Monday, January 25, 2010

The End of the Beginning

I delicately placed the mostly-full, blue-and-gold can of light beer down on the wood floor, to the left of my chair, when Jets rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez deftly pulled the hand off back from hard-charging, hulking rookie running back Shonn Greene. Was this it? The predictable, yet-still-effective big play (usually play action, occasionally accompanied by a rollout) that the Jets have been attempting a few offensive series into each game in recent weeks? Why, yes. I think it was.

When Sanchez pump faked, I inched toward the edge of my seat. I leaned over, hands on knees, fingers digging into my knee caps through the same gray pants that I'd been wearing on game day for nearly a month. The ball traced a precise arc downfield, that any T-82 calculator would have envied. Drop-prone receiver Braylon Edwards shook his defender by faking in towards the post and then turning his route back out and up the sideline. I was now up and out of the same leather armchair that I'd sat in two Saturdays ago when the Jets upset the Bengals on a blustery afternoon in Cincinnati, and nearly knocked over the three pillars of empty cans to my left. As No. 17 raced along the sideline, I was striding across the living room, across the expanse of the beautiful flat-screen television, tip-toing the edge of the area rug (that really does tie the living room together, although not as securely as the trio of framed sketches of Roman landmarks hanging above the television) with my hands out in front of my chest screaming BRAAAAAAAAAAAY-LLLLUUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNNNN!!!!!!!

And then he caught the ball. Dr. Dropsies, himself, caught the long bomb. Further validating my theory that he can make every play provided his feet are not already in the endzone. I raised my hands up over my head to signal touchdown. He broke down the sideline. Edwards crossed in to the endzone, flipped away the ball and this was happening.

After two playoff upsets and a week of maybe-well-possibly-they-could conejcture, this was really happening. Edwards didn't drop the ball. HOLY MOTHERFUCKING BEARDED HIPPIE JESUS ON A STREET CORNER THE J-E-T-S ARE GOING TO THE SUPER BOWL! Am I going to the Super Bowl? HELL, YEAH. I'M GOING TO THE FUCKING SUPER BOWL!?!?!?!?!?! Is there time to drive. No. I'm flying. To MIAMI. WHAT IS THIS MIAMI BEACH? YES, IT IS. How much will it cost? Who cares! I can't believe Braylon caught that ball! Oh my god. The Jets are beating the Colts. This is really for realsies totally happening! They are gonna pull this off!

There were a half dozen people in the same living room, watching the game, watching me. The were likekly wary of me breaking something in my exuberance but they were also caught up in what seemed to be happening. I was laughing. Yelling. Clapping. Totally caught up in the moment. And, what a moment. I mean, what a throw. What a catch. And that speed burst to reach the endzone unmolested. What a beautiful moment. Absolutely gorgeous.

And thoroughly fleeting.

Because even though the Jets took a 17-6 lead late in the first half on another Sanchez touchdown pass, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning spent virtually every minute after that second Jets' strike showing that he may in fact be the very best quarterback in the history of the National Football League. He gave up on No. 1 wide receiver Reggie Wayne. He called back the rescue boats and left him to rot on Revis Island, instead exploiting the rest of the Jets' injury-depleted secondary by threading passes to Austin Collie, Pierre Garcon and Dallas Clark. Manning discarded many of the plays coming in from the sideline. Mostly the ones that didn't call for him to throw the ball. He might has well have taken the field for the second half wearing surgical scrubs or a hangman's hood. He was precise, professional, playing without malice or mercy. My green waves of euphoria crashed on the broad shoulder pads of Peyton. And he picked up his teammates and the middle-aged men who coach those teammates and placed them on those very same shoulders and carried them to Miami.

All of Sanchez's improvements in recent weeks, all of the yards accrued with Greene's and Thomas Jones' running this year, the exemplary work of the offensive and defensive lines, and Brad Smith's pass that I've been forecasting to anyone who would listen. All of that stuff. Wasn't enough against Peyton. Once he got his lineman positioned in such a way that he wasn't underfoot after each dropback then he was unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

And, I'm fine with it. Because for about 20 minutes I was as happy as I've ever been as a sports fan. From the moment that Sanchez lofted that play-action pass to Edwards right through the moment the Jets kicked off after Dustin Keller's touchdown catch, I thought my team was going to the Super Bowl. And, I know that two teams go every year. And they have been for a long time. But not the Jets. Not those same ol' Jets. Those Jets usually aren't even good enough to break your heart. Like the Knicks were for so long. And like the Mets have been recently. That second quarter Edwards TD catch will go down alongside Endy Chavez's over-the-wall catch in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCs, Mike Piazza's game-tying home run in Game 6 of the 1999 NLCS, John Starks' dunk against the Bulls in 1993, and Larry Johnson's 4-point play in 1999 as one of those New York sports moments* that meant everything right up until it was rendered largely trivial by an ensuing defeat.

But even if these Jets are not going to the Super Bowl. Even if I'm not going to the Super Bowl. And, I'm not. We all shared that fleeting exultation for a few minutes on a Sunday afternoon. We all felt that joy. And it was real. Even if it was ill-founded. And, I'll take it. Because the beauty of sports fandom is those moments. Those ALL CAPS moments. Those I CAN'T BELIEVE THAT SOMETHING I WANTED TO HAPPEN IS HAPPENING AND THAT A GROUP OF STRANGERS TO WHOM I REFER TO AS "WE" HAVE ACCOMPLISHED SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT moments. And, you've got to take them when you can, even if they come in a loss. Especially if they come in a loss. Because that's life. At least if you're a fan of the Mets, Knicks and Jets.

Sunday was a great day for this Jets fan. Mostly because of the first two thirds of that second quarter when I believed with the fervor of the newly converted. When I was as happy as any Colts or Saints fan will be in two week's time. And, just because of a football game. But also because I do believe the 2010 Jets have every chance to be better than the 2009 Jets. And that sort of optimism is a rare commodity. And, I'm going to grab onto it just like Edwards gathered that long pass from Sanchez (or maybe I'll grab it with the much-surer hands of Jericho Cotchery). Throughout the second half of the 1990s, the Knicks were playing with desperation in the postseason. They needed to win. Or else. Every shot was their last best shot. And the Mets were always pushing that rock up hill like Sisyphus only to have it roll back on them. The run in 2006 wasn't so much the start of the run as it was their best gilt-edged chance. But I think with Rex Ryan behind the wheel that these Jets have everything in front of them. I can only hope for a few more moments like the one I had on Sunday. And, of course, it would be nice if one of those moments came at the end of season that they close with a victory.
"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."-Winston Churchill
*And, when I say New York sports moments, I'm talking about those Jets-Mets-Knicks fans out there whose collective suffering can stand right up there alongside just about anyone's. When I think of New York sports fanhood I think of the gritty green-collar fans who've been faked spiked on, had their hearts ripped out by Michael Jordan and been witness to the self-immolation of their best and brightest (Doc and Daryl, I'm looking at you two). When I think of New York sports I'm not thinking about the luxury box crowd at Yankees Stadium or the AARP folks at Giants games who are more likely to tell you sit down then to high five you. But, I digress. And, I don't mean to knock Yankees fans and Giants fan but only to point out that there is another side of this city and its environs. The side that isn't Wall Street and Westchester. The side that is two jobs and a leak in your kitchen but hanging in their and keeping your head up.

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