GAME ON! Anyone who thinks the Jets/Pats border war is over is delusional. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
We crossed the 41st Parallel at oh-nine hundred somewhere in the Long Island Sound, that perfectly convenient DMZ separating the enemy to the north. The cloak of predawn would have been preferable but there were matters of coffee and McGriddles, and the ferryman at Orient Point would accommodate neither, necessitating a later-than-advisable start to this reconnaissance mission.
Then again, maybe we were overly cautious. After all, the Border War between the New York Jets and New England Patriots was over. Bill Parcells declared as much back in 2000 when his heir-apparent was scooting up Interstate 95 and he and Patriots owner Bob Kraft were mending fences. Even after Woody Johnson launched a new offensive on the Patriots’ coaching staff during the winter of 2006 to procure Eric Mangini and quarterbacks coach Brian Daboll, the renewed conflict still hasn’t escalated to the level in the days following Leon Hess’s blitzkrieg that claimed the New England tenure of Parcells, not to mention a Hall of Fame running back, a Pro Bowl punter, and several well-placed veteran contributors on the defensive side.
In New England, Mangini’s hiring has been regarded as the logical progression in a string of mutual roster raids that have included Bobby Hamilton, Otis Smith, Ty Law, Matt Chatham, Vinny Testaverde, Tim Dwight - even the coveted Hank Poteat - all exchanging jerseys. Or perhaps it was retaliation for all the blessings bestowed upon New England since Bill Belichick’s desertion, some the direct gifts of Gang Green. After all, it was Parcells’ pilfering of punter Tom Tupa that racked up enough points with the NFL Management Council to award the Patriots a second sixth-round compensatory pick in the 2000 draft, one of which became Michigan quarterback Tom Brady. And it was Jets linebacker Mo Lewis’s hit on Drew Bledsoe that threw Brady into the starting lineup three Super Bowl victories ago.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with being a gotcha against the Patriots,” objects former Pro Bowl safety Tim Fox, who played six seasons in New England and is now the New England Director of Sales for the Boston branch of R.R. Donnelley, a financial publications printing company. “[The Jets organization] looked at the history of what Belichick has done since he’s been with the Patriots, and how his assistants have fared since going elsewhere. I think they would like to emulate that system and are trying anything in their power to figure out what that secret recipe is. If they bring someone in from the inside, they might get a little peek in that box.”
Whatever the motivation, Mangini’s hiring has touched off a Cold War build-up of tensions, with the harshest words the unspoken – neither Belichick nor Mangini would refer to the other by name until last year’s Wild Card game – and the most vindictive deeds the undone. Remember the phantom handshake? Aside from one misplaced cameraman, the only casualties to date have been of personal feelings and the only ground lost the natural turf of Gillette Stadium, that after the Jets’ defensive front seven shredded New England’s pass protection in a game last November. Within days, the sod was bulldozed and replaced with FieldTurf.
The New England coast soon loomed to the north, streamed in morning sunshine. Off our port side, a church steeple rising from some quaint Connecticut village pierced the late summer sky as it maintained its vigil over the Sound and the nebulous land border further west that waivers in proportion to the success of one side or the other. From its belfry, a bell tolled our arrival: two if by sea. The congregation assembling within provided the perfect camouflage on this Sunday morning, but make no mistake about it: this is an outpost of Patriot Nation, a land intent on its beefeater-like vigilance over the New York Jets.
Nor is Patriot Nation watching only along the coast. At Twin River in Lincoln, RI, a gaming and greyhound racing entertainment complex just north of downtown Providence, ex-Patriots Fred Smerlas and Steve DeOssie have created Fred & Steve’s Steakhouse to offer the choicest cuts of beef east of Oklahoma. DeOssie played half a season for the Jets during Leon Hess’s regime before re-upping with Parcells in New England. He has a first-hand appreciation of the spoils that were the motivation behind Hess’s invasion, and still keeps a pulse on his former teams as guest host on Boston-based WEEI’s popular The Big Show.
“[Parcells] is the type of guy that brings instant credibility to an organization in terms of overall coaching ability and previous success,” DeOssie says of the man under whom he won a Super Bowl as a New York Giant. “He was very good with X’s and O’s, and he was an even better motivator of players. For every different personality that he ran into, he would figure out a different way to motivate him. He has a very good record in making franchises better than they were when he took them over.”
Although DeOssie’s memories of his tour of duty in the Meadowlands are not fond, he feels the Jets are a stronger organization under Woody Johnson.
“Having come from a culture of working extremely hard and playing physical and being on that kind of team with the Giants, there was a dichotomy to what was going on in New York [the Jets] at the time. The focus wasn’t on winning football. The focus was on a lot of different things.”
“I know that they’re committed to winning.”
Although the Patriots are perennial favorites in these parts, the Jets are often regarded as their biggest threat. In the town of Mansfield three miles from Gillette Stadium, Steve Grogan - who played 149 games as Patriots quarterback from 1975-1990 and now owns Grogan-Marciano Sporting Goods, a supplier of uniforms and equipment to high school and collegiate teams originally started by a brother of the late Rocky Marciano - doesn’t expect the AFC to be a runaway.
“I think the Jets will be a good football team,” says Grogan. “They’re not in the same caliber as the Patriots right now, but that being said, the Patriots and Jets always play well. It doesn’t matter how good one or the other is, or how bad one or the other is. It’s always a struggle.”
“They’re not shy about making the moves they need to,” agrees DeOssie of the new Jets. “They’ve been a team that isn’t afraid to spend money, a team that is trying to make good moves in terms of coach hirings and free agent signings. The worst kind of teams are those not actively trying to get better. The Jets are not like that. The Jets are actively trying to get better in a lot of different ways.”
Witness yet another seemingly successful draft where Mangini has built on the plug-and-play philosophy of his former mentor by selecting Darrelle Revis, David Harris, and Jacob Bender to solidify his depth chart. Then, there’s Thomas Jones. Former quarterback Steve Grogan can appreciate the value of that acquisition.
“Any time a quarterback has a solid running game, it takes the pressure off him and opens up a lot of things in the passing game,” explains Grogan, who speaks from experience. The Patriots seldom had a ground attack during his tenure and he played the latter years of his career in a neck brace. “Since Curtis Martin’s been banged up and gone, they really haven’t had that threat with the running game.”
Despite Mangini’s off-season improvements, the New England football intelligentsia still remains unconvinced by the perceived confidence emanating from across the Sound that the AFC East is within the Jets’ grasp.
“They’re reaching too far,” says DeOssie. “First off, [the Patriots] had a better team last year and their off-season was more productive than the Jets. Where the Jets might have gotten somewhat better, I don’t think that their off-season signings compare to the Patriots’ off-season signings. The better team in the East improved themselves more than the second best team. All things being equal, taking into account the off-season, the Patriots are still in position to win the East.”
“I don’t think that should be [the Jets’] goal,” adds Fox, who frequently appears as a football analyst on Boston television. “I think their goal should be to get better. Unfortunately, they’re playing in the AFC East with the Patriots. If they were in any number of different divisions, they would have a much more legitimate shot at trying to be a champion.”
Gillette Stadium is a massive city of steel and concrete, differing from other NFL facilities only in its rural setting. Approaching from the west, there’s a water tower standing tall against the distance that makes you feel you’re almost there long before the swelling traffic will permit. The lighthouse with its signature bridge in the open north end zone soon comes into view, signaling another mile’s worth of backed-up red lights.
Inside its gates, optimism from the streets beyond is filtered with Belichickian precision down to its essential roots: the Patriots feel they can compete. That’s it. Nothing more. So, when during the last week of preseason Belichick entertained a passing thought on the challenges beyond the final exhibition game, his step out of character may have foretold of genuine concern.
“Certainly, we have our eye on the Jets. That’s opening day,” he admitted without further fanfare, although it was still not a pressing enough issue for mention of the name ‘Eric’.”
The diligence of Belichick’s winter has been well-documented. With an emphasis on acquiring talent in the receiving corps, he has addressed one of his team’s biggest needs. Although it is too early to tell how well they’ll live up to expectations, the newcomers understand the task awaiting them in Sunday’s season opener at Giants Stadium.
“They have a very talented team, a very talented secondary,” says Wes Welker, who has seen the Jets twice a year since 2005 as a member of the Miami Dolphins. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us. We’re going to have to do a good job to really get anything off them.”
For former Eagles wide-out Donté Stallworth, the kickoff to his first year in New England will be a baptism by fire.
“Obviously, with [the Jets] being in the division, it’s going to present a challenge for us right off the bat,” he says. Then, unable to resist a cheap shot at the expense of his now former locker room neighbor and University of Florida grad Kelvin Kight, he adds, “That’s what this game is all about. It’s not college, where you can start off with a Division III school like the Gators do all the time. This is like Tennessee, where we played Division I teams.”
No one in the Patriots’ locker room is more versed on the bad blood in this rivalry than Vinny Testaverde, who played seven of his previous 20 seasons in the Meadowlands, including 1998 when he compiled his career-best passing season during the fiercest fighting of the Border War. But to him, it was always another day at the office.
“I was never one of those players that really got into the big rivalry thing. In my mind, I was always thinking, okay, this is another game and you’ve got to approach it like it’s all business - going out there and doing what it takes to win the game. I didn’t get caught up in the hype with the media, the fans, that kind of thing. But [the 2007 opener] is a division game, which makes it a little more important because when it comes down to it, you need to win your division games.”
Unfortunately, Testaverde won’t be there. He was among 21 players released on Saturday as NFL teams pared their rosters to 53 slots. The Patriots will also be without safety Rodney Harrison, who will serve the first of his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Additionally, perennial Pro Bowl defensive end Richard Seymour was placed on the PUP list Saturday and the status of Randy Moss, the Patriots’ marquee draft day acquisition last April, remains an enigma after he missed virtually the entire preseason with a hamstring injury.
“I think they’re going to be very conservative with him because it’s just so difficult to tell when a hamstring is healed,” says former Patriot Tim Fox. “I have a feeling he might be a little laid off.”
“It seems like every week we have a tough challenge,” adds offensive lineman Logan Mankins. “It never gets easier.”
And it won’t any time soon. Beyond the locker room, the Gillette grounds crew is busy buffing the FieldTurf for the Patriots’ home opener against LaDainian Tomlinson and the San Diego Chargers in two weeks. Meanwhile, beyond the southern shores of the Long Island Sound, the Jets are buffing up for a run at the Patriots.
If Eric Mangini can approach the second-year success of the man who once escalated this conflict by accepting Leon Hess’s offer and led the 12-4 Jets to their first AFC East title of the post-merger NFL, this Cold War should get a whole lot hotter.
**Bob Ekstrom is a sports columnist for a Massachusetts community newspaper and on the web at Sports-Central.org and SportsFanMagazine.com. He is also a contributor to Boston Dirt Dogs and his work has appeared on NY Sports Day and Inside Football, a web site dedicated to Giants Stadium's other tenants. As a New England resident and wanting to keep it that way, Bob declares red and blue his favorites, but his work is acquiring a distinctly green tint of late.
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