Sunday, September 11, 2016

The 46-Year Grift: My Life as New York Jets Fan

THE NEW YORK JETS are toast. Finished. Out of the race. Eliminated. Done.

There. With minutes to go before their 2016 season-opening kick-off, I've said it and gotten it out of the way, freeing my Autumn for more productive pursuits. More importantly, I've shed the burden of expectation -- specifically the expectation of anything good.

The sometimes hurt, sometimes heroic
Richard Todd, whose play in 1981 inspired
 signs declaring, "Todd is God!''
(This page from the 1979 Jets yearbook)
Life as a Jets fan is conducive to this kind of thinking.

I love the Jets, really I do, too much to actually watch them play after decades of disappointment.

Not yet four when they won their sole Super Bowl appearance in 1969, my conscious Jets fandom began in 1978, when the National Football League adopted its 16-game season format, tailor-made for a franchise with a remarkable propensity for going 8-8 and making fans feel good about it.

That's how they finished that year and again in 1979.

Since then, it's been one damned thing after another, including:
Ancient history by NFL standards? Sure, but imagine how that history could have gone differently.

Precision Jets pilot Ken O'Brien,
from the 1987 yearbook
More forks in the road: Pete Carroll, the Super Bowl-winning coach of the Seattle Seahawks, began his pro career by leading the Jets to a 6-10 record in 1994 and being fired by then-owner Leon Hess who declared that at 80 years old he wanted to win "now!" Carroll's replacement, Rich Kotite, led the team to an aggregate 4-28 record over the next two seasons. Hess died in 1999.

Bill Belichick, who has directed the New England Patriots to six Super Bowls and four championships, was named Jets' head coach twice yet never coached a game.

The first time, he was part of a package that included the hiring of legendary one-time Giants head coach Bill Parcels, who had recently retired as Patriots' HC, as an "advisor." When the Patriots balked at what they rightly perceived to be a breach of Parcel's contractual obligations to their team, the Jets were compelled to pay compensation, freeing him to step out from behind the curtain and be the top man in the Emerald City.

Belichick was demoted to defensive coordinator. It was a slight he'd not forget. Three years later, when Parcels tired of the Sisyphusian burden of rolling the Jets' karmic stone uphill, the team quickly moved to promote Belichick to the job that they'd supposedly given him three years earlier. Just as quickly, he resigned and went to work for New England.

Given the Jets' star-crossed history, perhaps the result of a Faustian bargain struck by their Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath when he guaranteed that Super Bowl III victory, maybe it wouldn't have mattered if Belichick remained.

The fantastic and fragile Chad Pennington,
from a 2002 season game program.
Sometimes, they just seem cursed:
  • Cursed when Bruce Harper fumbled the opening kickoff return at the 1981 Wild Card game against the Buffalo Bills, instantly putting them in a 7-0 hole from which they'd never escape in the last NFL playoff game at Shea Stadium;
  • Cursed when Testaverde's achilles tendon tore in first half of the first game of the 1999 season after he'd led them to the 1998 AFC championship game;
  • Cursed when placekicker Doug Brien missed two potential game-winning field goals in a 2004 playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers;
  • Cursed when -- after using their first draft pick to take kicker Mike Nugent to replace Brien -- Pennington and back-up QB Jay Fiedler sustained season-ending injuries in the same quarter of the third game of the 2005 season.*
Bad decisions? Bad juju? Plenty of both to go around.

Since the NFL's adoption of a 16-game schedule, the Jets have gone 281-317-2 over 38 seasons (two of which were abbreviated by labor issues). Seven of those seasons produced 8-8 records, another 8-7-1, two at 7-9, five at 9-7, six at 6-10 and six at 10-6. These Monsters of the Middling once went 12-4. They also once went 1-15. They've won 10 post-season games and lost 12, including four AFC Championships.

To be sure, all of those bad times were preceded by good times: the New York Sack Exchange defensive line that made the Jets a premier team in the early 80s; O'Brien's almost unerring accuracy; that franchise-best 12-4 season in 1998; their rally to an 8-8 finish the next year when, post-Testaverde injury they'd fallen to 2-6 before being rescued by the unheralded Ray Lucas; plus that brief time when Mark Sanchez and Rex Ryan got us all to buy in.

Every peak only heightened the subsequent fall.

Fandom for any team is an act of faith. Nobody wins all of the time, even if it sometimes feels that way. The Jets are far from alone in seeming to be endlessly rebuilding, forever close to turning that last corner. That's the grift, the long con: we the willing, we the credulous, we the gullible, we believe.

Even if we don't want to, we believe.

* A Cincinnati Bengal since 2010, Nugent just minutes ago booted a game-winning field goal for the big cats as they downed the Jets, 23-22, in the 2016 season opener. Of course he did.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

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