Not all of them were drunken louts and cowards. Some of the people crowding against the railing above the west end zone at Giants Stadium on Sunday hoped to catch the gloves and chin straps the players tossed up to them. But the majority, it seemed, were clustered above the tunnel entrance so as not to miss their chance to kick a man when he was down.
Two days earlier Rich Kotite had announced that Sunday's game against the Miami Dolphins would be his last as coach of the New York Jets. On this day he looked on with his familiar expression of beleaguerment and anguish as his charges executed yet another of their patented come-from-ahead collapses (after leading 14-0, the Jets lost 31-28), and now Kotite was being vilified as he approached the tunnel. One fan, a fleshy, pallid fellow with a mustache, held up a cardboard rectangle on which had been scrawled: THE END OF AN ERROR.
Unoriginal and barely legible, the sign was nevertheless accurate. The loss, New York's 15th of the season against one aberrant win, gave Kotite a two-year record of 4-28 with the Jets. At his final postgame press conference, Kotite singled out Wayne Chrebet, his undersized, overachieving second-year wide receiver out of Hofstra, who had scored New York's last touchdown with 4:45 left and then had run to the sideline to present the ball to his embattled coach. Sounding like actor Billy Dee Williams, who as Gale Sayers said movingly at the end of Brian's Song, "I love Brian Piccolo," Kotite said, "I love Wayne Chrebet." He went on to describe him as "the glue of this football team."
Chrebet needed to rub some of that glue on his hands earlier in the day. The usually reliable wideout fumbled three times against the Dolphins, and his final turnover, with 3:33 left, cost the Jets a chance to double their 1996 win total. Said a dejected Chrebet, "I wanted this one more than any game I ever have. I tried to play outside myself, and I hurt the team."
Chrebet wanted to win one for Kotite, who had surprised his players before last Friday's practice by announcing that he intended to "step aside" after the Miami game. While no Jet expected Kotite to survive this train-wreck season, few expected him to fall on his sword before the final game.
The news seemed to sadden Kotite loyalists such as Chrebet, who credits Kotite with giving him the opportunity to play in the NFL, but it did not exactly plunge the dressing room into a state of grief. After Friday's practice, wide receivers Henry Bailey and Alex Van Dyke were belting out Christmas carols. Wide receiver Webster Slaughter and running back Richie Anderson merrily insulted one another while competing in a game called Morta. Elder statesman and kicker Nick Lowery was not quite convincing as he said, raising his voice to be heard over the cacophony, "I think over the next 24 hours people will realize this is a sad thing."
It was also a confusing thing. "I was not fired, I am not quitting," Kotite said at the Friday press conference. What, then, was he doing?
He was doing a friend a favor. Kotite and the Jets' owner, fossil and fossil-fuel magnate Leon Hess, have long been fond of one another. By sacking himself, Kotite, who will be paid $400,000 for the remaining year on his contract, spared Hess the trauma of doing it. Kotite also spared the New York media the challenge of covering two coaches' demises on Monday, when, as expected, Giants coach Dan Reeves was terminated. Reeves immediately joined Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells, among others, on the list of candidates for the Jets job.
Say this for Kotite—he went out with dignity. He resolutely shouldered the blame for a catastrophic couple of seasons: "Sometimes you work your tail off and things just don't work out. The buck stops here."
In contrast to this blunt talk was the doublespeak of Jets president Steve Gutman, who presides over the NFL's most dysfunctional front office. Since December 1994, when general manager Dick Steinberg put aside his club duties to fight a losing battle with cancer (he died nine months later), the Jets have not had a general manager. Asked if the Jets were leaning toward hiring a G.M., Gutman replied, "The process will have its own life and be reflective of opportunities that present themselves." Elaborating on this nonanswer, he added, "I'm not acknowledging or in any way commenting upon anything that we're sure about, not sure about, thinking about, talking about. When conditions resolve themselves, they will become apparent."