The Jets hope Kellen Clemens will provide a better spark than Rick Mirer (above) did in 1999. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
T-minus eight games. That’s how much time remains for Eric Mangini to morph from Dr. Frankenstein into Dr. House.
Through the first half of 2007, the newest HC of the NYJ has been acknowledged more for the monster he created in New England than for any renaissance in the Meadowlands. Since Mangini exposed Bill Belichick’s extracurricular videotaping activities during their Week One match-up, the Patriots have gone on an Attila-like tear, outscoring opponents by a 331-127 margin while the Jets have played a penitent 1-7 and now find themselves on the operating slab. Their season is officially on life support and the scalpel hovers in Mangini’s hand. But as his predecessors have demonstrated, there’s a big difference between life support and flat-lining when you wear green.
Take the 1999 season, which opened with a similar current of electricity that pulsed through the Meadowlands crowd this year. As sunshine dropped unabated out of a near-cloudless sky to the field below where the Jets prepared for the divisional rival Patriots, expectations were high. The previous year had fared far better than anyone could have imagined, and third-year coach Bill Parcells’s rebuilding program was complete. The campaign ahead looked as bright as the hometown whites shimmering off helmets under the late summer sun.
Then, everything went dark. An innocuous fumble, a failed recovery, a barely audible pop that could be heard for the remainder of the season. The Jets’ cup of promise had just been spilled upon the Giants Stadium carpet in the form of Vinny Testaverde’s 6’5” frame writhing in pain.
“It was shocking,” recalls punter-turned-QB Tom Tupa in watching Testaverde being carried off the field. “We had high expectations for that year. [Vinny’s loss] didn’t hit everyone until pretty much after the game, especially for me. I had to go in right away.”
Tupa was first responder to the season’s rescue efforts. The ex-Patriot threw for 165 yards and two touchdown passes against his former team, but it wasn’t enough. The Jets went on to lose, not only that Sunday but for five more in the next six weeks. After a two-year Camelot in which he marched beyond the bar set by every previous success without ever ceding ground, Parcells found the soil giving under his entrenched soles. The chasm left by Testaverde was broad, but he eventually settled on Ray Lucas despite his limited action during two previous years in New York.
“When Ray got in there and started making plays – not only throwing, but with his legs – that kind of got the players going,” says Tupa of Lucas, who won his last four starts that year in guiding the once free-falling Jets into a hard landing at 8-8.
For Tupa, the player infrastructure Parcells built was as integral a factor as Lucas’s execution during the 1999 comeback.
“He goes out and gets players with character, guys who think and are self-motivated,” says Tupa. “I think that’s what he relies on in certain years.”
By 2000 Parcells was gone, but not the energy and resilience that had carried the 1999 squad through each successive Sunday. Those characteristics would again be pressed into service three years later.
Defensive back Ray Mickens was one of 15 carryovers when the 2002 Green overcame a 2-5 start to win the AFC East under second-year coach Herm Edwards. Ironically, another Testaverde replacement – this time, the emerging Chad Pennington – would catalyze his team’s resurgence.
“Chad had a lot of energy coming off the bench and [revived] us on defense,” acknowledges Lucas, who played nine years with the Jets and now provides life skills programs to children in Dallas and El Paso through the Ray Mickens Champions Fund while staying in game-ready shape for a return to the NFL. “That’s nothing against Vinny Testaverde; he’s a great quarterback. But [Edwards] went with Chad and that gave us a spark.”
Excepting injuries, Pennington never looked back. That is, until after last Sunday’s debacle against the Buffalo Bills when the Jets managed just 254 yards and three points under his direction. Now at 1-7, rough times have returned to East Rutherford with a vengeance as Mangini finds himself in Rich Kotite country and with an imminent quarterback change.
In other words, the Jets have the rest of the NFL right where they want ’em.
Dating back to Testaverde’s ruptured Achilles’ tendon, Gang Green has gone 6-2 in the second half of their schedule three times – 1999, 2002, and, most recently, under Mangini last year. While the first two involved search and rescues featuring quarterback changes in mid-stream, the latter was also a change of sorts as Pennington won back his starting job after 2005 rotator cuff surgery.
Even without the dramatics, the Jets are historically a stronger second half team. In the six seasons following Al Groh’s one-and-done, they have compiled a 27-21 record on the back eight, a .563 winning percentage that becomes eye-popping when measured against their .458 clip on the front side and considering that only eight of 32 NFL teams have done better. Strip away the 2-6 mark they managed without the injured Pennington in 2005, and they’re 25-15 to close.
Another indicator of the Jets’ second half resurgence is their improved play after the bye. As a whole, teams play slightly better post-break (.492 before vs. .505 after since 2002), but only eight have a more favorable delta than the Jets (.444 before vs. .550 after, a more than ten percentage point improvement). The Jets’ bye comes after Sunday’s game against the Redskins, who will help usher in both the second half and the Kellen Clemens era, making this a triple-witching hour of renewal. For his part, former Jet Mickens agrees that at least one of these factors could affect a reversal of misfortune.
“The quarterback is the position that you change when you need to change the season around. It’s nothing against the quarterback who’s being benched. It’s just the one position that makes the biggest spark of energy for a team.
“Chad is a heck of a quarterback, but the team needs a spark right now. I’m not saying Kellen Clemens is better than Chad, but he might provide the spark that everybody needs.”
For Tupa, it still comes back to the top.
“Parcells was the big factor in turning our  season around,” he insists, and cites Mangini’s role as a Jets assistant coach under Big Tuna from 1997-1999. “He’s learned from a lot of good coaches and can turn this bad start into a nice finish like others he’s coached under.”
“You’ve got a good coach, a coach who knows what he’s doing,” agrees Mickens, “but you have to have players who believe in him and his system. If [the 2007 Jets] do that, they’re going to turn this season around, and they’re going to make a run.”
And, given the Jets’ pedigree, it’s not likely to be a run at Glenn Dorsey or Jake Long come next April’s draft.