Which is how I found myself, as 2010 ended, witness to possibly the most poignant and prescient Jets-themed gift exchange ever. (Possibly there is not much competition in this particular category.)
The Jets were doing well that season. Their record on Dec. 25 was 10-4, and they would finish the season at 11-5, beat the Colts in the wildcard game on a last-minute Adam Vinatieri field goal, and stun the Patriots in Foxborough to take the Division title, before losing what could have been a thrilling come-from-behind Conference Championship to the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
But on Christmas morning, the triumphs and defeats of the playoffs were still ahead of them. Rex Ryan’s the-best-offense-is-a-good-defense strategy seemed to be working. Mark Sanchez looked more probable than dubious. This was a Jets team New York fans could, for the second year in a row, almost believe in.
My host was a Giants fan. Born in New York, he grew up in California, and, I say this with a great deal of affection: He sides with winners. Giants, not Jets; Yankees, not Mets. A few days earlier, he had unearthed a note his father had written to him years ago, during a less hopeful season for New York’s longtime underdogs.
That note read: “Dear H—, The Jets STINK! Love, Daddy.” My friend had framed it, and when the package was unwrapped, there was delight, disbelief, and laughter among the football fans in the room.
The sentiment wasn’t true that Christmas. But it felt true, and it certainly proved true in a brutal and precise and demonstrable way on Sunday, when the Jets, the new new Jets, the Jets plus Tebow, played the Steelers.
Narratives in football tend to solidify quickly and last forever. The Cowboys continue to ooze undeserved swagger, as if it were forever 1994. The 49ers are settling back into their slot as perennial playoff contenders, the lean years after Steve Young’s retirement forgotten in the space of a season, while the Bears, who were in the Super Bowl five years ago, burrow deeper into their cave of disappointed expectations.
In other words, reinvent the Jets as you will, and still, at the end of the game or the week or the season, they go back to being the Jets. And the Jets, even after two consecutive shots at the AFC Championship, stink.
If the Jets’s 2010 season was about “organized chaos,” and their 2011 season was just chaos—Rex Ryan’s Super Bowl guarantee; locker room discord between Sanchez and wide receiver Santonio Holmes (which resulted in Holmes sitting on the bench, alone, ejected by his own huddle during the last game of the season); Sanchez’s 26 turnovers—this season was supposed to be about control.
In Nicholas Dawidoff’s recent New Yorker article (sub req’d) looking at the season ahead, this control manifested itself as an easy camaraderie. Despite the addition of a second high-profile quarterback to the team, the supposedly volatile Jets refused to be drawn off message. Rex Ryan had gotten lap band surgery (no more 12-taco meals for him) and his mouth, his whole head, seemed to have shrunk, too. There were no promises this year; the inherent promise was that, in their place, there would be results.
The control lasted all of one game. The Jets—Sanchez, as promised, at the helm—executed against the Bills. This appalling interception aside, the QB1 performed well, throwing three touchdowns.
But against the Steelers, the Jets played like the “flamboyant, dysfunctional” team that Dawidoff’s article had argued they weren’t. Sanchez threw wild passes under pressure. Holmes dropped two balls he should have caught. Rookie Stephen Hill, so crucial in Week 1, was unable to get free for even one reception. Ryan’s famed defense, missing corner Darrell Revis, proved unable to pressure Roethlisberger effectively. Tebow came out for one series, and immediately ran the ball for 22 yards—the longest run the Jets had all night—then retreated to play the understudy/savior waiting on the sidelines. (Well, he also did this.)
So the Jets stink. But if narratives in football solidify quickly, they can also be proven wrong, as the saying goes, on any given Sunday. Just ask the Saints, who won last year’s NFC South and are starting the 2012 season at 0-2; or the Panthers, who went 6-10 in 2011, and just beat them. So why do we trust the Week 2 Jets over the same team in Week 1? Why does their performance in 2011 seem truer than their performance in 2010?
The Jets’s problem right now is that while one game doesn’t make a new narrative, it does easily confirm an old one. And as anyone who’s ever been forced to watch a whole game will tell you, football requires patience.
Their fans, to their credit, seem to understand this. After their loss on Sunday, even on the “If not Sanchez then who?” thread on the Jets’s Gang Green message board, posters seemed reluctant to ditch their QB: “I really don't feel like going through years of growing pains again,” wrote b.reyes16. “It’s rather annoying. We need to stick with Mark or we’ll be back to that whole rebuilding thing. Giants stuck with Eli. Look at how that turned out.” Maybe this narrative is just going to take longer to play out than we’d expected.