Learning to Fly
It was one of those surreal sights provoking pondering about deep, existential manners, about destiny and such.
An image that could be interpreted a thousand different ways, a potential harbinger of failure, or beacon for the future. Guess it all depends on your perspective.
But why was a Mark Sanchez jersey hanging outside the visitor’s locker room at Yankees Stadium, on the night baseball crowned a champion? There it was, an unmistakable green and white apparition, keeping watch over an archetypical sporting scene, observing the bitter interview of a defeated World Series manager.
What did it all mean? Was this simple coincidence? A not so subtle message planted by Fox executives that the football season is just now gaining momentum? And if so, wouldn’t they opt for something on the bluer side? Nah, just doesn’t add up…
Whatever the explanation, probably mundane, Jets fans, or in this case, journalists covering the team, should be forgiven for seeking signs. [I'd forgive me]
It’s difficult formulating a definitive diagnosis on this patient. Here is an inconsistent squad attempting a rare juggling act, breaking in a rookie quarterback on a playoff caliber roster. That borderline paradoxical conundrum has defined this season right from jump.
Before arriving in Cortland to cover a weekend of the Jets toiling in training camp, I was pretty positive that starting Mark Sanchez over Kellen Clemens was an easy call. This was mid-August, the peak of Summer, though Cortland was cloaked in an unseasonable chill. Different time, and the scenery shifts fast. I was momentarily swayed by the idea of starting Clemens, the far more experienced candidate, entrenched within the offensive system. The arguments were well reasoned: After spending a truckload of money on defensive upgrades for the second consecutive off-season, this team could contend immediately under Rex Ryan. A rookie quarterback could sabotage the entire operation. And Clemens had his moments, locked in rhythm. But his uncured tendency toward turnovers made the decision easy… Sanchez received the nod, started 3-0, fell down, and has been forced to pull himself upward.
This is all fine experience for Sanchez, far beyond what a hands-off apprenticeship ever could have offered. But is his development worth the short-term disappointment? Did his rookie lapses, especially against Buffalo at home, cost the Jets a shot at big-time success in 2009? The answer to both those questions will probably end up being the same: Yes. And that invites a word that every executive preaches and many fans simply loathe: patience.
The Jets sent expectations soaring with those first three performances. Damned if they just didn’t look like a great team. There was Bart Scott flying all over the field against the Texans week one, personally nullifying Steve Slaton. There was Sanchez week two against New England, the memorable home opener, sacrificing a sack in the pocket when a big play didn’t develop downfield, complimented by Tom Brady afterwards for his poise and intelligence. Maybe he was ready… it seemed definite. The cracks started forming against Tennessee, and ruptured thereafter, recalibrating most everyone’s view of the horizon.
Bart Scott may never tone down the tough talk. Mark Sanchez may radiate optimism. The fact is, when games are given away, they are not given back. When the Jets dropped that unfathomably ugly contest against the Bills, the penalty for another giveaway became positively lethal. Hey, this is football. Inexplicable losses are a yearly occurrence. Back in December of ’02, the Jets were white hot, stampeding down the stretch behind Chad Pennington, eventually capturing a division title. But even that group hit a pothole; falling in Chicago against a woeful Bears team that had nothing to play for. It happens. Those easy wins need to be stockpiled, insurance against the unpredictable. The special teams gift-wrapping one for Miami didn’t exactly aid this cause.
Can the Jets click? The occurrence wouldn’t be entirely shocking. Sanchez can grow more comfortable as the stretch drive approaches, guiding the air show with deft, composed touch. The offensive line may continue to utterly dominate, though the loss of Leon Washington has already been felt. The defense seems to have reestablished itself totally after a momentary wobble, though another costly injury, this one to Kris Jenkins, cools enthusiasm. Considering everything, this picture just does not seem complete enough for a Championship run.
Realistic fanatics will not have their hearts broken by that assessment. A spirited playoff sprint is definitely in play. But, in that scenario, those brutal losses being kindly painted as ‘learning experiences’ in the here and now could be haunting down the line.
These Jets are ready to thrill, but they are still learning to fly. The payroll, the investments, the voice mail messages, the new attitude, none of that changes basic roster composition, especially at the most important position at all.
Learning to fly, indeed… and will fly before long.
For the Phillies, it’s wait ‘till next year. Maybe that random jersey sighting signified a similar notion.