Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets’ 36-year-old whiz of general manager, had spent most of the game scribbling notes in a yellow legal pad, clinically tallying statistics in columns while showing little sign of emotion.
But in the third quarter, when Chad Pennington threw a backward pass that would shift the momentum in the Jets 37-16 playoff loss to the Patriots this weekend, Tannenbaum suddenly found himself unable to watch. Sitting in the press box of Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., he pressed his left hand against his face when a Patriots player picked up a fumbled football and ran with it, and shut his eyes moments later when the referee confirmed that the Jets had indeed lost possession.
But that was the 2006 Jets all over: cool-headed tactical brilliance tempered by flashes of youthful enthusiasm and, ultimately, the reality that there is still some way to go until they can be considered among the elite teams in the league.
Their 35-year-old rookie head coach, Eric Mangini, is the youngest in the N.F.L., and by the end of an improbable 10-6 season had established himself as the most promising coaching prospect in the organization’s history.
Coming off of a dismal 4-12 season the year before, the on-the-field Jets were a feel-good assemblage of eager rookies and salvaged veterans who overachieved through a combination of discipline, 1960’s A.F.L.-style trickery and plain enthusiasm.
Consider Nick Mangold, the Jets 22-year-old rookie center from Centerville, Ohio. Brought into the organization to replace the fearsome man-mountain Kevin Mawae, Mangold managed in his first year to excel in a position that usually takes several seasons to figure out.
After the playoff game in New England, Mangold left the locker room wearing a yellow Greg Norman polo, ripped Levi’s and a beanie, his frizzled blond hair falling to his shoulders.
Most players were so bitter after Sunday’s loss that they said they couldn’t bear to think how this game would inspire them—it was too soon. But Mangold seemed giddy at the prospect of March mini-camps and sultry August afternoons at Hofstra.
“This puts a great taste in our mouths to do it again and it’s going to make me, personally, push a lot harder,” he said.
Mangold is the very embodiment of why things are looking up for the perennially hard-bitten Jets—a football stud who, barring catastrophic injury, is going to be playing in a hard-to-fill position for the next decade.
“He’s had a solid season, he’s a heck of a player and he’s going to play a long time,” said Pete Kendall, the Jets’ veteran left guard.
“As a rookie, he doesn’t play like a rookie,” said Vincent Wilfork, the Patriots bruising third-year defensive lineman who picked up the fumble that killed the Jets. “He’s a tough guy. I have a lot of respect for that guy—real good.”
Of course, pure talent can only get you so far in the N.F.L. With a strict salary cap, most teams have to be separated by strong coaching and smart players.
The Giants, for example, were easily one of the most talented teams in the league this season, but the combination of a melodramatic head coach and ego-filled locker room poisoned their chances.
The Jets, by contrast, found a way to win more games than the limited experience and natural talent of their personnel should have allowed.
The face of the Jets offence this year was their Rhodes Scholar finalist—and future Presidential candidate?—quarterback Chad Pennington. Despite a much-discussed weak throwing arm (stemming from a much-repaired throwing shoulder), the 30-year-old Pennington studiously set the tempo all year for an intricate offense that was so reliant on misdirection, timing and precision.
After the loss Sunday, he looked a little like a Rodin statue as he sat on a stool in the locker room wearing black boxer briefs and holding a bottle of Sprite in his right hand.
“As an athlete and as a competitor, it’s hard to take moral victories, because moral victory is an out,” he told the press in a Tennessee drawl. “I know I’m in this to win, and that’s the only thing that’s gratifying.”
Jonathan Vilma, the thoughtful 24-year-old who has become a leader of the Jets defense after his stunning rookie season two years ago, has found a way to become the unit’s emotional and tactical leader.
In the first quarter of the game against the Patriots—before CBS returned to its coverage—he ran up to the defensive line and shouted something in the ear of his defensive tackle, Dewayne Robertson. Robertson broke from his crouch to listen.
Seconds later, when the Patriots all-universe quarterback Tom Brady handed the ball to running back Cory Dillon, Robertson not only caught the runner but jarred the ball loose for a game-changing turnover.
The way things are in professional football right now, a team like this can’t—shouldn’t—last. An organization is on its way up, like the Jets, or its way down. With a toughened-up schedule looming next year that won’t bear any resemblance to the line-up of bumbling opponents the Jets feasted on this year, this merry green band is due for a fairly ruthless shakeup.
After the game, Tannenbaum took a brief break from chatting with his wife to indicate—however euphemistically—that much of this year’s roster would soon be gone.
“There were some things that were encouraging,” he said, “and now we have to get better in the off-season and get stronger and faster.
“With the salary-cap system, that’s just the nature of the beast,” he added. “We’ll take a good hard look and see what we did well and what we could do better.”
The Jets will need to draft or purchase new offensive-line players and to settle on a running back. They’ll have to add weight to their defensive line and to find defensive backs to firm up an inconsistent pass defense.
“The discrepancy in teams in this league is so minimal, a lot of time it has nothing to do with the players and it has nothing to do with the coaches, but it comes down to a couple of plays,” said Pennington in a news conference after the game.
“I think that every year is its own entity,” said Mangini. “What’s going to happen in 12 months from now is going to be so different.”
In other words, who knows if the Jets will get this chance again?
It’s a lesson Jets fans know by heart. After the 12-4 1998 season—a dream, by organizational standards—the team seemed poised to make a run in 1999 for the Super Bowl. On one of the first plays of the first game of that next season, aging Long Island blue-collar guy Vinny Testaverde popped his Achilles tendon. The Jets didn’t make the playoffs for another three seasons.
Injuries aside, the next season is likely to be a more harrowing experience for everyone involved because of the changed expectations. No more cuddly stories about the team that could, or New York Post headlines hailing the team’s waddling wunderkind coach as a “Man-Genius.” And certainly, no more Jets fans reacting to a lopsided playoff loss to the Patriots with indifferent, at-least-we-got-this-far shrugs.
At a moment in the news conference after the game, Mangini said he had talked to his players about why this season was a special one.
“Really, I told them I was most proud in terms of season, not at the 10-6 record, not at getting to the playoffs,” he said. “I was most proud of effort that they put in, the way that they worked, the way that they came together as a team, and the progress that we made collectively.”
Just wait until next year.