Ask any long time British fan of the NFL as to how they first had their interest stoked in the game you’ll be given a variety of responses usually linked to playoffs and Super Bowl moments from the 1980’s – The 85 Bears; The Fridge; The Drive; Joe Montana to John Taylor; The Raiders and Marcus Allen’s MVP Super Bowl performance; Diesel & the Hogs in 1982/3 etc…
When fans recollect regular season moments from this era two games usually crop up time and again. One is the Packers 48 Redskins 47 MNF matchup from 1983. The other is from three years later, the famous Week 3 1986 shootout between the Jets and Dolphins. It also happened at the peak moment of popularity for the NFL in the UK, coming off of the back of Super Bowl XX which had seen 12 (twelve) million viewers tune in.
The AFC East was a very competitive division in the mid 1980’s. Don Shula’s Dolphins were perennial playoff contenders, the Patriots had been to the Super Bowl at the end of the 1985 season and Jim Kelly had finally joined up with the Bills, via the USFL, who’d drafted him back in 1983. In fact the division featured four of the six quarterbacks drafted in the first round of the famous ’83 draft starting for their teams in 1986. Only the Indianapolis (nee Baltimore) Colts in the division didn’t have a quarterback starting from that draft despite picking the first one (John Elway). The AFC East had sent three of the five AFC contenders into the playoffs in 1985 and both the Jets and Dolphins were considered legit potential Super Bowl teams for the 1986 season.
By the mid eighties both the Jets and the Dolphins had two of the most explosive offenses in the NFL. For the fish, record setting Dan Marino with the Marks (Duper & Clayton) brothers and Nat Moore receiving with HB Tony Nathan in the backfield would stretch defenses in ways seldom seen before in the league. Joe Walton’s New York Jets featured the 1985 top passer rating quarterback Ken O’Brien with go-to receiver Al Toon, veteran speed merchant Wesley Walker and Mickey Shular at tight end complimented by Freeman McNeil. The New York Sack Exchange was still a feature for the Jets but would spend most of the 1986 season part injured in various forms. The old No-Name Defenses of Miami were a thing of the past meanwhile. They had finished 23rdout of 28 defenses in 1985 and the Chargers scoring 50 on the Dolphins in week 1 of 1986 signalled there’d be no immediate improvement for the new season. The Jets came into the week 3 game having beaten the Bills in Buffalo in week 1 but had managed only two field goals in a Thursday Night encounter five days later at home against the Super Bowl runner up Patriots.
The game started off with no signal of what was to come. A Pat Leahy field goal and a 6 yard pass from Marino to rookie James Pruitt ended a first quarter of little action 7-3 to the Dolphins. The second quarter would be one of the craziest in NFL history.
The 42 points 2nd Quarter
Tight end Rocky Klever helped drive the Jets down to the Dolphins 1 yard line with a barreling catch and run followed by drawing a pass interference foul in the endzone. Out of the Pro-set formation (remember that?) Johnny Hector followed Tony Paige in for the touchdown. 10-7 Jets. Lester Lyles picked off Dan Marino on Miami’s next drive and Johnny Hector notched up his second TD of the quarter finishing off the short drive with an 8 yard run behind some impressive Offensive line blocking. Back came the Dolphins with a drive that featured a 42 yard heave from Marino to Clayton and a couple of Jets penalties. Dan Johnson finished off the drive with a 1 yard touchdown reception. 17-14.
On the next Jets possession the offense faced a 3rd and 8 from their own 21. O’Brien threw high to Jo Jo Townsell, the ball sailed over his outstretched arms and was intercepted by Miami’s Don McNeal. Marino hit Duper for a 14 yard touchdown pass and Miami had the lead again. 21-17 Dolphins.
Trying to avoid going into halftime trailing, the Jets had a 3rd and 13 at their own 34 yard line with 3:23 to go in the half. It was time for O’Brien and Walker to take over the game for the first time. Dropping back from under center O’Brien looked off the safety Bud Brown by scanning left before switching to Walker running a go route in the right slot flying past Dolphin cornerback Paul Lankford. O’Brien threw the bomb downfield right to Walker streaking 15 yards clear, touchdown. ‘Oh my!’ (Dick Enberg’s first but certainly not last ‘Oh My’ of the afternoon). 24-21 Jets.
Still there was time for more drama. With 50 seconds left the Dolphins muffed a punt at midfield giving the Jets the ball back again. Playing a soft zone, the Dolphins defense was exploited by Walker who found space 25 yards downfield hugging the right sideline in between the cornerback and safety. O’Brien fired towards Walker who caught the ball and then displayed his rocket speed easing away from McNeal into the center of the endzone. Touchdown Jets. 31-21 at halftime. A breathless 42 point second quarter!
In the third quarter Miami would have all the momentum. Don Shula’s men cut the lead when a Joe Klecko offside gave Marino a free play and he wasted no time in hitting Duper who beat Jerry Holmes for his second touchdown of the game, a 46 yard strike. A Miami field goal levelled the scores at 31 and then a Dennis Bligen fumble deep in the Jets’ own territory gave Marino a short field to marshal, finishing off with a 1 yard touchdown pass to Bruce Hardy, his fifth touchdown pass of the afternoon. Miami had scored 17 unanswered points as the 3rd quarter ended 38-31 to the men from Florida.
Trying to wrestle back some initiative the Jets began the 4th quarter with a drive that saw a brave catch from Kurt Sohn and a crucial 4th & 1 conversion run from Paige. The drive was finished off by a pitch-out left to Bligen who followed some excellent blocking into the endzone from tackle Jim Sweeney and Klever. All tied up again at 38. With four minutes left in the game Wesley Walker fumbled at the Jets own 27 yard line. Joe Klecko was by now on the sideline injured and the Dolphins ran the ball right at that hole in the middle of the line down to the 4 yard line. A quick Mark Clayton slant and a brilliantly placed pass from Marino into traffic saw the Dolphins grab the lead with 2:56 remaining, 45-38 Miami.
The Jets failed to move the ball on their next possession and had to punt back to the Dolphins who got lucky when the muffed Woody Bennett catch went in and out of New York’s Ben Rudolph’s hands before Miami recovered it around midfield. Could the Dolphins now run out the clock? With 3 timeouts still left Bud Carson’s Jet’s defense came up trumps, holding Marino’s troops to a three and out and saving a timeout by forcing Hardy out of bounds short of the first down marker.
The Jets got the ball back on their own 20 yard line. 1:04 remaining. 1 timeout left. A short gain by Mickey Shular and an O’Brien scramble was followed by an old Dolphins trick play, the Hook and Ladder. Completing a ten yard pass to Shular over the middle, the tight end pitched the ball back to Hector who sprinted down to the Dolphin’s 39 yard line, tackled in bounds and with that the final timeout had to be taken.
35 seconds left. A five yard pass, which Shular did brilliantly to break tackles to get out of bounds and stop the clock, was followed by another 10 yard catch but this time he was downed by the Dolphins in bounds. With no timeouts left the Jets ran up to the line of scrimmage and O’Brien heaved the ball out of bounds (this was in the days before spiking to stop the clock was allowed). Clock stopped.
5 seconds of the game remaining. Ball at the Miami 21 yard line. O’Brien up close under center with Paige in the backfield. Toon, Walker and Hector split right, tight end Shular lined up on the left of the line and would stay in to block. The Dolphins were going all out prevent defense with 8 defensive backs on the field. Toon motioned into the slot as O’Brien snapped the ball. O’Brien backs up into 7 step drop before climbing the pocket and pumping. As Walker came open in between heavy traffic running a deep in pattern across the goal line O’Brien forced the ball to Walker with all his remaining effort, the receiver catches the ball away from his body with five Dolphins around him and falls backward into the endzone. ‘Walker. Touchdown. Oh, my!’
Giants stadium by now 20,000 lighter went crazy. Delirium. Leahy kicked the extra point to tie the score and the game headed to overtime. 45-45.
With the momentum swinging behind New York it felt like there could only be one winner now but the Jets actually needed a slice of good fortune in the extra period. Winning the coin toss and receiving the kick, return man Michael Harper was hit by Woody Bennett and the ball popped free recovered by the Dolphins at the Jets 20. A clear fumble and recovery. Marino walked out onto the field but was ushered back off it. The officials had ruled down by contact but replays showed Harper’s knee wasn’t down when he lost the ball. The new (first iteration) of the replay system was only 3 weeks old and whilst the umpire in the video room contemplated buzzing down to the on-field referee the Jets snapped the ball and the moment was lost. Gang Green had got lucky.
The Jets moved into Dolphins territory with relative ease, including a couple of quick throws to Toon, as the Jets looked to move into field goal range.
At the Dolphins 43 yard line the Jets spotted 3 touchdown Walker in a one-on-one matchup with O’Neal. A chance to finish the game for good. As O’Brien dropped back Walker sprinted past his coverage on the right hand sideline, the Jets quarterback wound up and unleashed a rocket that dropped right at the goal line for Walker to pull in for the most incredible Jets victory. 51-45. Defensive End Marty Lyons raced from the sideline into the endzone to lift Walker up in victory.
‘You’ve just witnessed one of the greatest games in NFL history!’ acclaimed Enberg.. Walker finished with 6 catches for 194 yards and 4 touchdowns. O’Brien 29 of 43, 479 yards and 4 touchdowns. Marino in a losing effort posted 30 of 50, 448 yards and 6 touchdowns. It was the most combined passing yards an NFL game had ever seen.
In the UK, watching the Channel 4 highlights programme fronted by Frank Gifford, the NFL had gained a raft of new Jets and Dolphins fans and higher overall appreciation for the brilliance and drama of the sport itself. And it left an indelible print on the memory of many young fans who would recall that crazy day at the Meadowlands with fondness for years to come.
Photo Copyright: Newsday. SI.com. Onthisdayinsports.