Almost Famous
By Kevin Newell
Jets Head Writer
December 15th, 2004
A pattern of coming up short in big games has been happening a bit too frequent for Jets QB Chad Pennington. (Jets Photo)
A pattern of coming up short in big games has been happening a bit too frequent for Jets QB Chad Pennington. (Jets Photo)
HEMPSTEAD, NY - Death, taxes, and the New York Jets losing a “statement” game.

Those are the only three guarantees in life.

For the second time this season the Jets had a chance to knock off an elite AFC team – on the road – and for the second time they failed. You could also make a case for the devastating home loss to the Baltimore Ravens, one of the better teams in the conference.

Sunday’s 17-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers further strengthened the notion that Gang Green are pretenders; a team that has gotten fat on a weak schedule and cannot rise to the occasion when facing a stronger and better opponent. (The Jets dropped a 13-7 decision to the Patriots on Oct. 24.)

Theories abound as to why the Jets cannot get over the hump and join the select few of great teams in the NFL. Take your pick: Poor coaching; predictable and pop-gun offense; inability to close out teams; stage fright; and everybody’s favorite, the organization’s dubious history of failures. “We've had three opportunities to play some teams that are very, very good,” said head coach Herman Edwards. “Two of them are the elite teams in the league. We've played them very, very well all the way up till the fourth quarter, and we haven't made the plays that we need to make necessary to win the game, whether it be offense, defense or special teams.

“If you're going to beat those types of teams and you want to become one of those types of teams, you have to be able to do that, and we haven't gotten that done thus far in the year,” added the Coach.

In reality, when was the last time the Jets won a “big” game? Three games immediately come to mind that may qualify. Those being the 24-22 win over the Raiders in Oakland on Jan. 6, 2002, that sent the Jets to the playoffs on the strength of John Hall’s 53-yard field goal, and the successive victories at New England and home vs Green Bay at the close of the 2002 regular season that propelled the Jets to their second division title. Other than that? Nada, zilch.

Remember the playoff game in Oakland two years ago? The Jets, fresh off a 41-0 demolition of the Colts, were full of themselves as they ventured to the Left Coast. That cockiness was evident early as the team, instead of walking to the sidelines as it entered the stadium, walked single file, en masse, to the center of the field. Was that supposed to intimidate the Raiders, of all teams? Well, as we all know, the sophomoric move backfired and the Jets got trampled.

The road is littered with Jet failures in “big” games. And no Jets coach is immune to the disease. During the Bill Parcells era, the Jets had a chance to go from 1-15 in 1996 to a playoff spot in 1997, but dropped a 13-10 decision at Detroit in the season finale on an ill-advised halfback option pass. The team also lost the 1999 AFC Championship in Denver, after holding a 10-0 halftime lead.

Under Joe Walton’s watch, the Jets blew a 20-10 lead late in the fourth quarter of their 1987 playoff game at Cleveland and a chance to play in the AFC title game. And who can forget the 14-0 loss to the Dolphins in the 1983 AFC Championship, dubbed the “Mud Bowl.”

Choking in the spotlight is a legacy with the Jets.

But why now? Why under Edwards, who is on the verge of guiding the organization to its third playoff appearance in four years?

The first answer could be that the Jets just aren’t as good as we all believed they were. Talent-wise the team can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the AFC, but talent can only take you so far. Coaching is the key ingredient to stir it all together. Sadly, Edwards and his staff cannot outwit the likes of New England’s Bill Belichick and Pittsburgh’s Bill Cowher with something on the line. Both men have been to Super Bowls. Both know how to prepare a team for games that make a difference.

The Jets desperately lack the confidence to clear the “big” game hurdle. There is no substitute for success, but beating sad sack teams like the Arizona Cardinals and Miami Dolphins is not the answer. They need to win a game of great magnitude and build on it. Unless that happens, it will be same old, same old.

I firmly believe that for all of Edwards’ positives as a coach, his team plays too passively. For some reason he has maintained this Tampa Bay Buccaneer philosophy of playing it close to the vest on offense and letting the defense win the games. Earth to Herm: your D is not the Bucs’ D of yesteryear. Not yet, anyway. And your offense is light years ahead of what you had as an assistant under Tony Dungy, Mr. Vanilla himself. You have said on numerous occasions that you wanted to open up the offense and score points. We’re still waiting!

Two of the things Edwards’ coached teams always brought to the table were discipline and the ability to win the turnover battle. This season those intangibles are waning. The Jets are committing penalties at an alarming rate and at the most inopportune times. Sunday’s dozen yellow flags were an embarrassment.

The Jets also lack an ornery edge. They’re more Wall St. than backstreet. Sunday’s game was the ultimate in smashmouth football, yet LaMont Jordan had but three carries. Pitiful.

Another thing. The only players that display any emotion whatsoever are Jordan and Chad Pennington. Football is a game of emotion. The Jets, as a whole, emote none. Another reflection of the coach. Have we ever seen Edwards display a fiery edge on the sidelines after a botched play?

Paul Hackett is not the answer. The beleaguered offensive coordinator is great for the first 20 scripted plays but goes into a shell afterwards. Anyone knows that the West Coast offense thrives on short crossing patterns and utilizing the tight end. Anthony Becht and Chris Baker have combined for 28 receptions, 12 and 16, respectively (Becht had 40 catches in 2003). And correct us if we’re wrong, but wasn’t Justin McCareins obtained to fill the void of the big receiver to go over the middle and make the run after the catch? Hasn’t happened.

Hackett’s West Coast version consists of run, run, and screen pass. A Pop Warner team could defend that. We sat in the press box several times last year and next to several advanced scouts. Almost to a man they called the Jets offensive play before the ball was snapped – and were right on many occasions.

To Jordan’s credit, he is the only offensive player to say anything about the stagnant production of the unit.

“My feelings, I think are obvious,” said Jordan. “I don’t think I’m the only one around here who is upset about what is going on offensively. But I’m going to step up and say something about it. I’ve been that way since I’ve came here as a rookie and I’m not going to change how I am as a person. That’s how I feel. Offensively, we have to get the job done. If we’re going to go the playoffs, the offense has to step up, we have to help the defense out.”

Pennington has to elevate his game. The $64 million dollar man has not stepped it up when the games are on national television. We all know about his failure in the final drive of the Patriots game, but his performance Sunday was almost Eli Manning-like. Bum shoulder aside, tossing three interceptions and failing to get your team in the red zone is inexcusable. He has yet to have a signature game.

There are several common threads that have hampered the Jets’ ability to cross the threshold. To Edwards’s credit, he has recognized what they are. But can he remedy them?

“One, obviously, is probably points; we haven't scored enough points,” Edwards said. “Two, is they've been basically defensive games for the most part. We've had some opportunities on defense to close them out at times, and we didn't do it. Offensively, we had some chances to score with some turnovers that we didn't take advantage of, or we've turned the ball over, which we didn't ¬¬ which you can't do against good football teams, especially two of them being on the road that we've played. When you don't do it, you're not going to win the game.

“That's very, very difficult. You can't give opportunities to win games away. We’ve got to be better. We’ve got to have a better mindset when we have those guys in position to beat them. You've got to beat them if you're going to be one of those teams. If not, you're going to be a good team.

“That's what I said this week, everyone asked, ‘What kind of team do you think you are after eight weeks?’ I said, ‘We're a good team.’ I still believe that, but we're not one of those teams at this point.”

With three games remaining against quality opponents, including a home date with the Patriots, the Jets still have a chance to make a statement. The question is, will they?