The 1983 NFL Draft has long been known as the quarterback class.
No fewer than six signal callers were selected in the first round that year. Three of them wound up in the Hall of Fame.
Near the end of the round, the New York Jets took Ken O’Brien.
— NFL Player Of The Day (@NFLPlayerDaily) November 26, 2019
The decision for New York to get O’Brien was controversial for two reasons.
One, he was from UC Davis, a Division II school. Two, Pitt’s Dan Marino was still on the board.
Although he experienced some success in New York, O’Brien never quite panned out. He was eventually replaced by another promising young hopeful.
This is the story of Ken O’Brien.
Kenneth John O’Brien Jr. was born on November 27, 1960, in Rockville Centre, New York.
— Seb Nootbert 🏈⚾️⚽️ (@CJ28MTL) November 27, 2017
He was the oldest of six kids, and when O’Brien was three, the family moved to the Sacramento, California area.
Growing up, O’Brien loved to play sports. He was frequently found outside with friends and with some type of athletic equipment in his hands.
When he enrolled at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, California, it was a foregone conclusion that O’Brien would play sports.
Sure enough, he played football, basketball, and baseball for the Marauders and showed a talent that would forecast his future ability.
For the first three years of his prep football career, O’Brien rarely played as a quarterback.
Then, before his senior year, the coaching staff made a change and pivoted to a passing attack to showcase O’Brien’s strong right arm.
Although he did well for Jesuit that season, one year of good stats did not catch the attention of many college recruiters.
There was, however, enough interest locally that Coach Bob Mattos at Sacramento State offered O’Brien a scholarship. He accepted.
As he practiced that season with the Hornets, O’Brien found himself wanting more.
Mattos ran a run-based offense, and O’Brien had no interest in handing the ball off for the rest of his college career.
Before his sophomore year, O’Brien transferred to the University of California-Davis, located a stone’s throw from Sacramento.
UC Davis QB Ken O’Brien pic.twitter.com/0RUldGPF0l
— PDX2002 (@jcasevilla1) July 3, 2020
UC Davis competed in Division II at the time, but O’Brien didn’t care.
“Davis was close to home (Sacramento) and it had won its league something like 16 of the previous 17 years,” O’Brien said. “But more than that, Davis developed a lot of quarterbacks. It was more a pro style offense than a lot of bigger programs. Somewhere else, I could have been lost in the shuffle. I’ve seen a lot of that.”
Head coach Jim Socher loved to throw the pigskin, and he was more than excited to land a local product with a cannon for an arm.
The Aggies Win with O’Brien
Standing at 6’4”, weighing in at 200 pounds, and with the ability to get out of sticky situations, O’Brien put the Aggies on his back. The program posted winning seasons under his leadership.
“You have to realize he just had one season of high school football (as a passing quarterback),” said Sochor. “He had a strong arm, but he was raw and needed work. He was quick to learn, though, and put his heart and soul into it. It was what he really wanted to do.”
During his senior year in 1982, UC Davis went 10-0, including wins over rivals Cal Poly and Sacramento State.
In the last four games of the regular season alone, the Aggies outscored their opponents 165-26.
Next up was a trip to the Division II playoffs. O’Brien helped UC Davis eliminate Northern Michigan in the quarterfinals and North Dakota State in the semifinals.
Led by Hall of Fame quarterback Ken O’Brien, @UCDfootball advanced to the 1982 National Championship game after defeating NDSU, 19-14, at Toomey Field. Thirty-five years later, members of that team returned to UC Davis Health Stadium & were honored as part of Ken O’Brien Day. pic.twitter.com/u1ZPot3U9J
— UC Davis Athletics (@ucdavisaggies) May 26, 2020
O’Brien also received his third consecutive All-Far-Western Conference selection and was named a Division II All-American. He also received the Babe Slater Award as the outstanding male athlete of the year for UC Davis.
Sadly, just when it looked like his senior year would end with a championship, O’Brien suffered a broken leg during the North Dakota State game and couldn’t play in the contest.
Without him, the Aggies lost to top-ranked Southwest Texas State, 34-9, in the Palm Bowl (Division II’s title game).
In 1997, O’Brien was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, the first Aggie to be inducted.
The Aggie Athletic Hall of Fame inducted Ken O’Brien into its ranks in 1990.
Surprising First-Round Pick
During the spring of 1983, O’Brien was rehabbing his leg and attending classes.
On the morning of April 26, he was preparing to head to his Spanish class and take a test when he received a phone call.
O’Brien was shocked to learn that the New York Jets had just selected him with the 24th overall selection in the first round of the NFL Draft.
I hate when people talk about the 1983 NFL Draft and say Elway, Marino, Kelly—and leave out Ken O'Brien. Hall of Fame? No. But far closer to great than crap. pic.twitter.com/1Z6qfcd4X4
— Jeff Pearlman (@jeffpearlman) December 12, 2017
Little did O’Brien know that New York—as well as several other teams—had become intrigued when they watched him play a game against Cal State Hayward the previous fall.
In particular, Jets player personnel director, Mike Hickey, loved the quarterback’s field vision, live arm, and ability to extend plays.
The fact that New York was looking for a quarterback in the first place was odd since the franchise already had Richard Todd and Pat Ryan.
In 1982, Todd had guided the Jets to a strike-shortened 6-3 record and victories over the Bengals and Raiders in the playoffs before losing to the Miami Dolphins in the AFC Championship game.
New coach Joe Walton reiterated that Todd was his starter even with the arrival of O’Brien.
”At what age do you look at a quarterback of the future?” asked Walton. ”You look at how many quarterbacks would be available. Next year’s draft might not be as good. Two years down the line, it doesn’t look as good. Also, it’s more difficult to find a backup quarterback these days. So it’s not just a matter of replacing Richard years down the road. There’s an injury factor. I haven’t come this far with Richard Todd to replace him.”
After he was selected, O’Brien found out that no less than six quarterbacks were taken in the first round, an anomaly in the modern draft.
The Jets fans who attended the event in New York City were stunned that their team selected an unknown from somewhere in California.
"On draft day 1983..when the NY Jets selected Ken O'Brien, Dan Marino 'became visibly ill.' (O'Brien, who played for Division II Cal-Davis, was so obscure that Marino asked his agent 'Who is Ken O'Brien?'")https://t.co/4kImaQi0uB#Miami #Dolphins #NFL pic.twitter.com/4YLKX1Eb9I
— Roben Farzad (@robenfarzad) February 8, 2022
They were even angrier that the team had passed on Pitt quarterback Dan Marino.
”A lot of my friends called me up after watching the draft on ESPN,” O’Brien said. ”They told me New York was in a state of shock. Then my friends said, the people in New York must love me. They’re booing me already. But we’ll see.”
Before arriving in the Big Apple, O’Brien was sure to temper the fans’ expectations.
”It’s obvious Richard Todd’s the quarterback,” said O’Brien. ”I’m not going there to beat out Richard Todd. I’m going there to do my best. Mike Hickey discussed that with me before the draft.”
However, he also stated that he believed in his ability.
“I need to take some time to learn the system,” said O’Brien. “I throw well, have good size and strength, and I really thought that I didn’t rank far behind the top quarterbacks.”
As a rookie in 1983, he didn’t see the field, but he saw the downside of New York.
The duo was tried in court a year later. O’Brien was acquitted while Gastineau was convicted of misdemeanor assault.
”Mark Gastineau,” O’Brien said, ”is innocent. I know it 100 percent. I believe it. The jury decided to make him guilty because he’s Mark Gastineau.”
After the 1983 season, the Jets traded Todd to the New Orleans Saints.
— The Thrill of Victory (@ThrillVictory) October 5, 2020
That led to five starts for O’Brien in 1984 in which he racked up 1,402 passing yards, six touchdowns, and seven interceptions for the 7-9 Jets.
O’Brien Exceeds Expectations
In the 1985 NFL Draft, the Jets drafted Wisconsin receiver Al Toon and paired him with fellow pass catcher Wesley Walker.
The roster also included running backs, Johnny Hector and Freeman McNeil.
O’Brien became the starter and enjoyed throwing to a tented group of players.
As New York won 11 games, O’Brien had a breakout season that led to his first Pro Bowl selection.
— The Thrill of Victory (@ThrillVictory) January 8, 2023
That year, he passed for 3,888 yards (a career-high), 25 touchdowns, and eight interceptions for an NFL-best 1.6 interception percentage and a 96.2 quarterback rating. His five-touchdown performance in a 62-28 blowout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 11 became legendary.
Unfortunately, he also received a league-high 62 sacks.
Despite spending significant time on his back, the Jets returned to the postseason after a two-year absence, but lost to New England, 26-14, in the Wild Card round.
The Jets Come Up Short
In 1986, the Jets invested in assets that would keep O’Brien upright. They selected four tackles in the draft.
O’Brien still got sacked 40 times, but New York began the season 10-1, which included a showdown with Marino in Week 3.
During the contest, the two signal-callers passed for 927 yards combined (O’Brien had 479), an NFL record for passing yards in a single game.
New York won the game, 51-45, in overtime.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 20, 2023
Six weeks later, O’Brien became the first player in league history to pass for more than 400 yards and post a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating in a 38-7 blowout against Seattle.
Then, beginning in Week 12, the Jets proceeded to drop its final five games including an embarrassing 45-3 rematch with Marino and the Dolphins.
“There were a bunch of injuries that year,” remembered O’Brien, himself included. “It’s hard to overcome all those injuries when you’re playing good teams every week.”
Still, the team ended the regular season with a 10-6 record and beat Kansas City in the Wild Card round.
In the Divisional round against the Cleveland Browns, an injury sidelined O’Brien. Pat Ryan led a valiant effort.
Eventually, “The Marathon by the Lake” ended with the Browns’ 23-20 victory in double overtime.
O’Brien’s season ended with 3,690 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions.
Steady, but not Spectacular
Over the next few years, the Jets continued to tinker with their offensive line. O’Brien continued to receive the brunt of the tinkering.
Between 1987 and 1989, he never started more than 12 games each season.
In 1989, O’Brien passed for more than 3,300 yards and 12 scores, but he also threw 18 picks and was sacked an NFL-high 50 times.
— Mike Malnicof (@MarvelousMike94) May 17, 2018
That same year, fellow California native (and 1983 first-round pick), Tony Eason, joined New York after being waived by New England.
Eason backed up O’Brien but couldn’t help the team get past four wins.
In 1990, new coach Bruce Coslet got the team to six wins. O’Brien finally started 16 games for the first time in five years.
He passed for 2,855 yards, 13 touchdowns, and ten picks. He also completed a second contest with a perfect passer rating against the Patriots in Week 16.
New York Drafts O’Brien’s Competition
O’Brien’s first eight years in the NFL were marked by consistency but also by injuries caused by a leaky offensive line.
The Jets used that information to begin preparing for life after O’Brien and selected Louisville quarterback Browning Nagle in the second round of the 1991 NFL Draft.
With a new threat lurking, O’Brien started every game in 1991 and passed for 3,300 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions.
Congrats to ex-Jets QB Ken O'Brien, firing away in '91 @ MIA to clinch PO berth. Ken, inaugural Aggie Pride Wall honoree, & his '82 UC Davis team are being feted this weekend in CA. pic.twitter.com/sQoSv5tPHI
— Randy Lange (@rlangejets) November 11, 2017
His stats earned O’Brien a selection to his second Pro Bowl. They also aided in the Jets’ 8-8 record and playoff berth.
In the Wild Card round against Houston, O’Brien threw a touchdown pass but the Oilers edged New York, 17-10.
Then, before the 1992 season, the Jets gave O’Brien a lowball offer to re-sign with the organization.
It was a questionable move considering that New York had just been to the playoffs and O’Brien had a Pro Bowl season.
🚨7 Days Until the NFL Draft🚨
Ken O’Brien played 9 seasons for the Jets from 1984-1992! O’Brien is ranked second in almost all major passing categories in Jets history, only trailing Joe Namath. #Jets #TakeFlight pic.twitter.com/JYnrZhOlhR
— NYJ Matt (@NYJ_Matt) April 16, 2020
Furthermore, the roster was full of firepower that included Terance Mathis, Chris Burkett, Rob Moore, and rookie tight end Johnny Mitchell.
Frustrated by the Jets’ offer, O’Brien held out of training camp until the situation was resolved.
Meanwhile, the coaching staff worked with Nagle, and by the end of camp, he was named the starter.
This limited O’Brien to three starts, 642 yards, five touchdowns, and six interceptions in ‘92.
Move to Philadelphia and Retirement
Apparently, New York wasn’t finished making quarterback moves.
In 1993, the franchise had Nagle, second-year player Jeff Blake, and also signed former Cincinnati Bengal, Boomer Esiason, who had previously played for Coslet.
“This really is a dream come true,” Esiason said. “I knew when Bruce Coslet got the job it would be a matter of time until I joined him. Bruce played a big part of my success in Cincinnati. When he left, I felt a part of me left.”
Quarterback Ken O'Brien throws a pass for the Green Bay Packers in a 1993 pre season game. Known for his time playing on the New York Jets, he was the top rated passer in the NFL in 1985 and a 2x pro bowler, finishing his career with the Philadelphia Eagles. #KenOBrien #football pic.twitter.com/fCoa9ecHgr
— The Thrill of Victory (@ThrillVictory) December 23, 2020
Not long after arriving in Wisconsin, O’Brien was sent to the Philadelphia Eagles.
He spent the year backing up Randall Cunningham and Bubby Brister. He had four starts, 708 yards, four touchdowns, and three picks for the 8-8 Eagles.
Rooting for the Eagles today. Cousin Ken O’Brien played most of his career with the Jets, but finished with other green & white team. So there’s that. #7 pic.twitter.com/aRes6DUH3F
— Caurie Putnam (@CauriePutnam) February 4, 2018
When the season ended, O’Brien retired.
In his career, he had totals of 25,094 yards, 128 touchdowns, 98 interceptions, and 174 rushing yards.
O’Brien was a two-time Pro Bowler and led the NFL in passer rating in 1985.
Life After Retiring
A few years after retiring, O’Brien found himself back in football as the quarterbacks’ coach at his alma mater, UC Davis, and then at USC.
While working for the Trojans, O’Brien tutored Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer.
Ken O'Brien finished his career with almost 10% higher comp% & only 2,671 less yds than Namath, as well over 2X less INT ratio & 15% higher rating
He also took 236 more sacks than Namath
— Harrison Glaser (@NYJetsTFMedia) November 19, 2020
O’Brien, 62, currently lives in California with his wife, Stacey. The couple has four children.
His son, Kelly, played quarterback for Fresno State from 2010 to 2012.