By Steve Lichtenstein
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New York is a solid baseball town, but we live in an NFL country. We may have taken a mini-vacation from football after the free agency/draft period, but now we can sense it is around the corner. In this New Jersey household, that means taking a trip to Dick's to get my son some receiver gloves, and pondering the state of the New York Jets.
Players (maybe even Darrelle Revis!) begin reporting to training camp later this week. It's been a painfully long six months since I had to sit through another Giants' Super Bowl victory, all the while accruing another year closer to death without the opportunity to see my team on the grandest stage. And like every summer, I am so tempted to try to figure out whether the coming season could be the Magical One. I peruse the schedule -- that one's a win, no way they win in Pittsburgh, etc.-- making a futile attempt to project their record and determine how much mental energy I should invest in the 2012 Jets.
It's futile because the NFL is unpredictable by nature, and I always end up spending way too much time obsessing over the Jets than more important matters, even when the Jets stink. I'm pretty sure my wife will eventually donate my brain to science to research why I care this much,. but for now let's just say that it's my curse. I can't seem to lower my expectations enough to avoid annual agony despite this team's history. And like school administrators who dumb down standardized tests, reducing my own standards for Jets success doesn't solve the underlying problem.
I can remember sitting alone in the upper deck of frigid Giants Stadium in December 1989, watching Kyle Mackey lead the Jets into a 37-0 massacre by Buffalo. When the score got out of hand early, I decided I would leave after the first Jets points. Following a couple of ugly empty possessions, it became after they crossed midfield. Then, how about after a first down? I finally gave up the Maxwell Smart routine somewhere during the third quarter of the final game of a miserable 4-12 season. I should have cried out for a doctor right there.
With the Jets, I have to deal with schizophrenia. There were preseason Super Bowl predictions that devolved into horror shows. And once in a while a forecasted subpar squad came alive to make a surprise run. I shivered every season I saw Chad Pennington at the top of the quarterback depth chart, but he did have a winning record as a Jets starter -- plus he won two playoff games (and had a third in the bag if not for Herm Edwards and Doug Brien). Then the Jets dumped Pennington for Trophy Wife Brett Favre (well, if you ignore that Favre was 39 years old and Pennington was 32) and raced to an 8-3 start to raise the hysteria. Finally, a quarterback who was not afraid to throw the ball more than six yards past the line of scrimmage! Well, that also did not end happily. In a span of five weeks, Favre was shown the door along with coach Eric Mangini, who went from ManGenius to Village Idiot in a blink.
Now we are in the fourth year of the Rex Ryan era. Still, preseason expectations have no relation to the corresponding season's results. Despite Ryan's pomposity, no one took the Jets seriously as 2009 title challengers. As a rookie coach with starting rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez, Ryan snubbed his nose at virtually all the prognosticators by taking the Jets to the AFC Championship game, where they had a lead over the host Colts before running out of magic beans. Then, to show up everyone who thought they were a fluke, Ryan's Jets repeated their march as road warriors in January 2011, defeating the Colts and the hated Patriots to reach another AFC Championship game. Of course, as I soon as I started Googling "Super Bowl tickets" and working on travel logistics to Texas with my friend Stu, the Jets were done in by a stinker of a first half in Pittsburgh.
So with Ryan in full-blown Mayor Quimby mode, the 2011 Jets took off as legitimate contenders for the first time since the end of the Bill Parcells reign in 1999. Never mind that the Jets had serious flaws -- a lack of team speed, weak pass-rush, poor depth and a turnover-prone quarterback, to name just a few -- all Jet fans were supposed to have their "Super Bowl or Bust" signs on their bumpers. Falling for the same cruel joke, I bought in. Even when a divisional crown looked unattainable with the Jets at 8-5, and knowing the difficulty of winning three road games to get through the AFC (though it seems to be as common in the NFC as a Revis holdout), I thought, "Hey, why not another run through a Wild Card?"
Well, Lucy again swiped the ball away to induce another missed kick by Nick Folk, er, Charlie Brown. Instead, the Giants were the New York/New Jersey representatives on Wild Card Weekend, the Divisional Round, Championship Sunday and, to rub it in the faces of all of Jets Nation, on Super Bowl Sunday.
Now I'm back at 0-0. What should I expect in 2012? My functioning brain recognizes that the Jets did little to improve their weak areas this offseason. The Tim Tebow trade may have been a tabloid victory, but on the Jets he is just a part-time player like a third-down back, maybe providing decent insurance if Sanchez continues his plateau or gets hurt.
Among the variables that matter: Is rookie Stephen Hill being counted on to be the only game-breaking receiver with sprinter speed? Will the Jets be able to get to the quarterback without selling out with a big blitz every play? Who will cover all the tight ends and receivers not marked by Revis? And can we get someone to challenge Wayne Hunter at right tackle before he gets Sanchez killed? (Postscript: The Jets traded for injury-plagued Panthers tackle Jeff Otah yesterday. If he can stand up, he can unseat Hunter).
For those looking to the upcoming exhibition results for clues to the solutions to these issues, I have two words for you: Browning Nagle. For every Wayne Chrebet (or Victor Cruz for Giant fans), who come out of nowhere to stand out in August, there must have been 10 Browning Nagles. Nagle, who the Jets chose with the first selection in the second round of the 1991 draft after Atlanta traded up to snatch Favre, supplanted Ken O'Brien at quarterback the following year and was undefeated as he bombed away in the 1992 preseason. He even performed admirably in a season-opening loss at Atlanta. The next Joe Namath, right?
Oh those great expectations. Very soon thereafter the Jets realized that they did not have their quarterback for their present or future.
I can never tell how opponents are playing these meaningless exhibitions. Are they holding plays and players back so as to not show coaches what they can do on film? The only worthy news coming out of these games are injury reports. Others may be forced to pay full price to attend preseason games, but I stopped analyzing them after falling for Nagle in 1992.
The media capital makes it tough for the knowledgeable side of the brain to override the emotional side in the preseason. I want to hear that Quinton Coples looks strong and quick enough to be the missing piece of a pass rush, that Shonn Greene is in the best shape of his career and ready to withstand the punishment he will surely receive as the starting tailback in a ground-and-pound game plan, and that Sanchez finally gets how to consistently manage a game now that Tebow has put the fear of God into him.
I still have to try to keep expectations low. "Sure looks like an 8-8 team to me," I tell everyone. Ryan can howl at the moon all he wants, ranting about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady and Super Bowls. All I care about these days is whether the Jets can beat the Patriots, and in the process secure a home playoff game for the first time since the Pennington-led Jets whipped the Colts, 41-0, 10 years ago.
I have been to every Jets home playoff game since the team moved to New Jersey in 1984. All four of them. There has been nothing like a home NFL playoff game for this sports fan. You are standing for every play in the bitter cold and screaming until you can no longer tell if anything is coming out of your throat. It is more intense than the World Series, the Stanley Cup or NBA Finals games, in my opinion. Since I recognize the likelihood that the Jets won't be invited to be a Super Bowl participant until at least the year after I die, one home playoff game doesn't seem too much to ask. Like I did for Kyle Mackey, maybe I should make that my standard for a successful Jets season.
But that won't happen until the Jets are better than the Patriots. And right now I feel like the Jets have a long way to go to catch up. Barring injury, the Patriots' quarterback looks like he will continue to play at a Hall-of-Fame level while the Jets are crossing their fingers with their Sanchez/Tebow dynamic. I believe in Ryan's ability to scheme his defense to perform above its underlying talent, but not enough to be able to stop Brady when it matters most.
Keep expectations low. Don't invest your passion this year. It has never been as easy as it sounds. For me, the "Same Old Jets" refrain does not come about from the disappointment because they don't win; it's the pain from the demoralizing losses when I expect them to win.
Can you not help but have great expectations for this Jets team, or do you think that they'll underperform like last season? Let us know in the comments section below...
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