Work in Sports
What We Learned
Three things we know after the Bills-Jets game
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Here are three things we learned from the New York Jets' 27-14 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday at Giants Stadium. The win gave the Jets their first 3-0 start in 34 years, and lifted them to undisputed possession of first place in the AFC East:
1. Let the war of words begin. It's Keyshawn Week and it's apparent that neither the Jets nor their former Pro Bowl receiver are completely over the circumstances of their celebrated breakup this spring. Moments after New York's huge 27-14 defeat of Buffalo on Sunday, talk turned to Johnson, who was traded from New York to Tampa Bay in April in exchange for a pair of first-round picks. The Jets travel to Tampa Bay for a showdown of 3-0 squads next Sunday.
Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet, Johnson's favorite whipping boy, cleared out of the New York locker room quickly Sunday. He was gone even before the media had a chance to question him about his long-running feud with Johnson, a storyline that figures to get slightly more coverage in New York this week than the Olympics. But other Jets were willing to weigh in.
"I could care less (about going against Keyshawn)," Jets center Kevin Mawae said curtly. "We're 3-0 and he's not here, so go tell that to him. This proves that one guy doesn't make a team. Wayne keeps coming on. He keeps getting dogged by this guy, but he still performs.
"I think Keyshawn's wrong for some of the stuff he does, and Wayne, I think, takes the high road when it comes that whole situation."
Smelling blood, reporters pressed Mawae whether or not he takes it personally that Johnson continues to rag on Chrebet.
"No, and it's not my fight," he said. "It's like trying to jump in between two pit bulls, where actually one's a ... you know. I don't know.... I just stay out of the whole thing altogether."
Jets safety Victor Green said New York is braced for Johnson to talk some non-stop smack this week. Johnson is scheduled to conduct three separate sessions with the media this week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
"You know he's going to do a lot of talking," Green said. "But we're not playing this game for Keyshawn. We're playing the Tampa Bay Bucs, and that's how we've got to approach it. We can't let Keyshawn dictate how we're going to play or what kind of attitude we're going to have going into the game."
Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde even got drawn into the discussion, admitting that he complained to the front office when the Johnson trade was made. Not that anyone's complaining now, with the Jets 3-0 for the first time since 1966.
"I expressed my disappointment when he was traded," Testaverde said. "I think any time you have a guy with as much talent as Keyshawn has, and with what he brings to your offense, you'd like to work with a guy like that. When you have him and you lose him, it's disappointing.
"But I'll tell you, this team, with all the changes and some of the losses that we've had player-wise coach-wise, we've got a pretty tough team. I like this group in this locker room."
Johnson's impact this week will be undeniable. But his greatest contribution to the Bucs may be in distracting and flustering the Jets before anyone even steps onto the field.
2. First, Home Run Throwback, and now this. Buffalo fired respected, longtime special teams coach Bruce DeHaven when the Bills kickoff unit allowed Tennessee to pull off the Music City Miracle in the final seconds of last season's AFC first-round playoff game. What will they do this time? Against the Jets, returns and trick plays again killed Buffalo's chances. The Bills allowed New York free safety Kevin Williams' 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter, tying the game at 7-7, and then, in even more inglorious fashion, lamely surrendered a 45-yard Testaverde to Marcus Coleman Hail Mary touchdown pass on the final play of the first half.
Coleman, a cornerback, barely made it onto the field in time to take part in the play. It was his first career reception as a receiver. He caught the ball near the back of the end zone, despite having three Bills defenders either behind him or at his side. On the play, which gave the Jets a 21-14 lead they never lost, not one Buffalo defensive back was in front of Coleman.
"He's a defensive guy who wasn't up there in the offensive huddle, and I think he maybe wasn't expecting it," Jets head coach Al Groh said of Coleman's big play, which began with four seconds left in the first half. "But we had a pretty good loud chorus of guys yelling, 'Marcus, Marcus, Marcus.' And finally he got the message and got out there on time."
Coleman is part of the Jets' Hail Mary package because Testaverde asked for him to be included in training camp. Tired of seeing his own team's defenders out-jump receivers Chrebet and Dedric Ward (who go 5-foot-10 and 5-9, respectively), Testaverde lobbied for the 6-2, sky-walking Coleman.
"He'd make a great receiver if coach allowed him to play both ways," Testaverde said. "He's the one guy I look for. I try to throw the ball above his head and let him go up for it and out-jump everybody."
The Jets hadn't hit a Hail Mary at home since Nov. 19, 1995, when Boomer Esiason found running back Adrian Murrell from 41 yards out against Buffalo in a 28-26 loss. New York hadn't had a touchdown on a kickoff return since Dec. 14, 1997, against Tampa Bay (Leon Johnson, 101 yards). It was Williams' first career kickoff return for a touchdown.
"That's ridiculous," Buffalo head coach Wade Phillips said of Coleman's catch. "We should have everybody back on the goal line. They should be waiting for the ball instead of jumping for the ball. We just relaxed and it cost us. That turned the game around completely."
It's getting to be an old, old refrain in Buffalo.
3. We'll make this as short and sweet as we can: Buffalo's Sam Cowart is a stud. The best linebacker that half the NFL's fans have never heard of. So unsung that he he'll have to work up to unsung.
Cowart, who plays inside linebacker on the weak side, should have gone to the Pro Bowl last season, when he led the Bills with 186 tackles, including 117 solos. He was arguably the most productive player on the NFL's top-ranked defense. But this season, Cowart, a third-year veteran, is taking his game to a new level. In the first two games of the season, wins over Tennessee and Green Bay, Cowart led the Bills with 14 tackles, including 10 solos, in each game. On Sunday in the loss to the Jets, Cowart led Buffalo with 15 tackles according to the press box statistics (tackles in the NFL aren't official statistics and team totals and the league's totals often vary), with 11 solos and one interception.
With the Bills trailing 24-14 late in the third quarter, Cowart's interception gave Buffalo the ball at the 50, and a chance to get back in the game. But the drive ended soon afterward when receiver Peerless Price fumbled away a reception to the Jets.
Try this stat on for size: In his past six games, including the playoffs and last regular season, Cowart has totaled 92 tackles (15.3 per game), including 60 solos (10 per game).
Sam Cowart. Learn the name. Learn the game. You'll see it in Hawaii this February.