Monday, December 20, 2010

Monday Mudita

A Tale of Two Punters

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
When recalling the Jets' season-righting, white knuckle victory at a snow-dusted and frostbitten Heinz Field yesterday, there are few plays that will be talked about many times over by fans and talk radio hosts.

1) The defense on the final play, when Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (who had been flushed to his left but not touched by the visitor's mostly absent rush) attempted a pass to tight end Matt Spaeth with zeroes on the game clock. Spaeth did get his hands to the ball, but so did Jets cornerback Marquis Cole, as his momentum carried him toward the sideline. The ball hit the turf out of bounds as did all other players involved in the play. Game over.

2) Mark Sanchez's scamper on a naked bootleg for the Jets' first offensive touchdown since Al Toon was running fly routes. Coincidentally, that scoring play left the Jets' offense celebrating in precisely the same spot where the defense broke up the Steelers' last gasp attempt to win.

3) Jason Taylor's meastly tackle of Steelers running back Melwelde Moore in the endzone for a safety. A play which accomplished three things, at least. First, it reminded me that Taylor was still on the team. Second, it staked the Jets to a lead only surmountable with touchdown. Lastly, it led me to send the following text message to a fellow Jets fan: We just got our balls back. And the ball.

Each of these three plays were pivotal, together they tell the story of the game. Almost. Because one other key play is missing. A play that occurred shortly before Taylor was clapping his hands together over his head in the endzone. After consecutive incomplete passes from the Pittsburgh 32-yard line by Mark Sanchez (to Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes, respectively), Jets punter Steve Weatherford lofted a punt skyward. It dropped just shy of the goal line and was downed by special teams gunner Marquice Cole at the 3-yard line. On the next play, Taylor dropped Moore in the endzone for the safety.

The punt was one of two that Weatherford laid gently inside the Pittsburgh 5-yard line. After the Jets' post-safety possession, he dropped the ball on the Pittsburgh 8, which is the spot where the Steelers embarked on their adventurous last drive of the day. If not for the punt downed by Cole then there is no safety. If there is no safety then there is no need for the Steelers to push for a touchdown as time expires. Therefore, there may have been no bigger play in the game than Weatherford to Cole. And, if this drive-me-to-drink, last-second victory proves pivotal in a deep Jets' run into the postseason then perhaps we'll look back on that punt in Pennsylvania as one of the keystone plays of the season.

A former housemate and lifelong Giants fan used to regale me with the feats and feets of Jeff Feagles. These songs of praise were as regular and relentless as church bells each Sunday. Even when the Giants were flush with talent Super Bowl bound, he would insist that the punter was the best player on the team. Well, except for that one crazy night (I believe it was after a late comeback against the Broncos) when he was screaming "Eli is better than Peyton" for all the world to here. Other than that day, it was Feagles this and Feagles that.

There is no doubt that he missed the retired punter yesterday when the Giants' freshman special teamer Matt Dodge lined a punt directly to Eagles burner DeSean Jackson in the waning moments of regulation play at the Meadowlands. Although the G-Men had broken down on offense and defense during Philly's comeback bid, one good mediocre play on special teams could have sent the game to overtime. Alas, Dodge, who appeared quite nervous as he paced the field before his final punt of the day, seemed to panic after a high snap, outkicking his coverage. Perhaps more concerned with just getting the ball away than with its direction, he put it in the one place that Giants coach Tom Coughlin didn't want it: in the hands of Jackson.

If the Giants aren't able to right their season next week in Green Bay then perhaps this punt will be considered the pivotal moment in the latest season-ending collapse for this group. With so many big name players on both sides of the ball for both local teams, who would have thought that two punts just a few hours apart could really make all the difference?