Joe Walton’s Jets Could Have Been the Best Team in the N.F.L.

Joe Walton, who died on Sunday at age 85, presided over what I think of as “The Jets Era That Never Was.”

He led the team from 1983 through 1989. There were moments when they looked like pro football’s best team. And there were the doldrums when fans bellowed “Joe Must Go!”

In some ways, I believe, his career is a cautionary sports tale, an arc of an American dream.

He was from Beaver Falls, Pa. — yes, the same town as Joe Namath. And he starred at the University of Pittsburgh as a receiver-tight end, a position he played after turning pro.

Walton wasn’t very big but he worked extremely hard. And he was smart, not just in knowing the game. He joined the Jets in 1981 as the offensive coordinator under Coach Walt Michaels. The team had been in a constant struggle to get back to its one shining moment — when it won Super Bowl III at the end of the 1968 season as an 18-point underdog. Since then, the club had often struggled, its low points magnified because it played in the media epicenter that is New York. Not one coach had left it having a winning career record.

Walton joined a team that had sunk to a 4-12 record in 1980. But he instituted an intricate offensive system, and his quarterback, Richard Todd, his running back, Freeman McNeil, and one of his wide receivers, Wesley Walker, generated terrific seasons.

The defense roared through opponents, its defensive line anointed with the title “the New York Sack Exchange” — Joe Klecko, Mark Gastineau, Marty Lyons, Abdul Salaam. The Jets went 10-5-1.

They got national attention and Gastineau later became a media celebrity because of his romance with the actress Brigitte Nielsen. The team even went to the American Conference championship the following year in a strike-shortened season, losing to the Miami Dolphins.

But Michaels was fired by management after he went into a frenzied tirade on the charter flight home after dropping that game in Miami. He claimed that the Dolphins, the home team, had deliberately kept the field wet during a rainstorm to keep the Jets’ vaunted running game from taking hold.

And so, Joe Walton took over in 1983 as head coach. His workouts were strenuous and I noticed the players trudged off the field as if they’d just played a game. Just before the season opened, I learned that one of his key players, cornerback Jerry Holmes, was going to jump to the newly formed United States Football League.

I had Walton’s home number. I had called him there several times. Back then, most reporters had the head coach’s home number. But this was late at night — actually, midnight. When he heard my voice and question, he said, “Jerry, I’m going to do two things — I’m going to hang up, and in the morning, I’m going to change my telephone number.” The next day at Jets practice, I greeted Elsie Cohen, Walton’s secretary, and asked, “What’s new?”

“Very strange,” she said. “The first thing Joe told me this morning was to have his home phone number changed.”

Years later, when I was writing a book about the Jets’ (mostly) failures, “Gang Green,” I called Walton and asked him about that call.

“When you’re a head coach,” he explained, “you’ve got a lot of different pressures. There’s not only the pressure to win, but the pressure to keep a team together and you have to deal with more than 40 guys and a whole staff.”

Walton’s first two years as Jets head coach produced 7-9 records, but then the club roared back with a pair of winning seasons. They were up and down after that and then went into the 1989 campaign.

When teams lose, often the head coach is blamed for doing the same things he did when it was winning. In Walton’s case, it was his obsession with perfection, for workouts that often dragged the players down, spent by the time the real game was starting. Injuries piled upon injuries.

Walton was wistful when he spoke about 1989. “I still would have had a winning record if it wasn’t for that last year.”

That last year was 1989, when the Jets went 4-12. It was over for Walton. But he eventually wound up at Robert Morris University, outside of Pittsburgh, where he created their football program and enjoyed a 20-year career. He was so popular there that the school named its stadium for him. Walton remains a legend there, not the least reason being that in Robert Morris’s first football year of 1994, he took the team, composed of freshmen, to a 7-1-1 record.

I spoke to him during his college tenure and about fame and winning. There are some cities in which nothing less than a championship will do. He considered that thought from his small-town college home.

“If you stay around long enough and you don’t win the Super Bowl, you get fired,” he said. “And sometimes when you win the Super Bowl you get fired.”

At Robert Morris University, Joe didn’t have worry. He could be himself. I often wondered how his Jets tenure might have ended if he had permitted himself that luxury.

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