State You Case: Mark Gastineau

Will Gastineau ever join Klecko in Canton?

The New York “Sack Exchange” will finally be represented in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — but not by the guy who put the “sack” in the “exchange.”

Joe Klecko will be enshrined in Canton this summer as a member of the Class of 2023. He went to four Pro Bowls with the Jets and was a first-team all-pro twice in his 12-year career, retiring with 78 career sacks. He posted a 20 1/2-sack season in 1981 and was named United Press International’s (UPI) Defensive Player of the Year.

Klecko may have brought the heart to the Sack Exchange but Mark Gastineau brought the heat.

The pass rush of the Jets was anemic before Gastineau arrived out of tiny East Central Oklahoma State as a second-round draft pick in 1979. New York ranked last in the NFL with 22 sacks in 1978. With Gastineau playing sparingly as a rookie – one start and just two sacks – the Jets remained near the bottom, finishing 27th with another 22 sacks.

But Gastineau moved into the starting lineup at end in 1980 and gave the Jets their first double-digit sacker in 10 years, collecting 11 1/2. The following season, Gastineau became only the sixth player in NFL history to post a 20-sack season and the Jets led the NFL with 66. But those 20 sacks weren’t enough to earn Gastineau the UPI NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Klecko took home that honor with his 20 ½ sacks.

But Gastineau did win Defensive Player of the Year honors from the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA) in the strike-shortened 1982 season when he collected six sacks in nine games. And he won Defensive Player of the Year honors again two years later, this time from UPI, when he collected 22 sacks. That set the NFL single-season record that stood for 17 years before Michael Strahan posted 22 ½ in 2001.

Gastineau led the NFL in sacks in both 1983 (19) and 1984. He is one of only eight players to lead the NFL in sacks twice, joining Hall of Famers Reggie White, Kevin Greene, Michael Strahan and DeMarcus Ware plus Jared Allen and the two Watts, J.J. and T.J. Gastineau is one of only three players to lead the NFL in sacks in consecutive seasons, joining Reggie White and T.J. Watt. And Gastineau is one of only two players to post a pair of 20-sack seasons along with J.J. Watt.

Gastineau led the AFC with seven sacks through seven games in 1988 before abruptly retiring at the age of 32 to help care for his fiancé Brigitte Nielsen, who had been diagnosed with uterine cancer. He played 137 games in his 10-year career and collected 107 ½ sacks. He was voted to five Pro Bowls and was a three-time first-team all-pro.

Photo courtesy of the New York Jets

Yet Gastineau has never been a Hall of Fame finalist — his career never been discussed and debated by the Hall’s selection committee.

But understand this, Gastineau was not a popular player. He was among the first to introduce a sack dance after tackling a quarterback, which rankled some. He crossed the picket line during the 1987 player strike, which rankled others. And there were questions about the legitimacy of Nielsen’s cancer claim that led to Gastineau walking out on his team and his football career. There also were hints of steroids plus some off-the-field issues.

But the Hall of Fame bylaws state that all candidates must be judged strictly on their on-the-field merits.

And on the field, at least in the 1980s, Gastineau had few peers. Not that anyone seemed to notice.

In 1981, when he posted his first 20-sack season, Gastineau finished third in the Associated Press (AP) Defensive Player of the Year voting by the media. In 1982 when he won the NEA’s Defensive Player of the Year award, he finished fifth in the AP voting. In 1983, when he led the league for the first time with those 19 sacks, Gastineau finished seventh in the AP voting. In 1984, when he set the record with his 22 ½ sacks, he finished third in the AP voting.

In 1985, even though Gastineau switched from left end in a 4-3 scheme to right end in a 3-4 scheme and played much of the season with a broken hand, he still managed 13 ½ sacks. But he again failed to crack the Top 3 in the AP voting.

With Gastineau gone in 1989, the Jets once again sank to the bottom of the league in sacks with only 28.

From 1981-85, Gastineau was arguably the best defensive player in the NFL with his 80 1/2 sacks. During that same five-year window, Lawrence Taylor collected 50 ½ sacks but was voted the AP Defensive Player of the Year twice and the runnerup once.

When the Hall of Fame selection committee voted on the 1980s all-decade team, Gastineau and his 105 ½ sacks in the decade were passed over. The four defensive-end spots went to Reggie White (81 sacks), Howie Long (67 ½), Bruce Smith (57 ½) and Lee Roy Selmon (38 ½). All are now in the Hall of Fame.

And the Hall-of-Fame snub continues. Gastineau is 35 years removed from football and now enters his 31st year of Hall eligibility. If Joe Klecko was worthy of discussion and enshrinement, Mark Gastineau is certainly deserving of that same consideration.

  1. Jason Krebs says

    This was a terrific recap. Opposing teams game planned around him for years. He was electric. He was dominant.

  2. Brian wolf says

    With Klecko now in, Gastineau may be waiting for a very long time, like other deserving candidates Brito, Katcavage, Martin and Hardman. Hopefully, Klecko will acknowledge him in his acceptance speech but both couldn’t have thrived without the other one …

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