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Lichtenstein: Remembering Walt Michaels, Architect Of Two Of The Best Defenses In Jets History

Steve Lichtenstein
July 12, 2019 - 2:36 pm

You have to be a Jets fan above a certain age to remember former coach Walt Michaels.

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Those of us who are will know that Michaels, who passed away on Wednesday at 89, was the defensive architect for some of the best teams in this franchise’s mostly inglorious history. 

Unfortunately, in two separate runs with the organization, Michaels’ exits were as bizarre as his biggest triumph was spectacular. And, ironically, Michaels was always far more popular after he left than he was during his tenure.

As a coach, Michaels was considered “old school.” He commanded through a gruff shell that didn’t distribute much praise. Still, many of his players ran through the proverbial brick wall for him. 

Those players, particularly those who logged time in Michaels’ area of expertise on the defensive side of the ball, respected his ability to bring out their best, whether it was through motivational tactics or X’s and O’s.

As defensive coordinator in 1968, Michaels, with help from defensive line coach Buddy Ryan, laid out the scheme that stifled the mighty 19-point favorite Colts in Super Bowl III, the Jets’ sole NFL title in 53 years. Michaels’ defense forced five turnovers to fuel the historic 16-7 upset. The Colts, who scored 402 points in 14 NFL games, were blanked until the fourth quarter. 

Baltimore’s head coach at the time was Don Shula. He would exact his revenge on Michaels many years later.

Before that, as Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank (and the Jets’ core) aged rather ungracefully, Michaels was reportedly groomed to be Ewbank’s successor. However, he was passed over when Ewbank announced he would retire following the 1973 season. Instead, Ewbank named Charley Winner, his son-in-law.

Related: Former Jets Coach Walt Michaels Dies At 89

While Michaels landed on his feet with a job running the Eagles’ defense, the oxymoronic Winner didn’t win much at all. He couldn’t even last two full seasons in New York.

Even then, the Jets followed up Winner with another novelty act, college coach Lou Holtz, instead of Michaels, who was brought back to be Holtz’s defensive coordinator.

It was a disaster. After a 3-11 season, the Jets finally gave Michaels a shot to be the head coach for the 1977 season.

I would love to tell you that the rebuilding project under Michaels was a smooth ride. Far from it. Michaels was a magnet for controversies, including the Richard Todd/Matt Robinson quarterback battle of 1979. His handling of the situation, as well as his conservative in-game tendencies, made him a target for criticism. Before the 1980 season, I remember Sports Illustrated predicted that the Jets would reach the Super Bowl. They finished 4-12. Many organizations would have cut the cord right then.

Fortunately, this was one case where Jets owner Leon Hess’ patience paid off. He stuck with Michaels and the next two seasons, even if they each ended a bit prematurely, were pure fun for Jets fans. In 1981, we were introduced to the voracious Sack Exchange, the beauty of running back Freeman McNeil juking past would-be tacklers, and the “Todd is God” sign celebrating the flak jacket-wearing QB’s last-minute touchdown pass to Jerome Barkum that beat Miami in a crucial game and had Shea Stadium quavering like the Thomas Mack Center in Las Vegas during last week’s earthquake.

The Jets’ defensive front four — especially ends Mark Gastineau and Joe Klecko — was simply unblockable in those days. New York recorded a league-leading 66 sacks, including nine during a 28-3 rout of Green Bay in the regular-season finale that clinched the Jets’ first playoff berth since 1970.

A 31-27 wild card playoff loss to Buffalo merely whetted Jets fans’ appetite. New York and Michaels were primed for a deeper run in 1982.

After going 6-3 in a strike-interrupted regular season, Gang Green won consecutive playoff games on the road, walloping the Bengals and then squeaking past the Raiders to set up an AFC Championship Game in Miami. Michaels’ defensive game plan in Los Angeles was particularly masterful. He took away Raiders running back Marcus Allen and confused quarterback Jim Plunkett, who threw three picks, two to hovering linebacker Lance Mehl.

By this time, however, Michaels was already exhibiting peculiar behavior. He accused Raiders owner Al Davis of calling him in the visitor’s locker room at halftime as some kind of a dirty trick.  

That was nothing compared to what transpired the following week in Miami, where Shula lay in wait as Dolphins coach. 

The Orange Bowl field, under Shula’s orders, was allowed to remain uncovered through about three days of heavy rain. It was a quagmire. This negated the Jets’ speed advantage on offense. Dolphins running backs Andra Franklin and Woody Bennett were not shifty types like McNeil. In addition, they possessed no one close to the game-breaking wheels of Jets wide receivers Wesley Walker, who could barely get off the line of scrimmage without slipping that day.

In what would be dubbed the Mud Bowl, Jets offensive coordinator Joe Walton dialed up 41 pass plays versus 24 rushing attempts. Todd threw for just 103 yards and five interceptions, including the backbreaker on a flat pass that Miami linebacker A.J. Duhe ran back 35 yards for a touchdown, the final nail in the Jets’ 14-0 coffin.

Afterward, Michaels was fuming on the flight home. Reportedly under the influence of alcohol, he was abusive. 

Hess had seen enough. 17 days after the loss, Michaels “resigned” and was replaced by Walton. The majority of Jets fans again thought Michaels got a raw deal. It would take 16 years before the Jets even reached the AFC Championship Game level again. 

Michaels never returned to the NFL. He would later coach the New Jersey Generals of the USFL into the playoffs for two seasons with running back Herschel Walker before he was fired by owner Donald J. Trump. 

The Jets haven’t had a ton of positive moments that are etched in their fans’ memories. You’d be surprised how many of them involved Walt Michaels.


For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.