A few steps from darkness, with the game ball in his hand and a sunny smile inside his face mask, Wayne Chrebet stopped to handle some unfinished business. Al Groh, the 56-year-old rookie coach of the New York Jets, was sprinting after Chrebet, his big-play wideout and hero of the moment. The two met on their way to the visitors' locker room tunnel at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. Groh put his hands on either side of Chrebet's helmet, pulled his head close and gave him a hug for Jersey, Long Island and half of New York City. "Looks like a flashlight was good enough today," Groh rasped into Chrebet's earhole and then repeated the phrase for emphasis.
This was the closest either man came to gloating after the Jets' stunning 21-17 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in a battle of unbeatens, but they can be forgiven. Not every sports figure is as bold and saucy as Bucs wideout Keyshawn Johnson, who earlier in the week contrasted himself with Chrebet, his former teammate and longtime obsession, by saying, "You're trying to compare a flashlight to a star. Flashlights only last so long. A star is in the sky forever."
Chrebet refrained from retorting until game day, when he answered with one of the most satisfying regular-season catches an NFL receiver will ever pull down. Chrebet's leaping, 18-yard touchdown catch of halfback Curtis Martin's knuckleball with 52 seconds remaining completed a rousing comeback that ran the Jets' record to 4-0 and preserved New York's status as the league's most surprising early-season success story. Now, after yet another clutch performance from Chrebet, we can say with certainty that Johnson was right: Chrebet is a flashlight—he's the Halogen torch you find under the backseat after your car runs out of gas on a pitch-black road in the middle of nowhere.
Suddenly the Jets, thought to be in re-building mode after coach Bill Parcells retired in January and Johnson was traded for a pair of first-round draft picks in April, are the AFC's lone undefeated team, not to mention the league's gutsiest outfit. Three of New York's victories have come courtesy of last-minute heroics, and twice the drama king has been Chrebet, whose twisting sideline scoring reception gave the Jets a 20-19 come-from-behind triumph over the New England Patriots on Sept. 11. Once brushed off as the "team mascot" by Johnson, Chrebet has 346 catches during his five-plus seasons, and the last of those should finally put this nonsense about his ability to rest.
"Coming into this season, some people still questioned whether I can make the big catches when the game is on the line," Chrebet said after returning to his New Jersey house early on Monday. "Two of the last three weeks, I think I've answered that question. I mean, it's not like I'm still just getting lucky."
When it comes to bad luck, or at least poor timing, few can measure up to the misery Johnson experienced on Sunday. In addition to catching a mere one pass—for one yard, after a glorified handoff from Bucs quarterback Shaun King—Johnson stood helpless on the sideline while Tampa Bay, which had led 17-6 with two minutes left, completed its horrific collapse by allowing the unthinkable. "That's poetic justice, man," said Jets center Kevin Mawae. "It goes to show you we've got a flashlight who, at the biggest point of the game, can shine brighter than anyone on the field. Wayne's humble, and he kept quiet all week long, but the rest of us were ready to pop off for him."
As redeeming as Sunday's grand finale was for Chrebet, it had to be equally satisfying for Groh, whose game-day bravado belies his blander-than-synchronized-diving image. Once viewed as the second coming of faceless former New York Giants coach Ray Handley, Groh, who succeeded Parcells only after heir apparent Bill Belichick's soap-operatic resignation and flight to New England, is the wild and wacky coach of the first 4-0 team in franchise history. With the game on the line, all Groh did was bench quarterback Vinny Testaverde for a series early in the fourth quarter, eschew an onside kick after the Jets moved to within 17-14 with 1:54 remaining and, when the defense responded two plays later by forcing a Mike Alstott fumble, green-light the call that produced the first game-winning touchdown pass thrown by an NFL running back in 31 years. (If you came up with the name Preston Ridlehuber of the 1969 Buffalo Bills, Regis will be contacting you shortly.) "You've got to take a little risk once in a while," Groh said after the game. "One time a couple of years ago, I was lamenting to my broker that I should have pulled the trigger on buying a certain stock, but I'd missed my chance again. He said, 'Al, what are you talking about? You're the most aggressive client I have.' "
Groh, who has also absorbed his share of verbal jabs from Johnson, was bullish on offensive coordinator Dan Henning's decision to take the ball out of Testaverde's hands and put it in those of Martin, one of the game's most underappreciated running backs. On the first play after safety Victor Green recovered the fumble caused by inside linebacker Marvin Jones at the Bucs' 24, Henning called Toss-38 Crack, in which all-purpose back Richie Anderson went in motion to the right side and Chrebet, from the right slot, laid a low block on All-Pro linebacker Derrick Brooks. Martin (18 carries, 90 yards), who'd caught a six-yard touchdown pass on the Jets' previous possession, took Testaverde's handoff and ran behind Chrebet's block to the 18.
When Chrebet came back to the huddle, he fixed his eyes on his buddy Testaverde, the onetime Tampa Bay whipping boy whose torn Achilles tendon in last year's season opener helped drop New York, an AFC Championship Game loser in 1998, to an 8-8 also-ran. Testaverde began speaking intently to Martin, and a realization gripped Chrebet: The previous play had served as a perfect setup for the option pass. You've got to be s———- me, chrebet thought. He knew what was coming before Testaverde enunciated the call, and then the nervousness set in. After all, Chrebet would have to pretend to miss his block on Brooks, leaving the punishing linebacker a clear path to Martin, and then, in his words, "get lost in the shuffle" en route to the right corner of the end zone.
Chrebet has a way of sneaking up on people. "Don't play gin with him, because he'll set you up," warns his father, also named Wayne, one of a dozen or so family members and friends who attended the game. "He'll lead you to believe you have him beat, and then—wham!—he's won again."