Saturday, February 18, 2012

NY Jets #7 - Part 2

We are in the process of updating all previously discussed numbers up to 61, wherever necessary. We are also revising some of the previous entries themselves, making them, we hope, more palatable. More readable. Less unreadable.

Kevin O'Connell #7 was Mark Sanchez's backup in 2011 after doing such services behind Tom Brady in New England and then playing for the Jets (and suiting up for the Lions and Dolphins) after that. Altogether, the Jets cut him in 2010, brought him back at the beginning of the 2011 camp, then cut him again, then brought him back after Greg McElroy (of the now famous "culture of corruption" quote) dislocated his thumb. O'Connell was this year's third stringer, and he threw three fewer passes than Jeremy Kurley #11 and one less than Ladanian Tomlinson, who threw one.

Which reminds me of another tall guy with an Irish name...


When I first started the then-unnamed Infinite Jets project in 2007, I went through the numbers pretty quickly, thinking that this would be something to do briefly in my spare time. It has developed into a largely unread obsession which takes up big chunks of my free life. It is mostly a hobby, but it is also an outlet for a frustrated fan of a football team and therefore, by definition, a labor of love.

So many players got a short shrift here early on, especially Ken O'Brien #7. I remember writing about number 7, for example, while sitting in a student desk, monitoring the hallways during a final exam period. Instead of grading my own student exams, I wrote about O'Brien:

This man is a New York Jets legend, mostly because he was not Dan Marino. The Jets could have picked Dan Marino in the draft - many teams could have - but they chose Ken O'Brien instead. Do I need to discuss the ramifications of this? Do I need to talk any further about it?... O'Brien was good when he was good and terrible when he was bad; basically, he was just like you and me. Average. He was not Dan Marino, but then neither are you - literally or metaphorically. After a while, he started to look small in his uniform. He was a good quarterback in the best days of 1986 - the first half of the season - when we went 10-1. But then we also lost the last five games of the season. When Pat Ryan pulled his groin (his own) in the playoffs against Cleveland, Kenny came off the benching he received and attempted an ill-fated QB sneak. He threw a winning touchdown to Al Toon to keep the Giants out of the playoffs in 1988.  Then he starts to fade away. The more Dan Marino won, the more we knew Ken O'Brien himself would never live up to being Ken O'Brien. It's just Jets logic, and it works every time.

Blunt to the point of being glib, I said all I could about Ken O'Brien, knowing there was a lot more to say. "Do I need to talk any further about this?" I realize that this is the same question I ask near the end of every entry on every player on this site. And the answer is yes, always yes. There is always more to say. And if any player epitomizes the Jets fan's brief joys and relative misery, then it's Ken O'Brien, this devotion's patron saint. So let's try again.

First of all, as of a year and a half ago, Ken O'Brien seems to have been doing quite well. He was a quarterbacks coach for Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel at USC. He says the best parts of being in the game were the relationships he forged with fellow Jets teammates. He speaks at the link above with malice toward none, even if he's aware that the central question he'll be invariably asked will involve Dan Marino. Recall that both Todd Blackledge (Chiefs' pick) and Tony Eason (Patriots) were picked before him and that Marino was available to both those teams as well.

You have to admire the absolutely enormous gamble the Jets made in picking a Division II star quarterback whose arm would soon give out instead of the man who would become the greatest quarterback of his time (of all time?). It was not entirely clear what the outcomes would be, but maybe it was a little clear. A little. And hindsight, though useless, tells us that picking O'Brien was not so much an informed decision (remember that the Jets - and several other teams - were worried about Marino's IQ) as it was a collective death wish. With O'Brien's gradual decline, the Jets' organization - ever the second banana of New York - would become a non-entity for years.

It was not his fault. Ken O'Brien wasn't a bad quarterback. In fact, statistically, for almost two seasons, he was every bit as good as Marino. He had an extraordinary passer rating in 1985, going to the Pro Bowl that season, as well as to the playoffs. For most of 1986, he was excellent, but then after week 12 the Jets played like the worst team in the NFL, and O'Brien went into a mysterious funk. That season, one of the most vividly horrifying of my entire fandom, took a briefly better turn in the Wild Card Game, when the Jets beat Kansas City 35-15. Joe Walton started Pat Ryan (the patron saint of Jets' backups; remember that, Kevin O'Connell) in place of O'Brien. Paul Zimmerman's article on the game in SI spends a curious amount of time on the arm fatigue of Ken O'Brien, who stood on the sidelines:

O'Brien had come into camp during the summer and thrown five days a week. When he wasn't practicing on the field during the season, he was throwing on the sideline, always throwing. When the weather turned cold, the equipment man would give him a thermal shirt to wear under his jersey, but he turned it down. He was young and strong, and his arm had lightning in it. Then his arm got tired.

He was young and strong. The Jets lived and died on the long arm of O'Brien. Injuries ensued in 1986, and the defense couldn't keep the others side from scoring less than the Jets did. The object was to outscore the opponent, and with receivers like Wesley Walker and Al Toon, the Jets could do it, just so long as O'Brien could throw as far as they could run. When I think about the team's seeming inability or unwillingness to let Mark Sanchez unload the ball downfield this past season, I'm struck by the fact that, long ago, all the Jets did was throw deep.

O'Brien's Wikipedia page is a fascinating apologia, the profile of a man who was, for a brief period of time, untouchable. There is a conspicuous information suggesting that he really was as good as Marino, Montana, and Elway for that brief period time. There is a list of games on the page in which each opposing quarterback threw for 400 or more yards, and there you'll find O'Brien's greatest hour, the 51-45 victory over Marino and Miami, a game I remember well. O'Brien tied up the game on a last-second touchdown to Wesley Walker and then reached Walker on a bomb in overtime.

That game's highlights and a praising montage O'Brien, courtesy of AmazingQB is here:

(I love that one commenter says, "Can we lose the shitty music, please?" But that would mean we'd lose the whole ambiance that accompanies such videos. It's heavy-handed, crass, obvious - all the things that make up Jet fandom, and that's why it's appropriate. We can't lose that shitty music.)

O'Brien went to the Pro Bowl in 1991, but then no more, and he gradually faded. He ended up with the Eagles in 1994 and then his career ended. A more full and vivid appraisal of him is by Phil Rippa at Veteren Presence. Rippa is a genuine fan whose love for O'Brien's heroics speaks better than anything I can say here. His essay ends with the inevitable words that Jets fans have muttered under their breath each time they remember that every one of their division rivals has been to the Super Bowl several times since 1969, while we have not: "I suck."

Not we. "I." There is no "I" in team, but neither is there one in "fan," and while a player can always have his teammates to draw upon for solace, the fan usually has only himself and maybe his fellow fans. Players can at least acknowledge to one another that they tried their best and that no one else would be able to try as they did. No fan can really do anything to help his team win or lose. Fandom is the ultimate passive experience. There is literally nothing you can do to keep your team from losing, and even then, they don't usually win. They suck; I suck. It's an equation you learn early on in school while your classmates are talking about how they love what seem to be only the winning teams in sports and you are unable to feel disloyal to a team that never wins. It seems to suggest something horrifying - that you care about this more than anyone else does.

No wonder then that Rippa became so upset in his above piece when he discovered that Wikipedia identifies Dan Marino as the winner of NBC 's 1991 EA Quarterback Challenge when Rippa thought O'Brien had won it (O'Brien won it the year before). And here endeth the lesson in personalizing fandom. The worse your team is, the more you will yearn for validation, even in the most absurd of places, like the EA Quarterback Challenge, an event that hasn't been on TV for a long time simply because it was obviously so silly. Did Dolphin fans need to know that Dan Marino won the challenge two years in a row? Did it matter at all to them? I would think not. For Rippa, every little thing counts to someone who cares about the Jets. It mattered the whole world to me that Wesley Walker made the 1978 Pro Bowl. It mattered to me that the Sack Exchange was a nationally recognized nickname. It meant something to hear Al Michaels' incredulous voice say that the Jets would move on to the second round of the playoffs against New England a little over a year ago. It meant we meant something. And I felt validated.

So enjoy this little moment below, again from AmazingQB, just as you must, as a Jets fan, enjoy all the little things in life as they come. Enjoy the shitty music. Just aim for the bullseye. But remember that, as always, it moves:


Real Exams said...

Wonderful time it is.

Martin Roche said...

It is. A wonderful time.