By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — I grew up in a household that could really care less about the NFL. Baseball was, is and will always be that which gets this largely northern Italian gathering of hard-working and humbled souls to rise to their collective feet.
As someone who worships everything about the NFL, it was and still remains a harsh reality I’ve been forced to accept.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Yankees like my own children. I lose my mind when they play like the Mets and want to commit acts of lunacy when they lose to the Red Sox. I expect nothing but the best from the Bombers. That’s not to say I walk around with a sense of entitlement. I’m just well aware of what expectations are each and every year in the Bronx. It’s never hype or an overblown sense of what should be. It’s just cold, hard reality. I just want the Yankees to do what they are perennially built to do. If they fall short, I rage for a bit, but eventually get over it because it’s almost guaranteed the Yankees will be back.
I haven’t been nearly as fortunate with my football team. There’s just something about the NFL that grabbed hold of me at a young age and has never let go. One of my great regrets in life is I never played the game. My mother, of course, thought I’d get hurt — the mantra I’m sure many 40ish men out there have lived through but are probably too ashamed to admit. What makes my situation odd is my mom, bless her soul, feared football like she does terrorism but had absolutely no problem with me getting samurai-sworded on a daily basis on the lacrosse field.
To her, there was somehow joy to be found watching her son occasionally getting steamrolled by some dude 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and with legs that would give Roger Clemens a good go. I’ve never quite understood that logic, but can’t really complain.
So despite being banned from the gridiron, on which I firmly believe I would have eventually made a hell of a high school fullback or maybe a safety, I made it my mission to jump on any NFL team’s bandwagon that would take me and never get off — no matter the circumstances, whether they be excessive losing or repeated failure to do what the Yankees largely don’t, as in fail to be all they should be.
So what did I do? I picked the Jets, of course.
And I learned throughout the 1980s that the old saying “it’s never easy being green” was very much 100 percent spot on. Sure, the Jets had the appearance in the 1982 AFC title game. I remember exactly where I was that day as I watched A.J. Duhe slosh through the mud and treat Richard Todd like he was his intern.
The 10-1 start in 1986, following a playoff appearance the previous season, was also a hoot. My man, Kenny O’Brien. We didn’t need Dan Marino because we had the king of Cal-Davis. Five straight losses, an injury to O’Brien paving the way for Pat Ryan to have his moment of glory in the wild card round and a personal foul penalty against Mark Gastineau in Cleveland a week later and that season was history.
After that, life as a Jets fan was pretty brutal. Legendary Bill Parcells managed to keep Joe Namath’s devil at bay for most of the 1998 season, right up until the point his Jets couldn’t field a kickoff in the second half of the AFC championship game in Denver. I still maintain that despite the Broncos’ prowess that season the Jets should have won that game, but of course Keith Byars put the ball on the ground at a bad time and John Elway connected on a blown coverage fleaflicker and we, the forever downtrodden fans of Gang Green, were once again looking forward to next year.
But, next year ended in the first half of the first game when Vinny Testaverde ruptured an Achilles’ tendon and the Ray Lucas era was forced to begin. The ’99 Jets, on paper at least, could have been the team to end what was then a 30-year drought without a Super Bowl title. But when you start 1-6 with a team of studs, you really can’t take too much solace in the fact that your guys ended up 8-8.
Then there were the Herman Edwards and Eric Mangini eras, which also had their moments, but you never really felt like any of those teams had what it would take to win the whole thing.
It really wasn’t until Woody Johnson hired Rex Ryan that I began to stop playing devil’s advocate and looking at every glass as half empty.
And nights like Sunday night are precisely the reason why.
There is no way the Jets rally to beat the Cowboys — in the manner they did or any other way you want to invent — with any other coach they’ve had in their previous 40 some-odd years of existence. The fans have lived through high expectations before only to see the Jets spit the bit, and I’m hardly referring to the failure one step away from the Super Bowl the last two seasons.
Though many people think Ryan had backed himself into a corner by talking big about meeting the president in the White House, I really don’t see it that way. Yes, I want the Jets to win a championship. It would, for all intents and purposes, put a nice bow on my career as a sports fan. It would give me closure and allow me to take things a lot less seriously, but with Rex at the helm it’s never a case of passing the point of no return.
There’s always going to be a tomorrow and here’s why:
You can take to the bank the fact that a Rex Ryan-coached team will never, ever be subpar in personnel and will almost never be ill-prepared to take on any foe. Nor will the Jets take weeks off. They simply will always be in a position to win. The coach demands it and the players, by and large, take their responsibilities to the fans and themselves very seriously.
The Jets may not always put forth a picturesque performance, but their desire to do just that can never be questioned. More often than not under Ryan they will leave everything out on the field and will play the game hard until the final snap. They will have stinkers — case in point, last season at home against Miami — but they’ll learn from their mistakes and get back to doing what they have been built to do quickly.
And this is all because of Ryan.
The Jets have been talented in the past, but the leadership at the top has often failed them, and in the NFL it is very rare to see a team win simply on talent alone. Coaching in the NFL is probably more important than player talent. That’s something not even Parcells could consistently bring to the fore. It’s something Edwards and Mangini never understood. It’s something Rich Kotite, Bruce Coslet, Joe Walton and Pete Carroll weren’t equipped to showcase. It’s also an attribute Walt Michaels didn’t possess, and he, unlike all the others, was in a better position than most because the Jets’ defenses back in the early to mid-1980s were plenty good enough to make up for the team’s ultra-conservative playcalling and tendency to zig when the Xs and Os called for a zag.
The Jets have tried every incarnation of head coach. They’ve had the fiery guy, the disciplinarian, the players’ coach, the offensive genius and the defensive wizard, but each of them failed to put this team in a position to win on a weekly basis, and especially when winning seemed unlikely. Heading into Sunday night the Cowboys were an unheard of 241-0-1 when having at least a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter.
Now they are 241-1-1 and miserable. That’s just beautiful.
Ryan is by far the most well-rounded coach the Jets have ever had or may ever have. There’s a motivation behind the bravado. It’s, again, the Herb Brooks blueprint of put the spotlight on me so my guys can concentrate on what’s important, while having at a minimum all of the attributes that got guys like Coslet, Walton, Carroll, Edwards and Mangini jobs in the NFL in the first place.
The difference is Ryan knows how to turn losses into wins and how to beat teams he is supposed to beat — traits none of his predecessors had, short of Parcells that one season near the end of the previous century.
As long as Ryan is on that sideline doing what he does and General Manager Mike Tannenbaum remains committed to equipping his coach with all of the pieces he needs, the Jets will remain a contender for a championship every season.
Let him talk. It sure beats the hell out of the alternatives. Prior to his arrival, we as Jets fans really knew nothing but watching wasted talent throw away opportunity after opportunity to be great.
Now, greatness is demanded.
We may eventually see it culminate in that singular moment or we may not, but there’s no denying the fact that, barring catastrophic injuries during any one season, the Jets will be a contender always and forever.
I, for one, am really not in a position to demand anything. Two AFC title games in two years under one coach is unheard of in my realm. While I’m not settling for being on the cusp of a championship, I’m fueled by perspective because I’ve lived through the past. I’ve lived through more than 30 years of wasted talent.
What’s another year or two of waiting? It’s a drop in the bucket.
I firmly believe Rex will get this right or he will die trying. It’s really all I, and thousands like myself, can ask for because I, we, have no frame of reference. We’re hardly spoiled.
So you go, Rex. Talk until your Lap-Band snaps. You’ve already given your fans a title. You’ve made good on your promise to change what was once a ridiculous culture of apathy, blame and failure to take responsibility.
In two years and one game you’ve given us a championship belt that’s etched with the words that we no longer have to live our lives in shame of the choices we made when we were too young and dumb to know the difference.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
Do you think Rex will get it done? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.