Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Mark Gastineau—Flawed Yes, But Great At What He Did Best

By John Turney 
Back in the day, Mark Gastineau was getting sacks in bunches and also getting criticism in bunches as well. He was criticized for his sack dance, his long hair, his lack of playing the run, his not always being a great teammate, his record-setting contract for a defensive lineman, and his alleged use of PEDs (In 2000 he admitted to using them in his career but it's not like he's the only one who did that in his era), his Studio 54 nightlife and fight, his television commercials, his shaved body hair and announcing that fact publicly, his crossing the 1987 picket line, his retiring mid-season in 1988, and many more things. 

So, is that fair? Maybe. Maybe not. 

In the early 1980s, he did what was needed to use his particular skill set to help his team win—he got after the quarterback. He played the game like the pass rushers of the 1960s, he got up the field and if the play was not a pass he reacted to the run. 

He also had a couple of interior players—Abdul Salaam and Marty Lyons who essentially played the Merlin Olsen and Rosey Grier roles for the New York Sack Exchange that Olsen and Grier did for the Fearsome Foursome—to look for screens, draws, and traps— the plays than can hurt and aggressive pass rush. So as a unit the system worked with Joe Klecko, the right end, and Mark, the left rushing the edges.

Gastineau, coming out of school in 1979, was a 6-5, 255-pound end who ran a 4.56 or so. By 1980 he was 6-5, 285-290, and still ran a 4.56 forty. In the 1980 off-season, he gained 30-35 pounds and kept his speed. In fact, when he showed up at 290 pounds in the Spring of 1980 he was concerned he'd be moved to tackle. But when he showed he could run a forty in under 4.6 his outside position was secure.

As a rookie Gastineau played only on passing downs, at left end, and showed very good speed. According to Jets coaches, he was second to only Joe Klecko in pressures while playing the "gravy downs" in a platoon with starter Lawrence Pillers.

In 1980 he earned the starting spot at left end and began to show his skills, with all that extra weight and strength. On tape, you can his unusual size and tremendous speed. He also increased his strength which his bench press going from 315 to 400 in the 1980 offseason. 

One game in particular impressed Jets coaches and likely the league's media. It was a three-sack performance versus the Oilers on National TV in which Gastineau also drew four holding calls on right tackle Mo Towns and which the Jets coaches credited no. 99 with 19 hurries. 

It was also noted by one of the announcers, Marv Albert that Jets coaches had been displeased with the performance of the other Jet defensive end, Joe Klecko thus far that season (though Kelcko had a fine game that day). Regardless, Gastineau was on the map after that game and led the team with 11½ sacks and 122 hurries in 1980.
The next season he was a Second-team All-Pro and totaled 20 of the Sack Exchange's 66 sacks and also recorded 8.5 run stuffs, which is actually a good number for a defensive end. While that does not dispel the "bad against the run" narrative it does show he was making tackles on running backs behind the line of scrimmage.

In 1982 he was even better, though the numbers were down—six sacks in nine games and 10 sacks in 12 games (counting playoffs). He was Consensus All-Pro and the NEA Defensive Player of the Year. 

When Paul Zimmerman named Gastineau to his 1983 Sports Illustrated team he wrote, "The Jets' Mark Gastineau, the AFC's leading sacker, with 19, was a target for TV commentators this year. They were always telling you how he was overplaying the pass, at the expense of the run, but then their isolated camera would catch him stopping the ball carrier for a yard loss. Maybe Gastineau's techniques aren't perfect yet, but nobody hustled as much as he did—for a full afternoon. No, I don't go for the sack dance either but give the guy credit. He played great this year."

Zim was spot on. Gastineau had 11.5 run stuffs the most for any defensive lineman in the NFL that year and behind only Mike Singletary and Lawrence Taylor who each had 12.5 stuffs. Not bad for a guy who wouldn't play the run. 

While it is true the run stuffs were not part of the lexicon for those TV commentators Dr. Z wrote about. They still are not, though you do see TFLs (tackles for loss) which is a mishmash of sacks and tackles for loss minus plays where a fumble is forces and lead tackles only. But still, as Zimmerman did, they saw the games. And now that we've put a number to it we can put things into perspective and is what is called a "stuff".

The AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Doug Betters had 16 sacks and 8.0 stuffs. In 1998 when Reggie White won his final AP DPOY award he had 16 sacks and just 1.5 run stuffs. That begs the question as to whether he would have won that award if voters were paying attention to making tackles behind the line of scrimmage on run plays. 

All we know is Gastineau sure got penalized for this weakness before the numbers reflected it because leading the NFL in sacks and being second in stuffs is a rare, rare thing and Gastineau did it in 1983.

Also in 1983 Gastineau fought with Rams offensive tackle Jackie Slater after the latter was beaten for a sack. During the scuffle one Ram lineman said to a Jet player, "He's a hotdog" and the Jet responded, "Yeah, he's an asshole."
Early in 1984 Gastineau signed a five-year $3.9 million deal, making him the NFL's top-paid defensive lineman. Gastineau was a consensus All-Pro in 1984, led the NFL in sacks, forced five fumbles and scored a defensive touchdown for the second year in a row and was credited with 99 hurries. But it was not enough. We suppose it never would be. And now, in 1984, he had the so-called questionable performance, at least in terms of stats, in not playing the run with just 2.5 run stuffs. 

Gil Brandt said he didn't have a great handle on Gastineau because they only played the Jets every few years but did say he "dominated the game" and added, "when someone 'traps' the quarterback as often as he does, it's rare."

In 1984 Zimmerman didn't defend him in his annual All-Pro article writing, "O.K., I didn't pick the Jets' Mark Gastineau at defensive end, and here's why. He started off as the best defensive lineman in pro football, piling up sacks in bunches, trying as best he could against the run. But when fed a steady diet of double-and triple-teaming, his run-stopping skills gradually deteriorated, and after a while he didn't even bother to play the run."

It is true the dam broke in 1984 in the Jets run defense. From 1980-83 the Jets allowed 4.0 yards per rush—right at the league average and were 12th in fewest rushing yards allowed so they were in the middle, not at the bottom of the NFL in stopping the run. And to the degree Joe Klecko, Lyons and Salaam may have been better, Gastineau was at least making some tackles for losses.

But in 1984 the Jets allowed an unheard of 6.2 yards per rush and over 3.000 yards rushing and of course, some of that is on Gastineau, but the responsibility also goes on the other six on the front seven as well as the coaches and the scheme.

So, to correct the huge problem the Jets hired Bud Carson to fix the defense he implemented a 3-4 scheme with Joe Klecko on the nose in a tilted technique slanting most of the time. And to Carson's credit, it worked with the Jets cutting the rushing yards in half and the yard per rush to 3.5.

Gastineau was hampered with a broken hand for part of the year (wearing a fiberglass cast) but played all sixteen games but didn't start four of them. 

For a couple of years, they had been a rivalry between Howie Long and Gastineau in the media, they'd get asked about one another. And also Gastineau's contract was something Long aspired to. After Long had a breakout year Ad Davis reworked Long's deal but after he saw what the New Yorke was getting he wanted "Gastineau money" which was about $800,000 a year to Long's $350,00 or so.

In a 1985 interview, though, Long was fair, and laid it out, "I've always thought Mark was a damn good football player. I just thought he was a one-dimensional football player. Don't get me wrong, he's spectacular at who he does. You can't take that away from him. The only thing I question is if he would be as successful if he bucked down and played the run on every down. It's no knock on him, it's just that we have different philosophies."

Well, it was kind of a knock, Howie.

In 1986 the Jets moved Gastineau to right end and also played him situationally a lot he had an abdominal and groin injury along with a knee injury and he did have a poor year—his first one ever, including his rookie year. 

It must have mystified Gasineau that just two seasons before he was the best pass-rushing lineman in football, leading the NFL in sacks with 22.0 and now he was a part-time starter in a 3-4 defense playing the end position on the opposite side of his natural one.

He did play well in the 1986 playoffs recording 2.5 sacks in two games taking his career total to 8.5 sacks in 7 career playoff games but he was the goat (not the G.O.A.T.) of the playoff game in Cleveland where he was flagged for a late hit that was deemed a cheap shot by many and it gave the Browns new life. The play was on a 3rd and 24 and it gave the Browns a first down and they took that opportunity to drive the ball and score a touchdown to cut the score to 20-17. The Browns then tied the game to send it to overtime and then won it with a field goal. 

For what it's worth the NFL fined Gastineau $2,500 for the hit. Cheap shot? Likely not. Dumb? Sure. Lack of situational awareness, lowering the head, as Gastineau did, and hitting the quarterback even a hair late gains nothing and risks everything—it was 3rd and 24. He doesn't do those things? Jets win the game. 

Gastineau had to defend himself saying, "That wasn't roughing, I don't know why the ref threw the goddamn flag . . . the I was just following through. That was no roughing-the-passer." One thing that worked in Gastineau's favor—the flag was thrown by Ben Drieth who had thrown the roughing flag on Ray Hamilton in 1976 that gave the Raiders a chance to pull a playoff win out of the hat that year.

This brings up something else that is often forgotten. That he played well in the playoffs and often he played well late in games—the roughing or non-roughing call notwithstanding. 

The next season was more of the same—part-time starter, so-so production. He said he was spat on when he crossed the picket line and he got out and chased center Guy Bingham, but was not sure who actually did the spitting. 

The New York media was on not only him but on others like Klecko (1987 was his last season as a Jet) however, Gastineau got it the worst it seems even though Marty Lyons and Klecko joined him in crossing the picket line. 

Late in November Gastineau finally broke through and had a three-tackle, one-sack, four-pressure game and felt like he may be off the schneid, finally playing more carefree and not protecting the knee he had hurt the previous year. 

He said he knew the coaches had not been happy but that "I have as much pride in myself as anyone. I don't need Paul Zimmerman or John Madden dogging me. They can kiss my you know what."

His personal life was catching up to him as well with a well-publicized divorce him his wife Lisa Gastineau. 
Then came 1988, he started out like he was on fire like he was going back to the Pro Bowl (though Giants offensive line coach Fred Hoaglin said Gastineau had lost his speed), he was one of the NFL's leading sackers and actually leading the AFC, and then he simply announces his girlfriend actress Brigette Nielson, has cancer and he simply retires from football.

Never mind that friends of Nielson said she was not ill. Or that he left $436,000 on the table or that some of his teammates were tired of his act or that one team executive said the "Mark thing is over." His coach Joe Walton was more generous saying, "Say what you want about him but he's been a great player at his position. I'd have to believe that Mark singlehandedly made the sack a glamorous play and made the NFL start keeping the sack as a meaningful statistic. He brought attention to it like no one before."

Sounds a lot like the "he changed the game" claim that is given to so many players when their name comes up in Hall of Fame discussions. 

At that same time, PEDs were outlawed in the NFL and some suspected that was the reason for him calling it quits—that he was likely going to be banned and years that proved to be the case.

Regardless, adding in playoff games, in ten seasons Gastineau played 144 games and totaled 116 sacks —which translates to playing 14.4 games a season and recording 11½ sacks. Oh, and throw in averaging 70 hurries a season as well. That's big-time production. 

Go through the top sackers in league history and see how many average that many sacks a season. The list is short. 

Still, Gastineau gets little respect these days, even in an era where less-than-great run-stoppers with great pass-rush skills get tons of praise. Gastineau is a four-time First-team All-Pro, and a one-time Second-team All-Pro has two 20-sacks seasons to his credit and another 19-sack season for good measure. 

It was a pretty great six-year run, you have to give him that.
 Career stats—

In 1990 Gastineau signed with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League and played four games and was credited with six tackles in a "comeback" of sorts.

A year later he began professional boxing—if it could be called that. He admitted to taking a dive in one fight and that others took dives to improve Gastineau's record. 

He's had plenty of other troubles (some self-inflicted, others not) that he will likely cover in his upcoming autobiography including being a survivor of child sexual abuse for which we have the deepest sympathy as well as for his brain trauma issues (apparently he's been diagnosed with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, dementia). 

In terms of the Hall of Fame and his candidacy, he's gotten no traction. And that will likely remain. He just has too many "knocks" on him that we've covered. But his legacy is that he was the best pass-rushing defensive end of his era—the early 1980s—until Reggie White and Bruce Smith entered the NFL and injuries and personal issues caught up with him.

In the 1980s only Lawrence Taylor had more sacks, among defensive ends only Howie Long (6) went to more Pro Bowls than Gastineau's five. He was All-Pro four times the same as Reggie White yet he got nothing but shade when the Hall of Fame voters picked the 1980s All-Decade team, Mark didn't even get Second-team. We think he should at least have gotten that honor.

We refer to the title of this post and stick by it as the takeaway—"Mark Gastineau—Flawed Yes, But Great At What He Did Best."


  1. Agreed entirely. He deserves more respect than he gets.

  2. A great pass rusher who really slowed down once they went to the 34 ... that penalty was dumb against the Browns though. The negative publicity may have taken away some of his desire to keep playing. I still believe his sack dance was to pump up the fickle crowds at Shea Stadium, especially when Todd would throw interceptions.

  3. The Sack Kimg. He revolutionized the position. His sack record stood forever Strahan had to cheat to break it. MG in a HOFamer hands down.

  4. He’s definitely a HOF player, no doubt