Ghosts of New Jersey

As the Jets prepare for this Sunday’s pivotal tilt against the Miami Dolphins, they will be confronted not only by a middling contemporary rival, but a painful franchise history. Sure, the company line, whether player or coach, is to ignore the past. In a game defined by the imposition of will, mystical explanations for on-field occurrences are doubtless considered ridiculous by most. What cannot be controlled is easily dismissed.

 Even still, the potential panic is a factor. The Jets, thus far, have been a difficult team to define. Before the disaster at Foxboro, they were compiling an impressive record seemingly through smoke and mirrors. They definitely deserved credit for being in first place, swiping victory from the jaws of defeat on a near regular basis, laying the groundwork for a special season. But for a championship to be attained, everyone realized one basic truth: The Jets had to play better. Over sixteen games, magic is only a quick fix. New York needed more. They needed a rejuvenated running game to once again dictate tempo. They needed a revitalized secondary to remedy a disturbing susceptibility to the short pass. And they definitely needed the pass rush to awake and become capable of disrupting high powered opposing offenses.

Now, a storyline is finally emerging about the enigmatic 2010 Jets.  And it is not one they would have preferred.  Those weaknesses mentioned a few sentences ago? They are not getting better. A collapse currently lurks in the shadows, an apocalypse on the periphery.  The proverbial levy is cracking. Only a victory against Miami can stem the tide.

 The Jets have been here before, creators of elevated expectations, and destroyers of dreams. There have been many crushing disappointments in the past, birthing ghosts and ghouls swirling through the old Meadowlands, wearing Marino jerseys and faking spikes. With a new Stadium, and altered identity, these Jets were supposed to blaze a new trail. So it is only right that they be confronted by these demons, a natural narrative.

Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez will write their own tale. A week ago, this kind of question was inconceivable. Now, it’s completely reasonable. Will they transcend, or join these ranks?

Die hard fans like Fireman Ed have endured a few major letdowns over the years. Are these Jets about to add another chapter, or pen a new tale?

1986: Seeking vengeance for an infuriating home playoff loss to the surprisingly Super Bowl bound Patriots, the Jets charged into ’86 resembling a locomotive. They rode an incredible aerial attack, keyed by beloved quarterback Ken O’Brien, to a 10-1 record through eleven games. Among their successes was a victory in one of the finest games ever produced by the National Football League, a week two overtime triumph against Dan Marino and the Dolphins, 51-45. The Jets seemed to rally around this epic offensive display, producing a nine game winning streak. The highly anticipated week twelve rematch proved a nightmarish harbinger, as the Jets were bulldozed by Marino 45-3. They begin sinking, dropping successive games to the Rams, 49’ers, and Steelers, eventually benching O’Brien, and backing into the playoffs at 10-6. It stands as the worst swoon ever enacted by a playoff entrant. The Jets managed to beat the Chiefs, at home in the wild-card game, and behind backup signal caller Pat Ryan. O’Brien shared time with Ryan against the Browns in Cleveland, Head Coach Joe Walton playing roulette with a trip to the AFC Championship game at stake. Had New York not stumbled so tremendously down the stretch, they could have hosted the Divisional Playoff game. Considering they lost to the Browns in double overtime, after Mark Gastineau gave Cleveland a second life with an inexcusable roughing the passer infraction, the high flying Jets may have rolled at home. It was not to be. ’86 remains a stain within the psyches of long time Green and White fanatics, a Super Bowl invitation with the Giants left swirling in the cruel winds of the Dog Pound. 1987 would prove depressing, as O’Brien continued regressing.

1993: Fans quickly lost patience with Bruce Coslet, who gambled ‘92 on Brett Favre consolation prize Browning Nagle and lost in decisive fashion. Optimism once more returned in ’93, with new quarterback Boomer Esiason in town. Esiason had made a Super Bowl appearance with the Bengals, and was generally considered an upper-echelon passer. Though Nagle had placed him directly on the hot seat, Coslet had one more chance, working with his handpicked quarterback. Because ’93 featured two byes, the Jets headed into week seventeen with an 8-6 record, on the cusp of reaching the postseason tournament. Their opponent represented a challenge, the near dynastic Buffalo Bills. New York had been soundly thrashed one week prior by the team that kept Buffalo from reaching the inner-circle of greatness, the Dallas Cowboys. In terms of tough schedules, this had to take the cake. It would have been tantamount to playing the Eagles and Patriots back to back circa 2004. Except even harder… because the Bills were better than those Eagles, as dictated by conference Championships collected. Even still, the Jets gamely battled, falling just short against the superior Bills 16-14. The freezing game time temperatures probably equalized talent levels, but Jets kicker Cary Blanchard may have been adversely affected by the deep chill, missing three field goals, providing the margin of defeat. The final miss occurred with 53 seconds left, from 42 yards out. The Jets were shutout the following week by an unconscious Oilers team, who concluded their season with an eleven game win streak. They were, however, playing their backup quarterback Cody Carlson. And Rex Ryan’s dad, Buddy, caused a scene when he clocked fellow Oilers coordinator Kevin Gilbride on the sideline. It was an embarrassing end for the Jets, and the closest Esiason would come to playoff football in New York. Coslet was fired.   

1994: High energy assistant Pete Carroll became the Jets’ head coach after Coslet was dismissed. His initial season began exceedingly well, the Jets defense stout in a 23-3 road win against the Bills. A home opening overtime victory against the Broncos made Gang Green a momentary darling, but they soon proved inconsistent, sweeping the Bills, but dropping five other games before a pivotal showdown with Miami in week thirteen. The Jets were an exciting 6-5 though, and they raced out to a 24-6 lead against the Dolphins. Had they finally taken a definitive step upward? The lead disintegrated. Marino drove the Dolphins downfield, trailing by three in the waning moments of the fourth quarter, 24-21. As he operated the hurry-up offense, eight yards from pay-dirt, Marino seemed prepared to spike the ball. Aaron Glenn was certainly fooled by Marino’s lazy mannerisms, not jamming Mark Ingram at the line of scrimmage. Ingram loped into the end-zone, as Glenn, one of the best corners in team history, kept his back turned. Marino suddenly rifled a spiral to Ingram, who caught the pass for a touchdown, securing a shocking Dolphins comeback. There would be no overtime. And no more wins for a spiritually defeated Jets team in ’94. They fell apart, accumulating ten losses, leading to the dismissal of Carroll. The Jets would spend ’95 and ’96 wandering the wilderness. That, right there, is one tough loss.

1997: Bill Parcells had turned around franchises before, and he seemed to covet the opportunity to convert the Jets into consistent winners, allowing his impending departure from the Patriots to overshadow their ’96-97 Super Bowl appearance. Parcells molded the Jets with furious urgency, guiding them to an 8-4 record immediately following an atrocious fifteen loss campaign. Football fans and insiders knew Parcells was a hell of a coach, but here may have been his crowning achievement. After consecutive demoralizing years under the lenient hand of Rich Kotite, a maligned roster had resoundingly responded to Parcells, a true taskmaster. Unfortunately for the Jets and Parcells, win number eight against Minnesota proved the apex. The proceeding loss at Buffalo was understandable, but week fifteen’s setback was inexcusable, as they fell at home to the awful Indianapolis Colts. For a team with playoff aspirations, a full recovery could not be attained. A 31-0 thrashing of Tampa Bay left the Jets in control of their own destiny, but they would next have to beat Barry Sanders and Detroit at the Pontiac Silver Dome, with the Lions facing an identical must win scenario. The Jets lost 13-10, Parcells’ somewhat unfair assessment of high priced quarterback Neil O’Donnell becoming a deciding factor. An intense contest, wherein Barry Sanders rushed past 2000 yards, was settled in favor of the Lions via a disputed fourth quarter interception, courtesy of halfback by Leon Johnson. Earlier in the second half, Parcells allowed backup Ray Lucas to throw a crushing interception in Lions territory, with the Jets leading 10-6. O’Donnell could have done no worse. After a masterful season of coaching, “The Tuna” self-destructed, dooming an inspiring team.  

2000: Jets fans had the return of Vinny Testaverde to celebrate, as the veteran quarterback, so exemplary in a triumphant 1998 season, played his first games after missing the entirety of ’99 with a torn Achilles tendon. There was also a new coach to analyze, as Al Groh took over the post abandoned by Bill Parcells, who had decided to temporarily retire. It had been a chaotic offseason. Parcells unexpectedly departed, and Bill Belichick, the anticipated successor, instead resigned and decamped for New England. Groh was eventually installed. Brash, popular receiver Keyshawn Johnson was dealt to Tampa Bay for multiple draft choices. Disillusion among the fan-base was high, but it was immediately swept away when the Jets began the season 6-1, a run which included a historic comeback at home against Miami during Monday Night football; and an emotional victory against Keyshawn and the Bucs two weeks prior. Johnson had talked trash about his replacement on the depth chart, longtime uneasy ally Wayne Chrebet. The Jets had apparently gelled as a team, unified. They came unglued quickly, losing three straight, before showing a final flash of life with a three game winning streak. At 9-4, they were bound for January, until, bizarrely enough, they lost three straight again, to finish 9-7. The Lions bought the heartbreak once more, beating the Jets in a downright ugly 10-7 affair at the Meadowlands in week sixteen. A strange offseason had certainly been a harbinger. That irony provided little consolation. Groh was dismissed, and 2000 remains a curious chapter in Jets history.  

2008: The Jets had avoided collapses for most of the decade, though 2001 barely missed the cut, New York missing a chance to change football history with a win against a dreadful Buffalo team week sixteen. [They would have taken the division, New England would have settled for the wild card, no home game for them against the Raiders, no tuck rule, etc. etc.] The Jets, instead, lost to a dreadful Bills squad, but their succeeding dramatic win on the road against Oakland in week seventeen spared them from long-time ignominy.

 The 2008 edition was not so fortunate.  Similar to 2000, the offseason, but more accurately, the preseason, had been a surreal treat. Chad Pennington was replaced at quarterback by pop culture hero Brett Favre, an aging player coming off a fine season with Green Bay. The Packers apparently wanted to move into the future with Aaron Rodgers, setting off a public relations mess, whereupon Favre, returning from a very brief retirement, was supposed to compete with Rodgers for the starting job. The predictable media circus made a trade very necessary, and Favre was dealt. New York was not considered a favorite to secure his services, but General Manager Mike Tannenbaum closed the deal. The response among Jets fans was ecstatic. This was an epic plot twist. And from the chaos seemed to spring beauty, as Favre, stretching the field with his powerful arm, aided both the Jets through the air and on the ground, running back Thomas Jones especially benefitting from increased running room. When the Jets marched into Tennessee week twelve and destroyed the heretofore undefeated Titans, upping their record to 8-3, they were hailed as the American Football Conference’s best team.

The Jets had peaked too early, once more. Eric Mangini’s defensive scheme unraveled after being exposed by the savvy Mike Shanahan in week thirteen, an unknown running back named Peyton Hillis detonating the Jets’ front seven. A lifeless loss to an unimpressive 49’ers outfit followed. After a flat out lucky win against the Bills that sparked foolish talk of destiny, the Jets continued their fold with a defeat to Seattle. Finally: A denouement. Like the ending of a particularly twisted Seinfeld episode, the Jets’ season concluded with a loss to Division Champion Miami… and their resurgent quarterback Chad Pennington.

Here lies a body of work. There hasn’t been much glory for Jets fans to soak up since Joe Namath backed up his words against the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. This year’s team can redefine recent history, rendering all the pain a prologue to an overdue achievement.

We’ll see. A loss to Miami; and some Jets fans will no doubt be covering their eyes…

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Rex Ryan shared some news and views over his daily presser.

On the possibility of recent free agent signee at safety Emanuel Cook playing: “Yes. I hope he doesn’t have to start… but he’s coming in to play. That’s why instead of looking at someone else’s safety, we’ll bring one of our own back. He was one of the guys He was the choice to be up on our team.”

On the Dolphins: “I think their defense is getting better. I think Mike Nolan really has his defense going and playing hard…they are a physical group to begin with, and they are playing pretty well.”

On Cameron Wake: “He’s doing a great job… he’s a speed rusher and he’s got inside moves, and inside moves with power.”

On Sanchez’s interceptions: “He knows… our blueprint is protect the football… we’ve thrown a lot more interceptions than we’d like… I think we’ll tighten things down… I think he’ll have a big game.”

Will rain affect offensive game-plan: “I think we’ll have some success throwing the football against Miami… I always like to be able to run the ball.”

McKnight’s playing time: “With LaDainian [Tomlinson] and Shonn [Greene], two excellent running backs, sometimes those reps can be hard to come by. I think he’s ready to get more opportunities…”

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Damien Woody is questionable for Sunday with a knee injury.   

James Ihedigbo is out; another blow to the Jets’ depleted secondary.

New England Linebacker Brandon Spikes was suspended to the remainder of the regular season for violating the League’s policy on performance enhancing substances.

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