 15-1 Steelers lost 41-27 in the AFC Championship, and the Patriots beat the Jets twice in the regular season. Still, who knows?

What if Jay Feely didn’t miss the field goal?

There really wasn’t much of a turning point in the 2009 AFC Championship, as the Colts were simply the superior team. Still, the Jets led 17-13 at halftime. Their first drive of the second half stalled at the Colts’ 34, and Jay Feely lined up for a 52-yard field goal. Feely missed the field goal wide right, and the Colts scored a touchdown on their next drive to pull ahead for good.

Would anything have changed had Feely made the field goal? Likely not. But the Colts wouldn’t have started their next drive with such good field position, and the game could have turned out differently.

What if Antonio Brown hadn’t made that first down?

In the 2010 AFC Championship, the Jets trailed 24-0 after the Steelers stripped Mark Sanchez and returned it for a touchdown with 1:13 to go in the first half. The Jets managed one field goal before the half for a 24-3 deficit. In the second half, a 45-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Santonio Holmes cut the Steelers’ lead to 24-10. At the 7:44 mark of the fourth quarter, Ben Roethlisberger fumbled in the end zone and fell on it for a safety, making it 24-12. On their next possession, the Jets drove 10 plays and 58 yards, culminating in a four-yard touchdown pass from Sanchez to Jerricho Cotchery. It was 24-19 Pittsburgh.

The Jets still had all three timeouts when the Steelers got the ball back at their own 41. At the two-minute warning, the Steelers faced a third-and-six from the Jets’ 40 with New York out of timeouts. Roethlisberger found Antonio Brown for the first down, and the Steelers were able to run out the clock.

What if Roethlisberger had not completed the pass? The Jets would have gotten the ball back, likely deep in their own territory, with roughly 1:40 remaining. The chances that they would drive for a touchdown were slim but hardly impossible. Sanchez had already engineered several improbable comebacks during the regular season.

The Steelers lost to Rodgers’ Packers in the Super Bowl, but what if it had been the Jets there? The Packers were a wild-card team with a bad defense.

What if Kenbrell Thompkins hadn’t dropped the pass?

The Jets’ last legitimate shot at making the playoffs came in 2015. After Geno Smith took a shot to the jaw, Ryan Fitzpatrick became the team’s starting quarterback. After starting 5-5, the Jets won their next five, including an overtime thriller vs. New England in Week 16. The Jets’ task was simple: beat the 7-8 Bills in Buffalo and clinch a playoff berth. Ex-Jets coach Rex Ryan manned the Bills’ sideline.

The Bills led 13-0, 16-7, and 19-10 in the game, but the Jets pulled within 19-17 with a touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to Eric Decker at the 1:10 mark of the third quarter. Fitzpatrick’s first interception stalled the Jets’ next drive, and Buffalo drove down for a field goal to make it 22-17.

On the Jets’ next drive, Fitzpatrick threw his second interception of the day at the two-minute warning. However, the Jets’ defense held strong, giving the Jets one last shot from their own 18 with no timeouts left. On second-and-one from the Jets’ 27, Fitzpatrick lobbed a perfect deep pass to Kenbrell Thompkins, who dropped it at the Buffalo 35. Had he caught the pass, he likely could have run it in for a touchdown. Fitzpatrick threw his third interception on the next play, and the Jets lost to eliminate themselves from playoff contention.

What if Thompkins had caught the ball and the Jets had won? They likely weren’t going anywhere in the playoffs, as they benefited from the league’s third-easiest strength of schedule throughout the season. Still, FitzMagic would have lived to see another day, and the Jets would not have the longest playoff drought in the four major American sports.


What if John Riggins didn’t leave?

It’s hard to say what would have happened with the Jets had John Riggins remained with them. The Hall of Famer ran for 1,005 yards and 8 touchdowns in his final Jets season, 1975. The Redskins snatched him away as a free agent in 1976. He went on to post four more 1,000-yard seasons with Washington, finishing his career with 11,352 rushing yards.

The Jets weren’t all that good in the 1970s, so it’s hard to say what would have happened. Still, the fact that Riggins became a Hall of Famer with Washington stings.

What if Al Toon stayed healthy?

Al Toon was the Jets’ first-round pick in 1985. From 1986-88, he made the Pro Bowl each season, earning one first-team All-Pro nod and one second-teamer. However, his career was derailed by injuries over the next four seasons, when he played 49 out of 64 possible games. In 1992, Toon was knocked unconscious on a hit during a game, his fifth concussion in the previous six seasons and the ninth of his career. Doctors told him not to risk further brain injury, and Toon retired from the league on November 28, 1992.

What if injuries hadn’t stopped Toon? He finished his career second in Jets history in receptions (517) and third in yards (6,605). He averaged 4.8 receptions for 61.7 yards and 0.29 touchdowns per game in his career, which translates to 77 receptions for 987 yards and 5 touchdowns over a 16-game season. Toon was only 29 when he retired.

It’s hard to say what would have happened had Toon stayed healthy, as the Jets finished 4-12 in 1992, 8-8 in 1993, 6-10 in 1994, and 3-13 in 1995. Still, he was on a potential Hall of Fame trajectory before his career-ending injury.

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Jonathan Richter
20 days ago

You left out the cruelest twist in the Pennington saga. That the Jets outright CUT Chad to sign Favre. Miami signed Chad, who went on the lead the Dolphins to the division title. What if the Jets had never acquired Favre and simply stuck with Chad that season? That’s what I was in favor of doing. I never wanted Favre.

Last edited 20 days ago by Jonathan Richter
21 days ago

What a horrible way to start the morning, thanks Rivka.

21 days ago

Stop with the what if about O’Brien and Marino! Ken O’Brien had a winning career record in games head to head with Marino. Marino went to exactly one more Super Bowl than Ken O’Brien, who is arguably, the best QB the Jets ever drafted! Your what if with O’Brien should be, again, with injuries.

20 days ago
Reply to  JRussSha

I do think the O’Brien thing is over-played a bit into “Same Ole Jets” lore. He wasn’t a bad QB, and to answer another “what if” …O’Brien and Toon were a lethal combo. I’m not saying O’Brien is the better than Marino by any stretch but it’s not like the Jets drafted Hackenberg rather than Marino.

In fact, if O’Brien played today where they can’t hit the QB he’d be a top 5 passer. He was super accurate and could throw a great deep ball.