Sunday, September 09, 2007

After Off-Season of Grandeur, Hint of Delusions in a Defeat

Sports of The Times
September 10, 2007


Celebrity is heady stuff for a former ball boy. For the past few months, Eric Mangini has indulged in his overnight sensational-ness by trying to top his own Rubik’s Cube mind.

He unveiled Mozart to stimulate the brains of his Jets players at practice. He whisked out surprise guest speakers to motivate and inspire his team. He played into his own instant fame with his cameo as Mangenius on “The Sopranos.”

So outside the box, so Mensa, so Bill Belichick. That was Mangini’s rep for the past year. And yet as the Jets’ season-opening misery unfolded against his former employer yesterday at the Meadowlands, Mangini and his sidekick personnel wiz, Mike Tannenbaum, revealed how far removed they are from the brilliance of Bill.

For one thing, they are dimwits at math. The Jets made a $1 million mistake when they refused to pay guard Pete Kendall — the mentor and anchor of their offensive line — that negligible extra amount to make him happy.

Even Belichick, the prize winner in the socially awkward sweepstakes, understands the value of joy. He used the off-season to make up with Tom Brady by fetching a reinvigorated Randy Moss to please his quarterback, who had felt lost since the departure of Deion Branch before last season.

Meanwhile, Mangini left Chad Pennington unloved, unprotected and vulnerable to calamity.

The inevitable occurred in the third quarter. There was Pennington on the field, left at the mercy of the Patriots’ second-string right end, Jarvis Green. In an instant, Green wrapped up and spun down Pennington, whose knee buckled and ankle rolled in unnatural ways.

“Honestly, I don’t know what happened,” said Jets left guard Adrien Clarke, Kendall’s replacement, who along with left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson couldn’t stop Green or anyone else as the Patriots racked up five sacks. “I’m not sure what went on. I just happened to turn around and I saw Chad on the ground.

“That’s our job, to get out there, hands down, and protect him. We didn’t do a great job of that.”

Pennington wasn’t let down by his line. He was let down by his coach.

Is he Mangenius or Mandevious? The way Mangini left Pennington exposed to enter this season is close to cruel. Is his system so exceptional that Pennington is simply a widget in his machinery? Is his strategy to push Pennington out so he can bring in his own master QB? Is his idea to copy his idol, Belichick, who once cast away Drew Bledsoe for Brady?

Whatever Mangini is up to, he stood there, hands on his hips, as Pennington, who is keenly aware of the expanding Kellen Clemens fan club, limped back onto the field with the Jets down, 28-7, with seven minutes left in the third quarter.

Yes, Pennington gamely led the Jets on a touchdown drive, but it included a warped play call from Mangini: a quarterback sneak. Pennington pushed off on his bad leg, struggled to leap into a pile, all on a quick count that drew the Patriots offside.

“At that time, Coach is going to call the plays to help us win,” Pennington said. “And if I’m out there, I’m saying I can run our plays.”

Fair enough. But even Pennington — with a pain threshold fit for a sword eater — had to end the absurdity of Mangini’s wicked decision making. It was Pennington who took himself out in the fourth quarter, not Mangini.

“He left it in my hands,” Pennington said. “With six minutes left, down 31-14, I had to, for the first time, be brutally honest with myself as far as injuries are concerned, and say that without the threat of the run, I’m kind of a sitting duck.”

Everyone saw the obvious but Mangini. In the last throes of a rout, the Patriots were playing the pass, with an immobilized Pennington as an easy target.

In reality, the bull’s-eye existed before the game. The risk to Pennington was high from the moment the Jets decided to cut coupons to assemble their offensive line, to cut corners in preserving the health of Pennington.

Pennington deserved better. Certainly, Kendall was not the god of left guards. Who knows if Pennington would have been hurt anyway? But Kendall was a solid ounce of protection in the prevention of a pound of injury to Pennington. Perhaps a prevention plan didn’t enter Mangini’s beautiful mind.

Does that make his Mangenius more Mandubious? There is no doubting his creativity and ingenuity as a coach. And he rightly earned praise for his rookie season with the Jets last year.

Mangini may indeed rise again. But celebrity can lead to delusions of grandeur. And fame can cloud even the most gifted thinkers. All the props and ploys and playacting didn’t translate into preparation for the Patriots.

Mangini wasn’t outsmarted by Belichick. He and Tannenbaum outsmarted themselves.



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