Commentary

Headed for another heartache?

On the brink of their team's first playoff berth since 2006, Jets fans are wary

Originally Published: December 30, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Like so many New York Jets fans, Gene Ragone's spark of commitment ignited more than 40 years ago in Super Bowl III.

Most of his buddies growing up in Westchester County followed the Yankees and football Giants, but the savvy cool of Joe Namath proved irresistible. When the Jets stunned the Baltimore Colts -- in a monumental game that proved the American Football League could play (and surpass) the NFL -- Ragone was hooked.

[+] EnlargeNew York Jets Fan
Focus On Sport/Getty ImagesWhen will New York Jets fans have a chance to cheer for their team at a Super Bowl again?
"When they won, I was a fan for life," said Ragone, who is a district manager for a life insurance company in West Hartford, Conn. "I've been stuck ever since. I guess we got one [title]. Some fans don't have any.

"Still, over the years, we have been trained to expect collapse. Everything will go wrong -- and it usually does."

He was laughing, but he wasn't kidding. This is the jaded, glass-is-half-empty reality for Jets fans of a certain age. Since that incandescent moment in Miami, there hasn't been much to cheer. The Jets haven't been back to the Super Bowl since, and somehow, the fortuitous series of Week 16 events only seem to underline the frustration.

When that Sunday dawned, the 7-7 Jets needed something approaching a miracle to keep their postseason hopes alive. And then, wondrously, the Miami Dolphins, Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars all somehow contrived to lose. The Jets needed to defeat the 14-0, careening-toward-history Indianapolis Colts. Strangely, they did.

The 29-15 victory in Indianapolis came with Peyton Manning on the sideline much of the second half, but it was hard-fought and it counted.

Thus, the Jets can advance to the playoffs with a Week 17 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, who like the Colts might rest some of their major players. The Jets have not been in the playoffs since losing a wild-card game to the New England Patriots after the 2006 regular season.

Why, then, do Jets fans feel the onrushing dread of "Peanuts" character Charlie Brown as he advances to kick the football from the hands of the devious Lucy van Pelt?

"The same old Jets?" asked Marty Lyons, who played all 11 of his NFL seasons as a defensive lineman with the Jets and now is a radio analyst for the team.

"That's part of being a fan. If you're not optimistic, you're still concerned, worried -- and rightfully so.

"I'm not a fan, so I'm optimistic. I'm excited about [coach] Rex Ryan and [quarterback] Mark Sanchez and the organization that [general manager] Mike Tannenbaum has put together. I don't think it's the same old Jets, but in a few days we'll find out what it's going to be."

Even Ryan succumbed to the pervading Jets fatalism. After his team performed woefully in Week 15, losing to the Atlanta Falcons 10-7 at home, Ryan declared his team officially out of the running. After the Jets beat the Colts, Ryan laughed about it.

"From a guy that said, 'Well, it's unfortunate we're done,'" he said, smiling, "We're right there, alive and kicking."

Joe Klecko, along with Lyons, was part of the New York Sack Exchange that terrorized quarterbacks in the 1980s.

"Realistically, the glass is half full," said Klecko, who works in the construction business in the New York metropolitan area. "But I can understand the [fans'] fatalism with all the bad cards they were dealt through this thing."

A disturbing history

In less than three years on the job as the editor-in-chief of the Jets' Web site, Randy Lange has read more than 50,000 fan comments.

"We still have a lot of fans that aren't buying in -- and they're animated in their feelings," Lange said. "There's a lot of history there."

After winning that Super Bowl, much of it has been wretched.

[+] EnlargeFireman Ed
AP Photo/Kathy WillensWill Ed Anzalone, a New York City firefighter aka "Fireman Ed," be cheering a return to the playoffs for the Jets on Sunday night?

Even Weeb Ewbank, Namath's coach, finished his Jets career with a losing record. In fact, beginning with the 1960 birth of the New York Titans, who were coached by Sammy Baugh, the first 12 coaches in franchise history failed to post a career winning record. Even Charley Winner (9-14 record in 1974 and '75) wasn't as good as his name.

The Jets wandered around the metropolitan area seeking a home and an identity, playing at the Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium before coming to rest at Giants Stadium -- someone else's building. Their total of playoff victories in four decades is six.

There was Lou Holtz (3-10), Walt Michaels (41-49-1), Joe Walton (54-59-1), Bruce Coslet (26-39) and even Pete Carroll (6-10). As Jets coach in 1994, current USC honcho Carroll suffered the infamous fake spike of Dan Marino. Marino's move yielded a touchdown pass that turned what seemed like a certain Jets victory into another loss to the Dolphins. The Jets careened into a season-ending five-game losing streak.

The bottom (which is saying something) undoubtedly belonged to Rich Kotite, who won four of 32 games from 1995 to '96. Kotite's tenure led to the arrival of Bill Parcells.

The former Giants coach won 30 of his 50 games and even guided the Jets to the 1998 AFC Championship Game with Long Island's own Vinny Testaverde at quarterback, but they fell to the Denver Broncos.

A year later, Parcells handed the team off to his longtime assistant, Bill Belichick.

For one day.

Belichick resigned as coach in January 2000 five minutes before being introduced as Parcells' successor. And then Belichick joined the New England Patriots -- and created one of the league's great dynasties, winning three Super Bowls. Jets fans are tormented by the thought of what might have been.

"God, yeah," Klecko said. "He went up there and showed you what he was -- one of the best coaches in history. We got Eric Mangini."

And with apologies to Al Groh and Herm Edwards, who between them coached the Jets from 2000 to 2005, this brings us to the Jets' most recent (and possibly most painful) tease.

In August 2008, Mangini and the Jets sent a conditional draft choice to the Green Bay Packers for the right to pick up Brett Favre's $12 million contract.

The Jets started the 2008 season 8-3, and the Super Bowl talk began. But an undisclosed arm injury left Favre playing like the 39-year-old he was. It was weirdly appropriate that the final loss of a 1-4 finish literally came at the hands of Jets castoff Chad Pennington.

"It's not a revenge factor," Pennington insisted. "It just so happened that it had to come through New York. That's the only way fate would have it."

The only way J-E-T-S fate would have it, anyway.

Irony, long-suffering Jets fans will tell you, is a way of life.

Klecko, one of the best defensive linemen of his day, played 11 seasons for the Jets and one for the Colts. He did not leave the NFL with a Super Bowl ring. Klecko's son, Dan, primarily a special-teams player, won three rings in six seasons -- two of them with Belichick's Patriots.

"I hate him for it," Joe Klecko deadpanned.

And then he laughed so hard the phone had to be pulled from the listener's ear.

Will they take advantage?

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Aristide Economopoulos/The Star Ledger/US PresswireThe play of rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez probably will be key to Jets' playoff chances, fans say.
Ryan saw all of this coming. Well, sort of.

Less than a year ago, when he was introduced as the Jets' new coach, he opened his news conference this way: "I heard the applause, and I was looking behind me for the new president. I think we'll get to meet him in the next couple of years anyway."

Certainly, both Ryan and Barack Obama have suffered some setbacks in their rookie seasons, but a month ago few gave the Jets a chance to play for a trip to the White House this season. Yes we can, the Jets' recent performances seem to be saying.

Ryan is unburdened by the angst that Jets fans carry. His only previous connection to the franchise is his father, Buddy, who was the Jets' first-year defensive line coach when they won the Super Bowl.

"A rookie head coach, a rookie quarterback -- usually that doesn't work," said Lange, who covered the Jets for The Record of Hackensack, N.J., from 1994 to 2006.

"Everyone said the Colts didn't try to win, but the Jets took a lead in the second half [10-9] when Peyton was still in there," Lange said. "[Ryan's] not going into the Cincinnati game with his tail between his legs. They have a legitimate chance to win."

Indeed, they do. The Jets are built like the Parcells teams of old; they are ranked first in the NFL in rushing yards and total defense.

You know, we could win a game or two in the playoffs, it's not inconceivable. … Wait, sorry. If you tell me the Bengals will beat us 40-7 with a second-string quarterback, it really wouldn't surprise me.

-- Longtime Jets fan Gene Ragone on his team's prospects in Week 17 against the Bengals

"Defense gets you to the Super Bowl," Joe Klecko said. "With the run defense and [cornerback] Darrelle Revis, they can shut people down. The key to the whole thing is Sanchez.

"The rookie gives it away three, four times, and you lose games you should be winning. Rex says, 'Let's put the handcuffs on him,' and he's made fewer mistakes the last few games. If he does that, I think the Jets are somewhat of a lock.

"It's not just a shot, it's pretty well spoken for."

Lyons was driving north with his family on the Taconic Parkway to Vermont as he talked about the Jets' unlikely position.

"Now," he said, "it's up to the Jets to take advantage. They should win. I believe they're going to win, but some people are waiting to see if it happens. It's fair because you have to play the game."

Ragone has seen this movie play out before.

"We started the season 3-0, and then we lost six out of seven," he said.

"You get a false sense of security and start to relax … and then the hammer comes down. Two weeks ago, like Ryan, I'm thinking we're out of the playoffs.

"Wouldn't it be nice if the Bengals let us win? You know, we could win a game or two in the playoffs, it's not inconceivable. … Wait, sorry. If you tell me the Bengals will beat us 40-7 with a second-string quarterback, it really wouldn't surprise me."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.