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Sunday, December 12, 2010

NY Jets #22 - Burgess Owens' Revenge

In his rookie year, Erik McMillan emerged as that rare thing in Jets' history, a fairly effective defensive back. He played in #22 for the Jets from 1988 to 1993, the meat and potatoes of the Coslet years. His finest year may have been his rookie one, where he went to the Pro Bowl and lead the AFC in interceptions. There is a long feature 1988 article in the Times by Ira Berkow that identifies Erik as the son of Ernie McMillan, longtime St. Louis football Cardinals great. The article is dated from the Sunday of the Jets' 1988 late-game win of the Giants that guaranteed that my friend Major the Giants fan would have to wear my dirty Jets t-shirt all week. The phrase used to describe Erik in the article was "sometimes explosive," whereas he was described in the Times in 1992 as flatly "out of control." Go ahead. Click on his picture. Looks kind of crazy, doesn't he?

But Erik McMillan is used as an object example of how interceptions are misleading. That isn't the case when one changes the shape of the game, but over the course of a season, they are substantially less appealing than the ability to cover your man play after play. According to Deadspin's highly skewed 100 Worst NFL Players of All Time (all time? Think of all the leather-helmeted players who get a free pass), McMillan ranks at #93: "A two-time Pro Bowler with the Jets, McMillan spent most of his time hanging back and waiting for balls to come his way. He was a poor tackler and a worse cover man. Once teams figured that out, he was exposed and, quickly, gone." It's tough to watch other people recognize your own mediocrity after thinking so highly of your skills. To paraphrase the quote misattributed to Euripides, "Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first call promising." Another misinterpretation has it as "mad." Both of which might apply to McMillan.

When I was a newly minted New York Jets fan in the mid 1970's and Dad went to Jets games at Shea with his brother-in-law, my mother was busy teaching me the finer points of the game. I loved John Riggins because he played red rover with defensive lines, but Mom maintained that a running back's best attributes could be found in his blocking. She showed me a picture of Matt Snell blocking for Namath with fists clenched. That's right. She had pictures of Matt Snell hanging around. Who doesn't?

Sam Gash or Lorenzo Neal. These are big ass fellas who throw their weight in front of everyone and everything in the path of the guy who gets the ball. Amid being the guy who got the ball in New Orleans to being the guy who blocked for Eddie George, Warrick Dunn, Corey Dillon, and (most importantly) LaDainian Tomlinson, Lorenzo Neal also blocked in #22 for Adrian Murrell on the Jets. Here, again, you can see where the Jets are merely the stopover in the greater career.

Burgess Owens was a first round draft choice in 1973 and played for the Jets until 1979. I always wonder if he became expendable after that last season after he injured Pat Leahy in a routine drill in practice. I doubt it, but it made me wonder when I was a hopeful ten year old kid watching his team go through its first transition in his conscious fandom. Owens, #22, was the last player remaining from the 1974 season, my first as a fan. He still had several good years to go, as I would soon discover when his new team - the dread Oakland Raiders - won Super Bowl XV. I had foolishly hyped myself into thinking the Jets would go to the New Orleans that year. The last laugh was when Owens was all over the field in the Superdome, and I had to see it, realizing he was wearing #44 - twice the man he was at #22. I don't know if I've ever hated the Raiders more.

And Burgess Owens is a Mormon. I'm not supposed to be surprised by that, but I am. Fellow Oakland resident Eldridge Cleaver was, too. I understand the taste of revenge in his going from being a Jet to a Raider, but how odd to convert to a faith that, until recently, didn't really recognize you as an equal citizen in its clergy. But there you go. I know lots of Catholic women who are fine with belonging to a faith that doesn't think they are capable enough of saying Mass. Rooting for a team that wins sporadically makes sense to me, while organized religion leaves me utterly beguiled.

Here comes Damien
Robinson's helmet
Sure, you remember Kyle Turley throwing somebody's helmet across the field in 2001. Maybe you remember that it was a Jets helmet. But did you know the helmet belonged to #22 Damien Robinson, who was holding onto Saints' quarterback Aaron Brooks' facemask like it was a subway strap? Is this thing on?

Of all the New York Titans, only four started Super Bowl III as Jets - Don Maynard, Bill Mathis, Larry Grantham and Curley Johnson. Who were the other 149 Titans? Well, Leon Riley and Rick Sapienza were two of them - the only Titans who wore #22.

By the way, has anybody seen Jesse Chatman lately - the brief bearer of the #22 for in 2008? As we've discussed previously, Chatman was suspended for violating the NFL's substance policy, but his suspension is up by now (11/15/08). I wouldn't bother asking, except he ran like an artificially enhanced performer all over the Eagles in preseason, and in the 2008 away game against the Pats, Ty Law reappeared #22 instead. Then, Danny Woodhead. I would guess that a even less enhanced Jesse Chatman might be useful at the very least somewhere. Jesse? Jesse?

Three players drafted in the first round of the 1971 NFL draft today have brozne busts in Canton. Can you name them? One of them was drafted by the New York Jets. But we're here to talk about one drafted in the 11th round - a receiver who caught passes at Mississippi thrown from first round draft choice, Archie Manning. We speak of Vern Studdard who played half a season for the Jets in #22 with absolutely no record of his actually playing in any those games.

Eric Thomas and Willie West. Two men at the same position, from different eras in the NFL. West was an AFL All-Star in 1963 for Buffalo and in 1966 for the fledgling Dolphins. Thomas was an All-Pro in 1988. Neither made such appearances for the Jets, although each played in #22 for our team.

There. Number 22. One for the books.

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