Seasons come and seasons go. As do players, coaches, owners, stadiums and Fireman Ed. Everything changes. Everything, except the Jets. For the past 45 years, they've remained the one New York team you can trust above all others to break your heart. (That's a pretty big achievement in a market that also houses the Mets and Knicks.)
This is an organization forever chasing its own shadow. Back in January of 1969, Joe Namath guaranteed victory over the powerhouse Baltimore Colts, then backed up his boast with a win that changed football forever. Super Bowl III can never be taken away from the franchise, but that conquest has had the adverse effect of adding extra sting to all that's followed.
Even Namath himself wasn't immune from the perverse funk that's lingered in the organization like a drunk Meadowlands tailgater who can't find his van. Namath's prime was significantly truncated by a string of injuries -- his body so beat up that a doctor told him he'd have the knees of a 70-year-old by the time he turned 40. (Sure enough, Namath eventually had both knees replaced.) Everyone knows Broadway Joe's finger pointed skyward at the Orange Bowl, but most don't realize the Jets had just one winning season for the rest of Namath's career in New York.
One popular bit of folklore has it that Namath signed a deal with the devil prior to Super Bowl III, trading a single momentous victory for an eternity of organizational suffering. This is kind of insane, sure, but not totally implausible when you look at the Jets since 1970. No Super Bowl trips, two division titles in 45 seasons and an 0-4 record in the AFC Championship Game. There's no post-Namath glory, only A.J. Duhe, O'Brien over Marino, Belichick's betrayal, third-and-6, the Butt Fumble, Doug Brien, Vernon Gholston, The One They Call Kotite and, yes, Tebowpainia.
Now how could the scaly, clawed mitt of the wretched Beelzebub not be somehow involved?
Full disclosure: I'm a Jets fan. I was at the Fake Spike Game, where I watched apoplectic fans tear up their Johnny Mitchell giveaway posters in protest as they exited Giants Stadium. I've had passionate arguments with my father about the relative merits of Ray Lucas. I named my dog Boomer after a quarterback who went 15-27 with the team. I bought multiple Chad Pennington jerseys under the sincere belief he was the AFC East's best quarterback (in a division with that Brady guy!).
Football is my business, but the Jets are personal. I like to think their perpetual failures have helped build my character on some level. At least that's what I tell myself as I wait for the Same Old Jets to crash and burn forever. Gang Green's eternal struggle lands them at No. 2 on the Pain Rankings.
Patron Saint Of Pain: Bill Belichick
In which we choose the figure who best represents the suffering ...
"I resign as HC of the NYJ."
In one terse sentence, Belichick delivered a message that would reverberate with the franchise for years to come. He scribbled it on a piece of loose-leaf paper, handed it to team president Steve Gutman, then stepped to the podium to announce he was leaving the Jets after one day as head coach in January 2000. Belichick followed that with a rambling, 30-minute monologue in which he attempted to explain why he wouldn't serve as the successor to Bill Parcells, a plan that had been in place since they came to New York together three years earlier.
Belichick said he was uncomfortable with the Jets' unsettled front-office situation following the recent death of longtime owner Leon Hess. But, in true Belichick fashion, there was more to the story.
Weeks of drama followed. Belichick was coveted by the Patriots, but was still under contract with the Jets. Parcells, acting as the Jets' director of football operations, wasn't about to let his best employee walk to the team's biggest rival without compensation. Belichick, in turn, filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Eventually, Parcells and Patriots owner Robert Kraft brokered a deal and Belichick dropped his lawsuit. He was introduced as the Patriots' coach on Jan. 28, 2000.
"I didn't resign to get to this spot," he said during a conference call that night. "I resigned because I wasn't comfortable with the situation with the Jets."
Apex Of Pain
In which we study the lowest point in franchise history ...
The play -- tucked into a flurry of New England first-half scoring during a 49-19 defeat -- served as sort of a line of demarcation for the franchise. Before the play, the Jets were seen as a flawed-but-respected team with legitimate playoff bonafides. But after Mark Sanchez slammed into the posterior of guard Brandon Moore? The Jets were a laughingstock. It took a long time for the circus to leave town.
"I guess (I was) more stunned than anything," Sanchez told The Associated Press days later. "Just like a car accident. I was like, 'Whoa. What just happened?' Then, the ball's gone. It was weird."
It was the beginning of the end for the Sanchize, who was hammered on a national level for his gaffe. Rex Ryan, who called Sanchez his "baby" in his 2011 autobiography and wrote that he planned to have Sanchez's draft card framed in his home one day, benched the quarterback less than a month later. Sanchez started just four more games in New York, his departure hastened by a season-ending shoulder injury the following preseason.
The play damaged Ryan, too. The brash coach took the Jets to back-to-back AFC title games in his first two years, turning him into one of New York's biggest sports figures and a messianic figure for the fan base. But the Butt Fumble served as Ryan's unofficial induction ceremony into Same Old Jets University. Ryan's firing after this past season was the product of a lot of shortcomings in recent years, but the Butt Fumble represented the beginning of the end.
Sanchez, now with the Eagles, tried to put the experience in perspective during an interview with Fox's Erin Andrews last November.
"I ran into a guy's butt on national TV. ... At the time, it was horrible," he said. "Not just embarrassing horrible, but we were already getting beat ... they scooped and scored. It sucked."
The Hurt Files
In which we study some other deeply punishing low moments ...
O'Brien over Marino: The Jets held the 24th pick in the 1983 NFL Draft. When Dan Marino was still on the board, team officials should have been dancing on the New Jersey Turnpike to celebrate their good fortune. Instead, they took Ken O'Brien. Marino went to the Dolphins three picks later and proceeded to throw 420 career touchdown passes -- or 292 more than Ken O'Brien. The Jets have made plenty of draft day mistakes -- just ask the mongos on the second and third levels of Radio City Music Hall -- but passing on Marino was the nadir.
Speaking of Marino ...
The Fake Spike Game: On Nov. 27, 1994, the Jets and Dolphins met at the Meadowlands with first place on the line. The Jets opened up a 17-0 lead, but Marino led Miami back. With 27 seconds to play and the Dolphins well within range for a game-tying field goal, Marino motioned at the line of scrimmage for a spike play that would stop the clock. Marino tricked the Jets, however. He dropped back and fired a short touchdown pass to Mark Ingram.
The loss sent the Jets into a tailspin: They lost their final five games of the '94 season, fired their coach after one season (some kid named Pete Carroll), then went 4-28 under Rich Kotite in the two seasons that followed. "Basically, we fell for the banana-in-the-tailpipe trick," former Jets defensive end Marvin Washington told ESPN.com in 2014. "Twenty years later, it's still embarrassing."
Gastineau's late hit: The Jets led the Browns 20-10 with less than four minutes to play in the 1986 divisional playoffs. Cleveland faced a second-and-24 when Bernie Kosar threw an incomplete pass. But third-and-forever never happened. Jets defensive end Mark Gastineau was called for a late hit, handing the Browns a first down. Cleveland went on to tie the game, then won it in double overtime. "I've hit quarterbacks later than that and wasn't called," Gastineau said later, according to the New York Times. The boneheaded play supplanted his cameo in the "Walk Like An Egyptian" video as the most cringeworthy Gastineau moment of 1987.
Vinny goes down: In the fall of 1999, the Jets were a popular pick to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl. The dream was over by halftime of Week 1. Vinny Testaverde, coming off one of the best quarterback seasons in franchise history, tore his Achilles in the second quarter and was lost for the year. Parcells willed the team to an 8-8 finish before stepping down as head coach. Testaverde returned in 2000, but was never the same player. The window had closed. Said Curtis Martin to the assembled media: "It was one of those days where you want to look to the sky and ask, 'Why?'"
The Mud Bowl: Rain battered South Florida in the days before the 1982 AFC Championship Game between the Jets and Dolphins. As legend has it, Don Shula told the Orange Bowl grounds crew to leave the field uncovered during the precipitation in an attempt to slow the Jets' star running back, Freeman McNeil. The plan worked: McNeil was neutralized and Jets quarterback Richard Todd threw five interceptions -- with three collected by linebacker A.J. Duhe (including a clinching pick six) -- in a 14-0 loss.
Tim Tebow: The Jets stunned the football world when they completed a complicated trade with the Broncos to acquire Tim Tebow in March 2012. The move stung starting quarterback Mark Sanchez, showed a wide disconnect between the coaching staff and front office, and turned the Jets into a bona fide media circus. The team never even found a role for Tebow and released him after one season. General manager Mike Tannenbaum would soon follow the quarterback out the door. ESPN's Rich Cimini would later call the Tebow trade the worst move in franchise history.
2010 AFC Championship: The Jets were fresh off one of the biggest wins in franchise history, a 28-21 upset over Belichick and the Patriots in Foxborough. The team had incredible momentum heading into the AFC title game matchup in Pittsburgh. Then Rex Ryan's team forgot to show up in the first half at Heinz Field. New York fell behind 24-0 near the end of the second quarter. A second-half comeback wasn't enough in a 24-19 loss. "We played a good half. We never played a good game, and that was the difference," Ryan told reporters after the game. The Jets remain winless in four conference title games.
From someone who should know
Rich Cimini has covered the Jets beat since 1989, a run that's taken him from Newsday to the New York Daily News to his current gig with ESPN.com. No reporter's ever been on the beat longer. Remember that scene in "Jaws" where Quint tells the horror story about the shark attacks that occurred after the sinking of the USS Indianapolis? Rich is like that, but with the Jets.
There's probably no worse Jets team than the 1996 outfit that went 1-15. Can you give us a memory from that lost season under Rich Kotite?
One day I was sitting outside the locker room and it was the day Keyshawn Johnson (the No. 1 overall pick that year) hurt his knee in practice and they took him to the hospital for a checkup. So I waited literally, like, three hours outside the locker room because I knew it was such a big story. And at about 5 o'clock, Kotite walked out of the locker room with his golf clubs, put them in the trunk of his Mercedes convertible and said something like, "I'm just going out for a walk. I'll be back." I was still there three hours later ... he never came back.
One of the lowest moments in franchise history that doesn't get talked about enough is Vinny Testaverde's Achilles injury in Week 1 of '99.
There was so much excitement going into the year and I can still visualize it from the press box. Vinny going down and then the stadium just went quiet. I mean, it was like a funeral. And then you saw Vinny on the sideline -- you knew it was bad when he put the towel over his head as he was on the cart and they were taking him off. The rest of the game, I don't know if anyone cheered! The vivid memory after the game was Keyshawn going up to the podium to do his presser and just pounding his fists, slamming his fists into the podium. He was just so angry that Vinny got hurt.
Let me tell you: Parcells was in a funk for four or five weeks. He stood with Rick Mirer as his quarterback for a few weeks. The team was awful. They had no pulse. It was Parcells' best coaching job to get that team to 8-8.
In one respect, it took a lot of balls because he had a contract. And he was going to have to get out of it. It could have been career suicide if he wasn't able to get himself out of the contract. They go through a month-long legal proceeding. I can remember standing outside a court house in Manhattan during the process.
(Former Jets safety) Victor Green said that the morning, on the day after Parcells retired, he actually went into Belichick's office. He had bought a Tiffany paperweight, a really nice crystal paperweight and gave it to Belichick as a congratulatory gift for becoming the head coach. Victor said, "Later in the day, I turn on the radio and the guy quit!" He never got (the paperweight) back, but he did end up playing for Belichick in New England. The whole thing was just very surreal.
Of course you want to see it -- that would be a tremendous story. It would be just epic. I'd love to be there to cover it when and if it happens. I'm not sure when it's going to happen. It's got that Chicago Cubs feel to it. It's not 100 years, but ask any Jets fan and they'll probably tell you it feels like 100 years. There's been too many close calls. It's like the old Joe Namath legend: Did he sell his soul to the devil to win the one Super Bowl? It's a curse. It's not quite the Chicago Cubs, but it's close.
So it's the Curse Of Broadway Joe then?
I don't really think it's a curse. They don't have a quarterback! If they have a quarterback, they wouldn't have this problem. How many franchise quarterbacks have they had since Namath? Maybe there's a quarterback curse. They had a couple years of Testaverde and he blows out his Achilles. And then (Chad) Pennington looks like he's the real deal and he blows out his shoulder. And then Sanchez, his demise started before he blew out his shoulder, but it looked like he was going to be the guy. So it's really the quarterback. The ownership has changed, the coaches have changed, they've changed stadiums, everything has changed. I just think if they could ever find a quarterback, it could get them over the hump. And maybe there's some karma involved, but I don't think it's an out-and-out curse.