If, as critics have charged, the New York Jets’ season has been one long media circus, then the main event will be Sunday night, when the Jets play the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC championship and a berth in the February 6 Super Bowl. The clown show began in August with the HBO reality series, Hard Knocks, which followed the team through its training camp and captured each glorious expletive bellowed by head coach Rex Ryan.
With his flamboyant, confrontational, yet affable, style, Ringmaster Rex is on the verge of becoming the most recognizable coach in the NFL. He’s already a hero to foot fetishists--and judging from the number of hits on the video released last month featuring a man who sounds like Ryan making suggestive comments to a woman who looks like his wife Michelle about her feet, that may be a sizeable audience. (YouTube has removed the video due to “sexual content,” but you can see it on Deadspin.com.)
The sideshow was supplied by strength coach Sal Alosi, who, during the December 13 game with Miami, tripped Dolphin Nolan Carroll as he ran along the sidelines during a punt return. Alosi was suspended indefinitely by the team, and the Jets were fined $100,000 by the NFL.
But though the Jets’ season has often had the aura of a freak show, there’s definitely something going on in center ring. Their quarterback, Mark Sanchez, in just his second season, is one game away from the Super Bowl. He could well be the most popular Latino pro football star since Oakland Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett openly embraced Zorro as his favorite action hero some three decades ago.
The only quarterback to have won a Super Bowl in his second year is Sanchez’s counterpart, the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger. With Roethlisberger still playing under the taint of a four-game suspension stemming from accusations of sexual assault during the off-season, it’s fair to speculate that a large percentage of America’s female football fans will be rooting for Sanchez.
He can already count Tina Fey among their number; in a sketch on Saturday Night Live last fall, she introduced him with her head on his chest as “My husband, Mark Sanchez, of the New York Jets.” Judging from the handmade signs at Jets games both at home and on the road, Fey isn’t the first one to come up with that fantasy.
The Jets are young, brash, colorful and exciting—they won five games by five points or less, including back-to-back wins in sudden death overtime. In cornerback Darrelle Revis, the team’s best athlete, they have the boldest and best pass defender in the league. Revis and fellow D-back Antonio Cromartie smother opposing team’s best wide receivers, practically taking them out of the game, and seem to shrink the field for the rest of the Jets’ defensive unit.
A good argument could be made that the Jets have been the game’s worst franchise since their incarnation as the New York Titans 50 seasons ago.
On the other side of the ball, the Jets’ may have the best trio of big play receivers of any team with Jerricho Cotchery, Santonio Holmes (a former target of Rothlisberger when he played for the Steelers), and Braylon Edwards, who delighted millions when he celebrated the victory over New England with a pair of spectacular back flips that could have earned him a job with Ringling Brothers.
If the Jets can keep up the momentum, they may well emerge from this year’s postseason as America’s team. An interesting question, though, is whether, even if they win it all, they will be New York’s team.
Ratings for the Jets’ spectacular upset of the heavily favored Patriots last Sunday were the highest of any playoff game so far this season, an indication that New York-area football fans are starting to get on board. But the Jets’ 17-16 thriller over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts in the opening round of the playoffs actually drew higher ratings in several other NFL cities than in New York, where most pro football fans still consider the Giants their team. (Or at least New Jersey’s team, since the two clubs share a stadium in the Meadowlands.)
It isn’t hard to figure why: The Giants, after all, have won three Super Bowls over the last quarter century, while the Jets have only won one in their entire history, the immortal 1969 upset over the Baltimore Colts when another dreamboat quarterback, Broadway Joe Namath, guaranteed victory and delivered.
Since then, there has been almost nothing else in the team’s history worth celebrating. In fact, a good argument could be made that the Jets have been the game’s worst franchise since their incarnation as the New York Titans 50 seasons ago. Even the dreadful Buffalo Bills, who were also born in 1960, have a better cumulative won-lost percentage than the Jets (.469 to .460).
Aside from their one great moment of glory, how bad have the Jets been? Put it this way: If the Jets beat the Steelers on Sunday night, they will have won the AFC East title for only the third time. And let’s say it one more way: Since the 1970 merger between the National Football League and the old American Football League, the Jets have never returned to the Big Game.
The Giants are always trying to add to their legacy; the Jets are trying to create one. They certainly seem to have picked the right coach. Aside from Bill Parcells, who was there for just three seasons from 1997-1999, Ryan isn’t merely the most dynamic coach in Gang Green’s history, he is the only one.
Every week he drives his team–with one eye cocked in the direction of the media–with a bluster that would make P.T. Barnum blush. Ryan may or may not be a great football coach; we’ll know more about that Sunday night. What is undeniable is that he is an absolute genius at finding ways to motivate his team, turning each opponent into the focus of that week’s hatred.
“I don’t want to hear about you having any friends on the other team,” Ryan told his players in an episode of Hard Knocks, “if you want friends, you can have all the friends you want after the game. For this week, you got no friends on the other side.”
Incredibly, opponents seem only too happy to help Rex out by losing their cool and popping off to the press, after which Ryan confronts his team, points out the nasty comments from the Jets’ next adversary, and says, “See? I told you so.”
It’s a tight rope act, and Ryan knows it. It works so long as the other team takes the bait and fires back. But if his act fails, when he can’t direct his players anger, Ryan is left without a safety net: in four losses this season—three of them at home—the Jets, listless and uninspired, didn’t score a single touchdown. In those games Ryan paced the sideline like a lion tamer without a chair.
This Sunday, though, playing under the big tent of the national media might be motivation enough. To Ryan, a sportswriter or commentator is merely a potential sucker born every minute, but the press doesn’t care that it’s being used. As long as the Jets continue to win, Rex Ryan is, to them, the greatest show on earth.
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.