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Monday, March 12, 2012

NY Jets #10 - 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.

The picture you see to the left is from 2007, Chad Pennington's last season with the Jets, when they finished a disappointing 4-12. He has just scored a two-yard touchdown against the Dolphins, the team he would sign with the following season. His arm is cocked and ready to deliver a spike, I suppose. He might be throwing the ball at something. He seems to have found his target. Normally accurate, he looks more like a man about to swat a very large water bug on the wall of his shower than one whose primary job is to throw an oblong leather ball.

But then it's just a moment captured in time. At this point in the 2007 season, the Jets had lost the first two games but had bounced back here with a victory over Miami, 31-28. Then they lost the next six games, with Pennington mostly out of service. By November, they were out of the playoffs. Chad Pennington seemed like a casualty of time. Another disappointing Jets season.

Now, two months after the 2011 Jets lost three consecutive games to end a disappointing season comes word that Mark Sanchez is seeking out Chad Pennington's guidance in learning Tony Sparano's offensive system, especially now that Peyton Manning has passed on the Jets and Sanchez has been awarded a five-year deal. This might be the first bit of good news of the 2012 Jets season, which is saying something. I am not one to dismiss the Jets' chances in the Fall, even if first few months of this year have been about as low for a Jets fan as any I can remember. If anyone knows something about coming back again and again from setbacks, it's Chad.

Though he destroyed all our remaining hopes and dreams, and my will to live, on the last day of the regular season of 2008 while playing for the Dolphins, Chad Pennington will always be, at least in my book, a Jets guy, our guy, a guy we will be able to look back on and say, "He brought us to he second round of the playoffs twice." About whom else can we say such a thing? Mark Sanchez, yes, but before Chad Pennington, we couldn't say that about anyone. I always liked Chad just for being himself and nothing more - a good guy, a competitor, a gamer, yet another transplanted Southerner playing for a bunch of guys from Passaic. He played with a bum leg, a bum arm and was occasionally victimized by coaches with a limited imagination, but he could only do so much. And he wasn't Brett Favre, and so he was sent to pasture, and we paid the price.

I tried to be philosophical about it. Though it was appalling to watch him lead the Dolphins to a division championship in 2008, I found it difficult to resent him, certainly no more than I felt sickened after being treated like a rest stop on Brett Favre's safari of self-gratification. Chad Pennington endured dramatic ups and downs in his career with us. After failing to meet the high expectations that followed his fine season in 2002, we saw him for who he really was - an overachiever whose belief in himself was admirable and authentic. His injuries got in the way of multiple seasons that decade, but he bounced back as often as he could. Always the gentleman, Chad Pennington remains a player about whom I have nothing but good feelings. When we sent him packing, he appeared to have no hard feelings himself, while many of his former teammates clearly preferred him to Brett Favre.

Immediately after he was cut, I dedicated a badly written ode in heroic verse to him (which one commenter sadly misinterpreted as a criticism) with an odd inkling that we might regret the whole thing. Taking Favre for Pennington, we were like Eddie Fisher having consoled Liz Taylor past the death of Mike Todd and then dumping Debbie Reynolds for Liz. But then soon enough Liz wanted to play Cleopatra and sleep with Mark Antony, and we were left with papers from her lawyer. Look where it got Liz. Look where it got Eddie.

I'll merely end with an appreciation of two moments that stand as uniquely un-Pennington. Throughout his career, Chad always seemed the sort of fellow who would give up his seat on the bus to an old lady, a pregnant woman, a surly child, or a war veteran. He looks like the sort of guy who would lecture youngsters on Sesame Street about preparedness. But every once in a while he was capable of something inspired, like his extraordinary juke of Eddie Robinson, which we present here in a .gif (courtesy of Spraynard Kruger) on fourth and goal to cap the Jets' 31-13 defeat of Buffalo in 2002. "Juke" is probably too generous a word, of course, since Pennington moves toward the goal line and offers a halting "Whassat" to his right, which is unbelievably effective. After the game, Herm Edwards said that Chad looked like Elvis Presley, but really what he looked like was Don Knotts dodging a saucepan.

But then there's this, too. But before you click on the video below, take a look at the frozen image, and notice we are bookending this image below of Chad Pennington, his arm cocked back once again, ready to deliver what's left in his shoulder, with the one above. Anyway, the video is of Chad lip-syncing to Eminem - a remarkably unselfconscious performance by the very man who led the Dolphins to a division championship the year after they nearly went winless. He looks like a twelve year-old boy doing a Marshall Mathers impersonation in front of his bedroom mirror. Tony Sparano can be occasionally seen in the video looking at Chad with bemusement.


I'm not sure what any of this can really teach our current starting quarterback about Sparano's offensive strategies, but after spending his first seasons stuck in a system without much appreciation for offensive creativity, might Mark Sanchez learn something from this man? Perhaps in the face of everyone's doubts, our quarterback, with his newly minted five-year contract, can learn to be more like himself, or, perhaps he'll learn to do the opposite, to learn lose himself entirely in the moment, to play beyond expectation, to play beyond himself.

****

I remember my Dad once telling me that he thought that roofers belonged to a special brand of person - that either they were made crazy by the constant danger of moving around on unstable surfaces high above the ground or they were crazy to begin with and that this somehow nullified the stress of doing a dangerous job. And I remembered this theory after I asked a roofer to come by and take a look at my roof. I watched him climb up three stories on his ladder with carefree elan, and then he demanded that I join him.

"Really?" I called up to him, warily.

"Really." He looked around him.

"No," I said. "That's alright."

"Come on up. You want to come look at this. It's not that high up."

So I climbed up the ladder, all the while knowing that I was getting sick to my stomach. I am, essentially, a sissy, and I know it. I was called a sissy enough times as a boy such that if anyone says that something is not that big a deal, and I know that it is, I will try it out of fear of being called a sissy again. But I know what I am. A big sissy. A sissyfraidy cat. When I got to the roof, I felt my knees give out, I felt dizzy and faint. The roofer was light on his feet, balancing himself impossibly over precipices, while I clung to the long abandoned TV antenna. I literally prayed aloud when we climbed back down again.

The roofer I eventually hired to come and do the job appeared at my door on the appointed day looking like an urban pirate, complete with a scar on his face, a bandanna on his head, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, dark sunglasses, dressed all in black on a searingly hot summer day. Obviously he was qualified for the job. He was probably insane.

Santonio Holmes #10 is part of a larger collection of vaguely mentally unstable people in the NFL who play at the position of wide receiver, and I believe many of these people could be described by my father's theories about roofers, too. The job makes them crazy, and/or they are receivers because they are insane.

Before the Jets are even at camp, it's possible that they will add one more crazy receiver to their lineup. They appear to be on the verge of letting Plaxico Burress go, but they need another big guy if they do. Consider Randy Moss coming to the Jets. Or even Terrell Owens (I think that's just an idea that one of the guys I work with planted into my unstable mind. It would be difficult to imagine that anything could force me to suspend my devotion to the Jets, but bringing TO back from the dead to play on my team would be something close; so I think my friend is just playing with me. It's just a bad dream, thinking about stuff like that. I think so. I know so. I hope so.)

But consider the roofer when you think of the receiver. Consider the fragile egos, the delusions of grandeur, the magnificent capacity for risk-taking, the self-decoration, the problems with authority or even the oppositional defiance disorders that many receivers appear to possess. Owens, Moss, Shockey, Ochocinco, Marshall (whose mental illness is real), and Edwards. Stevie Johnson is just imitating Ochocinco, but we see the patterns. We recognize the profile.

I do think it has something to do with the enormous physical risk and psychological stress of placing yourself into the path of defenders who have been waiting all game to essentially kill you. Though Jack Tatum is now dead, though George Atkinson can no longer torment Lynn Swann so profoundly as to compel the former Steelers' receiver to do something insane, like run for Governor of Pennsylvania against Ed Rendell, the current stories (unsurprising to a middle-aged football fan) about NFL bounties makes me wonder why anyone would ever allow their child to play this game. No wonder wide receivers live in a perpetual state of delirium and self-aggrandizement. Even without a pipe, your average psychotherapist might even put aside any consideration of how these receivers' mothers might have damaged them. They are essentially terrified people, formed and shaped by the insane violence of a game that puts them squarely in the middle of what might constitute assault and battery.

Or is it all about the desire to be loved? Receivers also seek the attention of one person alone - the quarterback, the man around whom the offense is geared. Backs take the ball play after play, knowing that there will be plenty of other opportunities to carry it (except in Philadelphia). A back never has to prove himself ready to carry the ball when the QB turns to his backfield. A tight end exists in a universe where he will feel lucky to get a pass his way, having spent most of the game battering himself against guys who are bigger than he. But a wide receiver has to attract the attention of his quarterback play after play or play decoy, to allow someone else to get the attention.

Happy fellows in happier times
Has anyone held these persons up to the light enough to notice their jealous desire? Like a person in need of significant attention from someone he wants to attract at a party, receivers preen, pout, and play hard-to-get before sometimes flat out confronting the object of their fancy - the guy with the ball - and ask, Why don't you like me? What did I ever do to you? What have been saying about me behind my back? What - am I not good enough for you? Do you really want to hurt me? Do you really want to make me cry?

In all fairness, this may not completely apply to Santonio Holmes. After a criminally disappointing season, the two men were at an impasse that has been temporarily mended, but not before Mark Sanchez decided to play the suitor to Holmes, asking him to be his valentine on Twitter. Santonio refused to answer. Tell him I'm not home.

This is a remarkable game. You don't find these kinds of emotional roller coasters in hockey, not in baseball, and not even in the hyperbolic world of professional basketball. Football is a profoundly violent sport that breeds a neediness in its best players, the ones who can make or break everything. On one play against the Jets last season, Victor Cruz turned the entire Giants' season on a dime toward the absolute destination of a ridiculously unlikely championship. He became a god - not the God, but a god. Receivers know they can make it happen and that they can be at the center of it. And to turn John Updike's phrase, gods do not answer tweets.

But then this is the danger of being a receiver - not the physical danger, but the emotional one. These are men who need a lot of attention, a lot of love, and they need it on every play. The height from which they can fall in the eyes of the world is too far down not to make them crazy.

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