Long, Hard Climb
The Jets are discovering how difficult it is to get to the next level
Rebuilding in the NFL usually goes something like this: You go from bad to being a team that loses a lot of close games, then to 9-7, next to 10 wins and a wild-card playoff spot, and finally to 11 or 12 victories and far into the postseason.
When the Jets skipped a stage last year, improving from 1-15 to 9-7 in Bill Parcells' first season as coach, great expectations got greater. So after New York lost two of its first three games in '98, Parcells gathered his players and told them the ugly truth. "It's a lot harder to go from nine wins to 10 or 11 wins," he said, "than it was to go from one win to nine. Now you'll get viewed differently every week. Teams will compete against you harder. If you're not ready, you won't even make it back to nine, never mind get better."
"Probably the most important thing he'll say to us all year," guard Todd Burger said on Sunday in the wake of the Jets' physical 20-9 win over the Dolphins. "Winning nine got the guys believing they'd be competitive every Sunday, automatically. Now we know it'll take more."
Much more. Although they knocked Miami from the ranks of the undefeated, the Jets, in terms of talent, are nothing more than a middle-of-the-road team that has to scratch by on defensive moxie and special teams effort. They have a two-headed quarterback (occasionally effective Vinny Testaverde, occasionally healthy Glenn Foley), which means they really don't have one. This team will win largely on guts. Walking through the locker room after Sunday's game, Parcells conjured up a memory from a decade ago. "It's like when I coached the Giants," he said, "and we'd go in to play the Cardinals or somebody like that, and if we weren't ready to play, it'd be a three-point game instead of 20. We have to play our best game every week to have a chance."
Funny he should mention the Giants. Sunday's game brought to mind the way football used to be played in the NFC East, and it's no coincidence that both coaches are NFC East alumni. Parcells continually fed the ball to Curtis Martin, who had 36 carries. ( Martin, slowed by injuries in two of his first four years, is on pace to run the ball a league-record 416 times this season.) On the other side, Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson, late of the Cowboys, is trying to install a ball-control offense of his own. Since Dan Marino arrived in Miami in 1983, no NFL team has run for fewer yards and passed for more than the Dolphins, but this season 29 quarterbacks have more passing yardage than Marino (132 per game). It's definitely a new approach for Miami, and sometimes a rocky one—against the Jets the Dolphins gained just 34 yards on 15 carries.
During the week Johnson broke out the heavy motivational artillery, showing a tape of the 1985 middleweight title fight between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns. Johnson told his players that when they thought they had nothing left, they had to reach back and find some strength, as Hagler did when he was being hammered by Hearns early in the fight. Yes, Johnson had brought out his A speech in preparation for the 1-2 Jets.
"Last year," said New York linebacker Dwayne Gordon, "teams said, 'Oh, we've got the Jets. We'll have to play a half.' That helped us. Now they know they'll have a war."
A Pause to Reflect
So Much For Parity
Now that every team has played at least four games, here are some observations: