As his mandatory postgame press conference at Giants Stadium drew to a merciful conclusion on Sunday, a misty-eyed Mark Sanchez stepped down from the podium and slipped through a pair of swinging wooden doors into the Jets' locker room, looking for the nearest place to hide. A 16--13 overtime loss to the Bills—in which he threw five interceptions—had left the rookie quarterback admittedly "embarrassed" and desperate for cover.
Sanchez barely had time to slump into the folding chair in front of his locker and bury his head in his hands before he was intercepted again. This time, however, it was by wide receiver Braylon Edwards, who pulled up another chair, slapped the dejected passer on the thigh and spent the next five minutes delivering a hushed pep talk. "I was going to talk to him tomorrow," Edwards said, "but seeing him [like that], I just had to go over there and say, 'Pick your head up.'"
The Jets expected Edwards to give them a lift—and provide the deep threat they had been lacking—when they acquired him from the Browns on Oct. 7 for wide receiver Chansi Stuckey, linebacker Jason Trusnik and a pair of future draft picks. But so far Edwards, 26, has spent more time picking up spirits than his new team's offense. Though he had solid numbers in his first two games as a Jet (a combined eight catches for 104 yards and a touchdown), New York (3--3) hasn't been able to parlay that production into wins. The Jets have lost three straight and head into Sunday's game at Oak-land (2--4) with their self-belief at a season low.
Edwards, who was held to no catches for the first time in his career in then winless Cleveland's 23--20 overtime loss to the Bengals three days before he was traded, has yet to experience the euphoria of a victorious locker room this season. In-season trades are rare in the NFL because of salary-cap restrictions and the time it takes to assimilate a player into a new system. Edwards carries even more risk because of his baggage, but he can be a game-breaker. At 6'3" and 215 pounds he provides the kind of big, explosive target that can change a game and embolden play-calling. "[He] opens up some possibilities that you maybe wouldn't [otherwise consider]," says Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who showed just how much faith he has in Edwards's playmaking ability during a 31--27 loss at Miami. With New York trailing 17--13 in the fourth quarter and facing third-and-21 from the Dolphins' 35, Schottenheimer—who would ordinarily have called a more conservative play in an attempt to get better position for a field goal—dialed up a deep pass to Edwards that set up a one-yard touchdown run.
Against Buffalo, however, Edwards suffered from the absences of fellow receivers Jerricho Cotchery (out with a left hamstring) and Brad Smith (right quad). Sanchez spent much of the game forcing the ball in to Edwards, often with disastrous results. Nine times he targeted Edwards; four of those throws were picked off. "There are some things that I probably could've done to help [Sanchez]," said Edwards, who finished with three receptions for 40 yards. "All I can tell him is, 'Hey, it's not just you. We're in this thing together.'"
Edwards's Tony Robbins act is 180 degrees from the me-first, high-maintenance routine that gained him infamy in Cleveland. The third pick in the 2005 draft out of Michigan, he broke franchise records for receiving yards (1,289) and touchdowns (16) in 2007, on the way to his first Pro Bowl appearance. But the next season he led the league in dropped passes, with 16.
He has evinced similarly self-defeating behavior off the field. Edwards arrived late to a practice after taking a helicopter to Columbus for his alma mater's annual rivalry game against Ohio State in November 2006, nearly came to blows with quarterback Charlie Frye during a game a week later, and was fined $150 and sentenced to 30 hours of community service after he was found guilty of driving 120 mph in November '08. Last March he partied with suspended Browns wide receiver Donte' Stallworth in Miami the night Stallworth drove drunk and killed a pedestrian. (Edwards was not with Stallworth at the time.) And now Cleveland police are investigating accusations that Edwards punched promoter Edward Givens, a friend of NBA star LeBron James's, following an argument outside a downtown Cleveland nightclub after the Browns' loss to Cincinnati.
James condemned Edwards's behavior as childish, suggested jealousy as being a root cause and compared the idea of Edwards's striking the 5'7", 135-pound Givens to "hitting one of my kids." Edwards posted a statement on his Twitter page saying he had no beef with James, but the incident made him such a polarizing figure in Cleveland that the Browns enlisted the FBI to investigate threats made against the receiver.
Edwards has so far steered clear of controversy in New York and proved himself to be a galvanizing locker room presence. The more convincing his efforts, the better his chances of re-signing with the Jets. (His five-year, $40 million deal expires after this season.) Edwards envisions becoming Reggie Wayne to Sanchez's Peyton Manning. "[Sanchez is] young, I'm new, we're still learning each other," Edwards says. "We'll eventually get on the same page, but it takes time."
If Edwards can't make it work in New York, he—not Sanchez—may be the one who is looking for cover.