Jets can only hope rock bottom moment comes with silver lining
If we are being fair, what happened at the Meadowlands on the afternoon of Sunday, Nov. 19, 1978 didn’t quite rise to the level of “calamitous” or “catastrophic,” not when you consider what had happened 2,600 miles away that weekend, in a remote corner of Guyana named Jonestown.
In the Monday newspapers, the front page would be dominated by tales of the horror of the 918 followers of cult leader Jim Jones, all of them gulping poisoned Kool-Aid. That was real-world stuff, a tragedy that resounds all these years later.
But the back page of those papers didn’t bear many good tidings, either.
For it was there that the details of the worst day in the history of the New York Giants was detailed. The Giants were already 15 years into what would become an 18-year absence from the NFL playoffs, but they’d cobbled together a 5-6 record, were sitting on the periphery of the NFC postseason.
And they were about to get to .500, about to tie the Eagles for second place in the NFC East, about to win a hard-fought 17-12 victory. The Eagles were out of timeouts. There were 30 seconds left. There were 70,318 fans eagerly racing to their cars for the happy ride home.
All Giants quarterback Joe Pisarcik had to do was take a knee.
But Pisarcik didn’t take a knee.
High up in the press box, offensive coordinator Bob Gibson had just experienced a horrible case of Coach Overthink. On the previous play, Philly’s Bill Bergey had crashed through the Giants line and tackled Pisarcik as he took a knee, and a million things began racing through Gibson’s mind: he didn’t want his QB to get hurt. He didn’t want the Eagles to draw the Giants into a foolish penalty. The clock kept ticking. So did Gibson’s imagination.
So he called a play: “Brown, right, near wing, 65 slant.”
It was simple enough: Pisarcik would turn, stick the ball in the chest of sure-handed fullback Larry Csonka, Csonka would rumble for a yard or two, game over.
Still, in the huddle, players were beside themselves.
“That can’t be right,” one of them told Pisarcik. “Just fall on the bleepin’ ball!”
Pisarcik thought so, too. But he was two seasons removed from the CFL. He didn’t have the status to overrule his boss. He took the snap, turned, the ball hit Csonka’s thigh, dropped to the turf. Philly’s Herman Edwards scooped it up, dashed 26 yards, and the Eagles had a miracle win. They would finish 9-7 and end their own 18-year playoff drought.
Let that memory serve as one bookend.
And let Sunday’s hard-to-fathom 31-28 Raiders win over the Jets serve as the other, a matched set of Swamp Swoons set 42 years and 18 days apart, one in the old Giants Stadium, one at MetLife, which sits in the old parking lot where so many fans heard about Pisarcik’s fumble as they exited the joint back in ’78.
The similarities are eerie in so many ways. Gibson was fired as offensive coordinator first thing Monday morning, and he never worked in football again, living out his days on Florida’s Sanibel Island where he ran a bait shop and general store and raised cattle. He died in 2015 at age 88 having never publicly spoken of the play once since his dismissal.
Gregg Williams — the Jets’ defensive coordinator who inexplicably called a blitz Sunday, setting up poor rookie Lamar Jackson to allow Las Vegas’ Henry Ruggs III to slip behind him for the game-winning touchdown with five seconds left in the game — is too inherently chatty to believe he’ll take his thoughts to his grave. But that play will surely follow him there.
In the same way Giants players begged to revolt when they heard Gibson’s play call in ’78, so, too, did many of the veterans of the Jets defense Sunday. But no player on either side had the audacity to disobey.
John McVay, the Giants’ head coach, didn’t like to wear a headset so the first he knew of Gibson’s faux pas was when he saw Pisarcik try to give the ball to Csonka. He tried to defend Gibson, insisting it was a safe play. When a newsman retorted, “Safer than falling on it?” McVay sighed and said, “No. Probably not.”
He was fired at season’s end.
Adam Gase, the Jets coach, absolutely knew what Williams was doing but he hired Williams with the understanding that the D was his fiefdom. Gase said Monday, “I wish I overruled the call.” But he didn’t. He, too, will almost certainly be fired when this season is over.
If there is a consolation for the Jets, perhaps it is this: that 19-17 loss to the Eagles was the singular galvanizing force in changing a losing culture that strangled the Giants for a generation. You don’t always know rock bottom when you hit it. The Giants knew, the moment Edwards crossed the goal line.
Perhaps the same thing happened for the Jets when the ball landed safely in Ruggs’ arms, bracketing 42 years of Swamp Swoons. Jets fans can only hope.