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Friday, February 22, 2008

New York Jets By The Numbers: #14

On December 16, 1990, Troy Taylor, a backup quarterback for the New York Jets originally from the University of Oklahoma, threw a 10-yard TD pass to Rob Moore against the Indianapolis Colts. He was making that token, Rudy-like appearance in a late season effort during a lost season. But was there a "Troy" for Troy the same way there was a "Rudy" for a Rudy - the story of a ragtag walk-on so obnoxious that you couldn't help but want to squeeze his little body even while you wanted to crack his nattering skull? Actually, there is a "Troy," but it's a terrible film with Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana. In his single season with the New York Jets, Troy Taylor wore #14.

Oddly, only two other players have worn #14 for the Jets. The first we'll mention is the most famous among Jets fans who remember watching games at Shea Stadium. He is Richard Todd, the heir apparent, the once and future king. His reign was a heady mixture of insane highs and moribund, head-scratching lows, the likes of which have activated trauma-based panic attacks throughout Greendom for years. Whatever deep structure memories I have of being an alone, desolate, despondent child come mostly from watching games that Richard Todd was not able to win between the years 1977 and 1983. These, my friends, were the Todd Years.

No, not that Richard Todd. The one drafted from the University of Alabama, just like that other famous guy from Alabama. He labored under the burden of being Namath's successor. He was his own man, too, once shoving and threatening a New York Post reporter (who hasn't wanted to do that?). He had an aw shucks accent but he was also perennially insistent that New Yorkers just back the hell off until he was good and ready to accept the mantle. He was burdened with troubles from the start, too, though. He busted up his ribs so badly in 1978 that after every pass for the rest of his career he was forever adjusting the dense overnight packaging that surrounded the bones under the number 14 of his uniform. "Todd is God," the swirling banners at Shea would sometimes read.

Well, no. No, actually he was not. He was put on the cover of Sports Illustrated after two reasonably strong seasons, bringing the Jets to playoff losses that usually culminated in Todd interceptions. He was, in he end, like a lot of athletes, just part of the Jinx. The Jets went 7-9 the year he was on the cover, and that, my friends, was that. He was sent packing to New Orleans. Yet he returned to New York City and became a successful stock broker, both before and after the 1987 crash.

I could just go on and on about him. He would launch these magnificent downfield passes to the stutter-stepping Wesley Walker, his favorite target. Two game-ending moments stick in my memory, both from the 1981 season. The last comes first to mind - his pass intended for Derrick Gaffney that was intercepted by Bill Simpson in the AFC Wild Card loss to Buffalo in a downpour at Shea. He had lead the team back from a 24-0 deficit, only to come up just that short. I don't know how many times that moment has crept into my brain when I have nothing to think about. But then neither can any Jets fan my age forget his clinching drive in the 16-15 home win against Miami, and the pass he threaded to Jerome Barkum, and the way the tattered, homemade confetti flew from the shaking rafters as he made his way across the field to the locker room when it was over. NBC's Bob Trumpy - obnoxious, as always - compared the injured Todd to George Gipp. "Doesn't it remind you of Ronald Reagan, Dick?" he asked of a likely beguiled Dick Enberg, forgetting that in the movie that the Gipper died. Todd's career wasn't quite at its end just yet, either, but such things couldn't last more than another season afterwards. "In Todd We Trust."

Did we really think Neil O'Donnell could save the Kotite Jets from themselves? I don't remember. But somehow the idea of him actually coming from the Super Bowl to the Meadowlands set off all kinds of goofy possibilities. The only trouble is, I was drunk a lot of the time, and so I don't recall imagining anything other than maybe thinking that nothing could be worse than a 3-13 season. I was wrong. O'Donnell started the season at 0-6. Somewhere in the midst of the 1996 season, the Jets won a game. Who was it against? The team that plays the Globetrotters? Neil O'Donnell retired with an excellent passer's rating, and unlike Joe Namath, he threw literally twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, a dubious statistic when you consider that he was always accused of holding onto the ball too long. I would probably do the same, myself. It did not endear him to his next boss, the current general manager of the Miami Dolphins, Bill Parcells. I recall the coach yanking O'Donnell out of that fateful final game against the Lions in 1997, when Barry Sanders crossed the 2,000 yard line (and then some) and Parcells replaced Neil with Ray Lucas. Coach and QB traded barbs on the sidelines. Parcells was never really fond of the position of quarterback, so we knew right then and there that Neil O'Donnell, our savior, had spent his last game in a Jets uniform. Hardly knew ye, but knew ye enough, Neil.

When I was six, my family went to visit my uncle in Massachusetts, and Mom encouraged him to draw me some pictures of some football players. Aside from being a PhD from MIT, and an entrepreneur, he was also a fine artist. He made some pencil drawings of players running with and catching the ball. He asked me what number to give the wide receiver.

The first thing I thought of was Don Maynard. "How about 13?"

He shook his head. "That's too low for a receiver's number," said the mathematician. "How about 83?"

I nodded. George Sauer, after all. And Jerome Barkum. Both #83.

Finally, after years of patient waiting #14 has finally found renewal with Marcus Henry, wide receiver. But now I'm inclined to agree with my uncle. I'm not sure how I feel about receivers getting the low numbers. It almost makes it seem as though these guys aren't being seriously considered as permanent receivers - almost like they're ephemeral standing is only accentuated by an inappropriately low number. Yet look at the late Chris Henry, the incarcerated Plaxico Burress, the incompetent Roy Williams, Randy Moss, (on the Raiders), Deshaun Jackson, Donte Stallworth. I suppose it all started with Keyshawn Johnson insisting on the primacy of low numbers with the hope for high results. And in 2008, all Jets with numbers 14 through 17 were receivers. In 2009, though, we went back with Danny Woodhead from #23 to #83 and David Clowney from #17 to #87. Is it part of a promotion deal? Wallace Wright (15), Braylon Edwards (17), and Brad Smith (16) have yet to get the memo.

Although he started out on the practice squad, couldn't the Jets have given Marcus Henry his #86 from his playing days at Kansas? We may never know because he isn't even on the squad now. Bring back the 80's, anyway.

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