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Monday, September 30, 2013

NY Jets #67 - Part 5

An an analyst on ESPN this week, former Jets tackle Damien Woody #67 said that the Giants would be green with envy to have the Jets' defensive line. If this comment ends up being the highlight of the season (and it probably will be) then I'm fine with that. Neither the Giants nor the Jets distinguished themselves on either side of the ball this weekend. And I'm not a Giants hater; much of my extended family are Giants fans. But since December 25, 2011, my life as a fan has essentially been the long nightmare that immediately followed the pass from Eli Manning that Victor Cruz took for a 99-yard touchdown.

That year, after being manhandled by Philadelphia, we held out a bizarre sense of hope that we would beat the Giants in Week 15. Big Blue looked a little lame at that point, but of course they would go on to win the Super Bowl. Rex Ryan's public notes of confidence going into the game were his usual misjudgment, the kind of braggadocio made by a drunken uncle at a backyard barbecue. Blue had the last laugh. They always seem to. But there we go. No sooner am I talking about Damien Woody than I'm talking about the past, the past, the miserable past, and the sweet, burdensome pain that it brings to any Jets fan. What would be without our sense of torment? I guess we wouldn't feel like fans.

Rex and Damien Woody in happier times
Damien Woody's career was a fine one, moving through New England, Detroit, and the Jets, from 1999-2010, managing to miss Detroit's winless 2008 season and then enjoying two winning seasons with us. His last game was the Jets' 17-14 Wild Card Playoff win over the Colts, which sent us off to their playoff win against New England. He tore his Achilles' tendon in the Colts game, and I seem to remember him being led from the field, though I know that we didn't know he had blown it out until the following midweek. I remember feeling a sense of unease that should have bit deeper than it did, if only because Wayne Hunter replaced him.

After the Patriots game - the happiest moment in my fandom - came the AFC Title Game loss to Pittsburgh. But here I go again, trying to mine through the recent past to make sense of where it all went wrong. Maybe it didn't all start with Cruz's touchdown, but with Woody going down for good against the Colts. No wonder his praise for the Jets' defense resonated with me this week. I'm still wading through the bad signs from the past to find the sign that things are going to get better again.

***

Kimo Von Oelhoffen in 2006
It seemed as if everything was going to change. Years and years of losing were on the verge of being forgotten by a single, elusive playoff win. I speak not of the 1981 Jets, but the 2005 Cincinnati Bengals, hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in the second round. On the second play of the game, Carson Palmer was hit below the knee by Kimo Von Oelhoffen #67, and the Bengals were on their way to losing in the playoffs once again. Even after apologizing to Palmer through the media, though not to the quarterback himself, Von Oelhoffen was released by Pittsburgh at the end of the season and picked up by the Jets. His single hit changed Palmer's fortunes; he's obviously never been the same.

Von Oelhoffen lasted a season with us, another year with Philadelphia, and is today retired and settled in Washington state. More importantly, his name was given to a special addendum to the rules guarding quarterback safety during the offseason in 2006. It's the "Kimo Clause," which penalizes defenders who do not take as many measures as they can before hitting quarterbacks low. If his name had been "Bill" I don't know if there would be a "Bill Clause," but such is the way with names.

The clause came up for discussion again when Tom Brady was injured in 2008 after being hit by Kansas City's Bernard Pollard, who had been taken down, got up again and then hit Brady below the waist, injuring his knee and taking him out for the season - an event about which I don't remember having any feelings. Various observers, partisan or not, considered that Pollard had broken the Kimo Clause, leading immediately to the institution of the "Brady Rule," which says that if a defender is brought down in pursuit of the quarterback, then he must stay down, otherwise he will be penalized, unless he is blocked into the quarterback. This seems a bit more easily enforceable, whereas the Kimo Clause suggested rather absurdly that defensive players somehow go through a mental checklist of items mid-flight the way a pilot of a plane actually does before flying.

Established in much the same way that violations are written and rewritten by kids playing among the amorphous boundaries of a suburban backyard, these hastily written rules and clauses are absurd after a while. Basketball and baseball don't have to worry about these kinds of things. Basketball is a game that's made organically complex by the infinite strategies that can be applied to its rather simple structure. Baseball is inherently complex and is allowed to remain as such because its loyalists are such rabid traditionalists that the game is impervious to fundamental change.

Regardless, the constant changes in pro football, which are almost all dictated to defenders, favor the offense and the passing game, which makes football as great as it is. The problem is that it's not really what football originally was meant to be. In training and drafting we are constantly trying to mold and shape defenders into superhuman giants who would have obviously towered over players in 1927, yet we somehow expect these defenders to still play the basic 1927 game, with smash and grind, even while we are also hoping that we can keep the ball flying in the air. We want everything out of football. So we nip and tuck at it, searching for the right formula.

But football is also characterized by the two impulses in American life - violence and litigiousness. Football has always been an unmanageably violent game because we like it that way. We're talking about a culture that took boxers, put them in a cage and let them beat one another into senselessness and called it UFC. But our conscience also compels us to use rules and clauses to manage our violent obsessions and turn football into the perfect game we all imagine it to be. A rule here, a clause there, and maybe, just maybe football will find itself working just the way we idealize it, with players hurt and challenged on the field, but nobody permanently damaged. I cannot tell if a vanishing pipeline of players from high school will kill the game or the game itself will become obsolete through its contradictions. Probably neither.

***

Opening Day at Shea, 1964
Back in 1963, when the dominance of professional football was a mere gleam in the eye of a disoriented postwar superpower, back when players took water refreshment on the sidelines out of soup ladles, Jim Price #67 played linebacker for the New York Jets. He had been drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, only to be washed out and picked up by the AFL Jets the same year, playing in the franchise's last season at the Polo Grounds.

On New Year's Day 1964, he became part of what was apparently the biggest AFL trade ever; he, Dick Guesman, Ed Cooke, Chris Janerette, and Sid Fournet went to the Denver Broncos for Gene Prebola, Gordy Holtz, Bob Zeman, and, most importantly, Wahoo McDaniel. By securing McDaniel, the Jets had what would be for a year a marquee player, or rather for what passed as one for the newly revamped Gotham Football Club. But say what you will, tens of thousands more fans attended the first football game at Shea, the season opener of 1964 against Denver (as luck would have it) than ever attended the Polo Grounds to watch a pass thrown from Dick Wood or Al Dorow. The Jets won 30-6.

Now, as a linebacker for the Broncos, Jim Price got to see what he was missing. When his replacement made a tackle against Denver, the Shea announcer would playfully say, "Tackle by....you know who...."

And the Shea crowd learned to dutifully answer: WA-HOOOO.

And so was born the football-as-entertainment model that the Jets have more or less followed over four decades. A jet car patrolling the sidelines, a professional wrestler and Choctaw warrior at middle linebacker, a bonus baby quarterback, the Sack Exchange and Gastineau's Dance, Keyshawn Johnson, and Rex Ryan's clown car - these are all pieces of a larger puzzle that is the Jet way. It all began with Wahoo McDaniel, and, by default, with Jim Price's departure to Denver, although Price might not have thought of it that way.

***

As Wikipedia points out, Dwayne White #67 "was nicknamed "The Road Grader", for his run blocking prowess and as such is also considered the first to receive that name." 

The first? You read that right. Personally, I didn't know the name was up for controversial discussion. It's a great nickname, though, and it fits White's size and position. What running back, especially the elder Freeman McNeil, Blair Thomas, and the assorted other unknowns who ran in the Jets backfield from 1990-94, would not have appreciated the road being paved before them with the bodies of opposing defenders?


I say "pave" here, but that's a misnomer. Dwayne White was a road grader. A grader prepares the road that will eventually be paved. A grader creates the road as it can first be imagined into being. The road paver then lays the asphalt. Dwayne White - laying blocks where he was supposed to, perhaps even traveling with runners on a sweep - would by definition therefore be grading roads unimagined and unheralded. In this way, the grader is really a misnomer. Guards and tackles always travel on the paths that all offensive lineman throughout all of the game's history have traveled. They don't create any new roads. They retread the old ones. They're really just pavers, or re-pavers.

But I love the name "Road Grader," and I'm glad that Dwayne White, who went on to play two more seasons for the Rams after leaving the Jets in 2004, was given that nickname. After all, none of us are really grading absolutely new ground in this life, but we like to believe we are, and given the pitiless nature of human life in the scope of historic time, maybe we deserve to believe it. What option do we have?

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