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A LOOK AT TWO OF SUNDAY'S RAM, RAIDER OPPONENTS : HE'S OFF-BROADWAY KEN : Jet Quarterback O'Brien Has Some Joe Namath in Him--When He's Passing

November 29, 1986|JOHN WEYLER | Times Staff Writer

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Namath wore mink coats and rode in limousines. Even good ol' country boy Richard Todd, a pickup-truck-kind-of-guy from Alabama, bought a sports car when he got to New York.

But don't expect to see the New York Jets' current quarterback skid into the training camp parking lot behind the wheel or in the back seat of something exotic.

Ken O'Brien drives a 1979 Volkswagen convertible.

"The Volkswagen is definitely him," O'Brien's wife, Stacey, said. "Very laid back."

Somehow, O'Brien has managed to remain low-key in New York, but the time when he could keep a low profile is long gone. He's no longer just a Jet quarterback in a media madhouse. He's arguably the best quarterback in the league.

O'Brien bought the Volkswagen when he signed his first professional contract shortly after the Jets picked him ahead of Dan Marino in the 1983 draft. The selection brought more than its share of chuckles.

The Jets, 10-2 going into Sunday's game against the Rams at Giants Stadium, are having the last laugh, however.

Last year, O'Brien became the first Jet quarterback to lead the NFL in the passer ratings with a 96.4 mark. He's No. 1 again so far this season at 104.8 and also leads the league in completion percentage (65.6), touchdown percentage (6.9) and average yards gained per attempt (8.7).

The fans may have been ready to storm the Jet offices after the draft in '83, but these days they're heralding the club's director of player personnel, Mike Hickey, as a genius.

The interesting thing is, no one who ever saw O'Brien play questioned his ability to throw a football. The problem was that hardly anyone ever saw him play.

Stanford star John Elway, the first player drafted in 1983, went to college a few hours' drive from O'Brien (who attended UC Davis) but had never even heard of O'Brien until the Jets picked 24th in the first round.

O'Brien was the fifth quarterback drafted out of the Class of '83. He hates the inevitable comparisons--with Elway, Marino, New England's Tony Eason, Buffalo's Jim Kelly and Kansas City's Todd Blackledge--even now, when a lot of football experts are saying he may be the best of the batch.

"I don't waste my time with that stuff," O'Brien said. "We're all in totally different situations. I'm here, doing whatever it takes to make me the best I can be and make the Jets a winning team.

"In the final analysis, you just have to look at your team's record and how much you improve individually each year."

Don't ask O'Brien to honk his own horn. You won't even get a tiny, little Volkswagen-like beep. In that car, he says he feels comfortable. In the limelight, he's just the opposite.

"Kenny really fits into the personality of this Jets team," veteran receiver Wesley Walker said. "We're not that charismatic. We're just a hard-working bunch of guys who are happy with success and nothing less.

"I think he looks at the accolades as a distraction that takes away from what he's trying to concentrate on. That's just the type of person he is."

Tight end Rocky Klever, O'Brien's closest friend on the team and his roommate on the road, sarcastically calls the man who is his son's Godfather "a real dirtbag."

"His personal life? Well, let's say you'd never suspect he was an NFL quarterback," Klever said, laughing.

If you're looking for outrageousness, go to Chicago.

Two years ago, however, O'Brien's nice-guy image took a severe blow when he and teammate Mark Gastineau waltzed into Studio 54 . . . and the middle of a fight.

The ensuing trial lasted a month. "It was the longest-running misdemeanor trial in New York history," O'Brien said. O'Brien was acquitted. Gastineau was not.

But while O'Brien, No. 1 on the depth charts going into training camp, was sitting in court, Pat Ryan, now his backup, was earning the job as starter.

"I didn't touch a football for four weeks," said O'Brien, a pre-law major who helped put himself through UC Davis by working at a law firm. "The trial took me out of the (starting) lineup. The trial was a shame, but it opened my eyes. You have to be aware that people are always watching you."

So much for party time in Manhattan. These days, O'Brien's idea of a night on the town is a beer at a Hempstead tavern a mile from his house.

He only gets beat up on the football field now.

Last year, O'Brien made the NFL record book by being sacked 62 times, the most by one quarterback in the history of the game. And he absorbed a whole lot more.

Guard Jim Sweeney started calling him "Timex" because of O'Brien's ability to take a lickin' and keep on tickin'.

This season, O'Brien has been buried under the rush only 26 times, and the difference shows in the standings.

Much of what appears to be improved protection is due to experience and O'Brien's growth as a quarterback. UC Davis' offense may have been patterned after that of the San Francisco 49ers, but that doesn't change the fact that it was a Division II school.

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