Ken O'Brien was in sixth grade, circa 1972, when he attended his first New York Jets practice. He was in from California on a family vacation, and his four uncles -- all single, all New York City police officers -- were charged with showing him a good time one summer afternoon. So they drove out to the Jets' training camp at Hofstra University on Long Island and young Ken wound up in the players' parking lot, sitting on a shiny new Cadillac.
"Nobody was going to mess with us because we had four badges with us," O'Brien recalled.
But in this particular precinct, NYPD Blue was outranked by NYQB Green, who happened to be the owner of the Cadillac:
It was legendary quarterback Joe Namath, who came out to his car, introduced himself and exchanged pleasantries with the boy and his uncles. This was one of those cosmic moments, when present and future intersect. Eleven years later, the boy would be anointed the second full-time successor to the Namath throne. We'll call him A.N. (After Namath) II.
"That, to me, shows there's an energy out there that touches us all," Namath said the other day, channeling his inner 1960s as he recalled the chance meeting with O'Brien.
In some way, Namath has touched many of the men who have succeeded him, reaching down from his pedestal to offer wisdom and friendship. Unfortunately for the Jets and their tortured fan base, none of them have reached his level. Forty-two years after Namath's last game with the Jets -- and almost 50 years after he delivered their only Super Bowl title -- the search continues for a franchise quarterback.
Many of Namath's successors enjoyed varying degrees of success, and a few came tantalizingly close to the big prize only to get their hearts crushed into tiny pieces. (A couple of shoulders, a calf, an Achilles tendon and a jaw were damaged along the way, too). Twelve quarterbacks have held the job on a full-time basis in the post-Namath era -- behold, the Namath 12 -- but only four produced a winning record, never mind a championship.
"I’ll tell you why I think it is," Namath said of the perpetual search. "Luck is involved, of course, just like with most things in life. I’m quoting Don Shula now: He said, 'Luck is involved in football. When you don’t have a good quarterback, it’s a bad luck.'"
The franchise with the worst quarterback luck this side of the Cleveland Browns will try again Thursday. At approximately 8:30 p.m., the Jets will submit a draft card with the name of a quarterback, instantly turning that young man into A.N. XIII.
Will he be able to overcome nearly five decades of bad karma? Will the curse get him? Is it really a curse? Why can't the Jets get it right?
Let's look back -- and forward -- through the eyes of six men who played the position for the Jets: Namath, O'Brien, Boomer Esiason, Neil O'Donnell, Vinny Testaverde and Chad Pennington:
It started with Richard Todd. He was a first-round pick in 1976, out of Namath's alma mater, Alabama. He got the Jets to the 1982 AFC Championship Game, but his career died with five interceptions in the Miami mud.
The Jets used first-round picks on O'Brien (1983), Pennington (2000) and Mark Sanchez (2009), and second-round picks on Browning Nagle (1992) and Geno Smith (2013). They made big trades for Esiason (1993) and Brett Favre (2008), and a small trade for Ryan Fitzpatrick (2015). They spent huge money on a free agent, Neil O'Donnell (1996), who was the Kirk Cousins of his era. They also picked up castoffs, Vinny Testaverde (1998) and Josh McCown (2017).
There's your Namath 12.
ESIASON (1993-1995, record: 15-27): "Me, Testaverde, Neil O'Donnell, Favre ... we were all mercenaries. And mercenaries aren't the answer for the quarterback position. You need someone like Eli Manning with the Giants. The Jets have to find that guy. Chad was the closest to being that guy, but he couldn't get past the shoulder injuries and they fell in love with Brett Favre. Kenny O'Brien was in a good spot and had some success, but it all kind of fizzled."
PENNINGTON (2000-2007, record: 32-29): "I mean, shoot, if you think you’re going to be like Broadway Joe, you’re fooling yourself. But I did have that desire to be that stability and create a stable legacy. I never got hurt in college; I never had any major issues. I had that desire to bring that ... because you always hear from long-suffering Jets fans, their highs and lows. As a player, you’d like to sustain those highs and keep it stable and produce a winning product year after year."
NAMATH: "Testaverde, I liked him. Chad Pennington established himself. His best years were ahead of him when we let him go. Ken O'Brien had some of the darndest days. Wesley Walker was a big help, too. So was Mickey Shuler. There were some players. My buddy Richard Todd, I know people talk about that Mud Bowl down in Miami, but Richard was pretty darn good. They were good people and good citizens."
TESTAVERDE (1998-2005, record: 35-26): "Sanchez kind of had it going a little bit. They had the defense going, the offense was good enough to get them where they got to [two straight AFC title games], and they just couldn’t make the next step. From there, things started to unravel a little bit."
O'BRIEN (1983-1992, record: 50-55-1): "Pennington and Sanchez I thought were really good players. I think it was, at times, dysfunctional. No, that’s not the right word. I mean ‘dysfunctional’ in terms of what you were trying to get accomplished. I don’t think the direction was extremely clear and you become a product of that."
O'DONNELL (1996-1997, record: 8-12): "Coming back to New York was intriguing because I’m from that area, and I also thought I could really help the team by bringing a winning tradition into that locker room due to the fact that I came from Pittsburgh, where you were expected to win. It was exciting, but the change was hard, I’ll be honest with you -- the locker-room change, the environment change. We were at Hofstra, which was horrible. I never thought it would affect me, but every game was like an away game. It was just such a hard burden to change the whole culture and environment of winning."
It's inevitable. At some point, they experience that "Same Old Jets" moment, which can emerge in the form of heartbreak or injury.
In 2013, Sanchez, battling Smith for the starting job, was inserted into the fourth quarter of a preseason game and suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. He never played again for the Jets. In 2003, Pennington broke his left wrist in the preseason and missed six games. Of all the summertime injuries, nothing tops Smith's broken jaw. He was punched in the face during a locker room dispute with a teammate, ultimately costing him the starting job and forever altering his career.
O'DONNELL: "You remember my moment, don't you? I blew out my calf in pregame warmups. I was warming up in the end zone and there was so much paint on the letters. Plus, it was wet that day. I drop back and I said to Wayne [Chrebet], 'I think I just blew out my calf muscle or my Achilles.’ He said, ‘What? Get out of here.' I said, 'Dude, I’m not kidding. Somehow, get me over to the tunnel, I've got to get out of here.' When something happens like that, it’s like, wow, holy cow."
TESTAVERDE: "When I look back at my career with the Jets, I don't look back at the Achilles' injury (in the 1999 opener). I go back to the game in Denver and what could've been. That, to me, is my moment. It's hard to get over. It's the AFC Championship Game we should've won. Could've won, put it that way. That's the low moment for me. Injuries are going to happen, whether you're young, old or anywhere in between, but a shot at the Super Bowl doesn't come along that often."
ESIASON: "I went through three coaches in three years, a general manager [Dick Steinberg] who died and an owner who was fed up. I lived through all aspects of what the Jets have been. I loved it, with the exception of the last year , when I took a vicious blow to the head. Everything changed that year. It was a matter of survival and I wasn't young enough and didn't have the energy to deal with all that crap."
O'DONNELL: "If we win [the 1997 finale] in Detroit, when I was pulled, we're in the playoffs. Remember that? If you go back and watch that tape, you know how we lost that game [a controversial halfback option pass intercepted in the end zone]. If that doesn't happen, who knows if I'm not back in New York? See what I mean? If we go to the playoffs and make a little run, I still may be in New York those last couple of years."
Counting temporary starters and injury replacements, a total of 30 quarterbacks have started at least one game in the post-Namath era -- 13 draft picks and 17 veteran acquisitions. The only ones to win a playoff game are Sanchez, Pennington, Testaverde and Pat Ryan.
In talking to the former quarterbacks, three themes emerged as reasons for the lack of success: Poor scouting, bad luck and a lack of organizational stability. Since 1990, they've gone through nine head coaches and 13 offensive coordinators, including six in the past eight years.
As for bad luck, the Jets thought they had a trade worked out during the 1991 draft that would've allowed them to pick Favre, but it fell through at the last minute. Desperate for a young quarterback, they reached for Nagle, who flopped. In 1997, they owned the No. 1 overall pick, but Peyton Manning decided to stay in school. In 1983, their personnel people fell in love with O'Brien, picking him over future Hall of Famer Dan Marino.
O'BRIEN: "I wish we could've won 10 Super Bowls, but we didn't. If I had to do it all over again, would I do anything different? Yeah, sure. Nothing specific, but when you're older and more mature, you look at things differently. It didn't work out all the time, but it was a great experience. I love New York and I love the fans. I'm proud of all of it."
NAMATH: "I'm not pointing fingers. I'm just saying, have we been unlucky picking a quarterback? Well, we haven't had the right eyes on the guys. We haven't had the right communication with the guys. It's bad luck to start with, but the rest? Who's doing this? Who's picking these guys? The 24-hour-a-day folks who have dedicated their lives to the job, fine, but if they've never played that position, they don't know what the heck goes on between the ears in any given situation."
PENNINGTON: "There's no question that luck plays a role. If we're going to sit here and say the Patriots knew Tom Brady would be their franchise guy, we're all fooling ourselves. If that's the case, we need to ask them to look in a crystal ball for all of us."
ESIASON: "The last time the Jets were totally stable was when Bill Parcells was in charge. Since he left [in 2001], and since Bill Belichick resigned as HC of the NYJ, they've been a perpetual pinball machine, with different guys running the franchise. Who's the GM? Who's the head coach? Where's the owner? Oh, right, he's in Great Britain."
NAMATH: "I'm not even going there."
TESTAVERDE: "I wish a young Testaverde could've played for Parcells or a Parcells-type coach earlier in my career, to have that type of coach who holds everybody accountable on the football team. ... It makes it tough for one individual when everybody is looking at him with great expectations. It's almost a save-the-world mentality."
PENNINGTON: "In today's NFL, with the rate of turnover and the lack of patience with staffs and being able to build a program, it's even harder to find a, quote-unquote, franchise guy even if he has the ability to be a franchise guy, because they're not going to be patient enough with him and build a system around him. Everyone doesn't consider Joe Flacco a franchise guy, but he's been able to hold down that organization for 10 years. I think the Jets would take that."
NAMATH: "New York is a challenge. Your focus can be broken in a lot of ways. The Big Apple, being the greatest city in the world, can catch a guy’s eye, can catch a guy’s ear, can take his mind off the function. It comes into play and you can’t run away from it. You should know what kind of guy you're getting ahead of time."
ESIASON: "They'd better get it right. For [GM] Mike Maccagnan, this is a defining moment. Can he find the long-term answer or will he show himself to be a guy incapable of making the right pick? If they blow it, they'll go 3-13 and fire Todd Bowles, starting over again. It's important they get the right guy in here, someone who can bring life to the franchise. Can they do it? [Pause.] Being realistic, I'd say the odds are very long."