Despite ups and downs, #16 brought the most excitement to the Jets since the 1980's.
Vinny Testaverde’s career with the New York Jets came to an end much the same way it began almost exactly six years ago – with little notice or fanfare. As some may recall, Testaverde was actually acquired as a backup to Glenn Foley for the 1998 season. But after Foley went down with an injury, Vinny from Elmont began a roller coaster journey with the Jets, in which the hometown hero stole the hearts of New York fans, yet at times also managed to break them in painful and unimaginable ways.
In 1987, the former Heisman Trophy winner suffered a nightmarish introduction to the NFL, playing six consecutive seasons with the abysmal Tampa Bay Buccaneers without once achieving a winning record. Over that span, the one-time first overall selection in the draft donned the Bucs pumpkin-colored uniform, while averaging an equally unflattering 19 interceptions per season. Yet through it all, Vinny persevered. He brushed aside early struggles that would’ve derailed the NFL hopes of any other quarterback to forge a remarkable career that will ultimately rank him among the league’s top 10 all-time in passing TDs, yards, attempts and completions.
Without question, the most notable stop on the Testaverde Tour came with the New York Jets in 1998. That season, legendary coach Bill Parcells caught lightning in a bottle, extracting every ounce of talent from the marrow of Vinny’s aging, creaky bones. Though Testaverde found moderate success prior to his union with Parcells, the quarterback’s revitalization under Tuna’s watchful eye transformed the one-time laughing stock of the league into the toast of the town. Fans rejoiced as Testaverde’s effortless release and powerful arm connected time and again with the potent yin and yang duo of Keyshawn Johnson and Wayne Chrebet. Vinny piloted the Jets to an 11-1 record as a starter, an AFC East division crown and an appearance in the AFC Championship Game. Along the way, the Pro Bowler also notched the fourth highest TD/INT ratio in the history of the NFL and shattered the Jets’ franchise record for passing TDs previously held by Joe Namath.
Unfortunately, in order to turn back the clock on Vinny’s career, Bill Parcells must have brokered a deal with the devil. And the devil soon came to collect – twice. As for the first payment, it’s unclear whether Parcells noticed the pitchfork packed in Mike Azarelli’s briefcase or the tail hidden in his well-tailored suit. But what is clear is that Testaverde’s agent left with a contract for an unfathomable amount of guaranteed money that would render his client both uncuttable and untradeable for years to come. On his way out the door, Vinny will also show his appreciation for this gauging in his own special way. Perhaps a shiny Rolex with Terry Bradway’s name engraved on the back? Not quite. Instead, Vinny will leave behind a ghastly $7 million dollar dead money charge, spread out against the Jets 2004 and 2005 salary cap ledgers – gratuity, of course, not included.
On September 12, 1999, the devil returned to collect his second installment in the season opener against the New England Patriots. In a horrifying scene that remains frozen in time for many Jets fans, onlookers held their collective breath as they witnessed Testaverde fall to the ground, pound his fist into the turf and clutch his ankle. At that moment, Vinny immediately realized that which a stadium full of silent prayers could not undo – an Achilles injury had snuffed out the quarterback’s bid to repeat his dream season of 1998.
It was a cruel twist of fate indeed, and one that was further compounded from the team’s perspective due to the handsome contract dished out just months earlier. For even after Testaverde’s eventual return, he remained unable to either recapture the glory of his first season as a Jet, or justify the king’s ransom that he was paid. For some, a bitter taste still lingers due to the perception that the cost of Vinny’s services outweighed the overall value he delivered. But as we close the book on Testaverde’s tenure with the Jets, the organization’s fiscal irresponsibility should not taint the legacy that the quarterback now leaves behind. Because, apart from delivering the Jets to within 30 minutes of the Super Bowl, Vinny also gutted out over 2 ˝ additional competitive seasons as the Jets starter, brashly defying Father Time with his steadfast grit and resolve.
And what a memorable final stint it was. One might think that the reversal of fortune from 1998 to 1999 would’ve prepared Jets fans for the highs and lows that would ensue in Testaverde’s next two seasons. However, no combination of Valium or Pepto-Bismol could’ve alleviated the levels of anxiety and heartburn that #16 inflicted upon die hard fans. As Testaverde led the NFL in interceptions in 2000, season ticket holders observed gray hairs sprout from the scalps of fans sitting in the rows in front of them. During the 2001 season, fans struggled to hold down their beer and hot dogs as nausea set in from watching Testaverde and Offensive Coordinator Paul Hackett mix as fluidly as oil and water. Relaxing times these were not.
Surely, a stroll down Vincenzo Lane would be incomplete without mention of the game recently voted the greatest Monday Night Football contest ever. In a mesmerizing display, Testaverde rallied the Jets back from a 30-7 deficit late in the third quarter to defeat the Dolphins in overtime 37-40. A stadium left half empty by fleeing nonbelievers nonetheless reached ear-splitting decibels as Vinny orchestrated a near flawless fourth quarter performance. In the final period alone, the quarterback accumulated an astonishing 235 yards and 4 TDs. Had a Hollywood producer received a script of these impossible events, including Jumbo Elliot’s juggling touchdown catch, he would’ve scoffed at its fantastical nature and quickly tossed it in the trash. But for us, it was real. Early that Tuesday morning, Vinny was the star of the “Monday Night Miracle,” a stunning performance that will neither be reproduced nor forgotten.
And who can forget yet another whirlwind adventure at the hands of Testaverde in the 2000 season finale against the Baltimore Ravens on Christmas Eve? In that game, the Jets needed a victory to salvage a playoff berth after a promising 6-1 season start was placed in jeopardy due to a late season slide. But standing in the Jets’ way were the eventual Super Bowl champions who also boasted what some consider the greatest defense in the history of the league. Once again, Testaverde beat the odds, carving up the Ravens previously impenetrable defense for a record 481 passing yards in an unlikely offensive explosion. But it was all a big tease. For on that day, the only thing that could thwart the 1998-esque Testaverde was an untimely appearance from the 1988-esque version. Sadly, Vinny was guilty of five turnovers, including two fumbles and three interceptions, the most devastating of which resulted in a 98-yard TD scamper moments prior to halftime.
So it went with Vinny. He played just well enough to raise hopes, yet at times, poorly enough to crush them just the same. For this reason, upon his arrival in 2001, Paul Hackett fitted Vinny with a West Coast straightjacket in an attempt to prevent the quarterback from his troubling propensity to become his own worst enemy. Yet in so doing, Hackett also clipped Testaverde’s wings and assured that he’d never again soar to the levels he’d once shown capable of achieving.
In the end, despite the euphoric highs and gut-wrenching lows that marked Testaverde’s career with the Jets, two constants always remained. Vinny’s heart. And Vinny’s class. He commanded the unwavering respect of fans, coaches and teammates; and when the time finally came to pass the torch to Chad Pennington, Testaverde did so with the grace that all of his followers had grown to expect.
Last week, Testaverde officially turned in his green and white uniform in exchange for the blue and silver of the Dallas Cowboys. Based on the determination that he’s displayed since the day he entered the NFL, it’s only fitting that Vinny move on to a new horizon where he may once again have the chance to start on Sundays. And it’s even more appropriate that that this opportunity comes at the hands of the one person capable of offering the 40-year old quarterback a successful curtain call, Bill Parcells. It remains to be seen whether this reunited pair will duplicate the magic of six years ago. But as those who witnessed his career over the years can attest, whether he fails or succeeds, Vinny will go out fighting.
For New York Jets fans, the time has come to bring the Testaverde era to a close, wish him farewell and leave him with this final message: good luck Vinny and thanks for the memories.