The Miami game, Zeke Bratkowski said, showed what Ken O’Brien can do. The Miami game: Nov. 26, 1984. Jets coach Joe Walton, personnel director Mike Hickey and now Bratkowski, who was hired primarily as O’Brien’s tutor, refer to it as the moment in which O’Brien displayed his first true flash of insight into what the NFL game is all about.
It was a night to remember for O’Brien--if you forget the score. He completed 21 of 39 passes for 267 yards, and he responded well to the pressure of making his second pro start in a national TV game in the Orange Bowl against Dan Marino, the quarterback the Jets bypassed two years ago when they drafted O’Brien.
Marino was limited to 192 yards passing, but the Jets lost the game, 28-17, because Marino still threw four of his NFL season-record 48 touchdown passes that night. Even when the Jets drew within four points in the third quarter, there never was a sense the Dolphins were in danger of losing.
Bratkowski’s job is to develop in O’Brien that certain something it takes to beat a Miami. It’s a job that could take five years, but Walton may have no more than the five months until the end of this season, which is why he brought in a specialist like Bratkowski.
“I know Pat Ryan can play and win,” Walton said of the veteran quarterback who led the Jets to a 6-2 record before injuries curtailed his effectiveness a year ago. “Kenny has to get a lot of work. We want to cut that five-year period it takes to develop a quarterback down. So, he has to play.
“As far as knowing the keys, he’s excellent right now, but he’s still got to get out and play. But he’s miles ahead of where he was last year. Zeke might be able to help Kenny with certain things because he played quarterback. I never took a snap.”
During the offseason, O’Brien moved from California to Long Island to take an accelerated study course from Bratkowski, who concentrated on developing O’Brien’s ability to move in the pocket to avoid the rush and to set up in a good position to throw once he locates his secondary receiver. O’Brien also trimmed his weight to 208 pounds and built his upper body strength, which should help him improve his speed and agility.
Working with O’Brien were a full complement of Jets receivers, including Wesley Walker and Lam Jones, who moved from Texas to Long Island. The offseason program helped O’Brien make up the work he missed a year ago in training camp when he was involved in a court trial in which he was acquitted of a misdemeanor assault charge.
“Ken’s going to have more knowledge of the system,” Bratkowski said. “It’s like he can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve got a good feeling of what Joe wants, and it’s my job to relay it to Ken. I want him to be regimented when he runs a play.
“I tell him, ‘Don’t ad-lib. Make me wrong if I’m wrong. Do the first part of the play right all the time.’ You only deviate because the read will carry you somewhere.”
Beyond the technical aspects of the game, Bratkowski’s most delicate job is to counsel O’Brien on the art of taking command of himself, the Jets and a game. “Based on what I’ve learned, Ken is becoming more outgoing,” Bratkowski said. “That’s going to get stronger. A quarterback can develop confidence in his teammates by showing them he knows the system and handling it in the huddle. It’s the little things he says in the huddle, the dialogue with his receivers, the audible at the right time. Your teammates see this and say, ‘This guy knows what he’s doing.’ ”
O’Brien almost had it that night in Miami, but there were more times when his confusion was evident. His record as a starter was 1-4 at the end of the season when the Jets were beset with injuries.
“I don’t put much stock in the record,” Bratkowski said. “It’s a team game. As they go, he goes--except that he’s the leader of it, and he has to make them go.”