Monday, September 10, 2007

Some Clues to the Future Emerge From Week 1

Sports of The Times
September 11, 2007


In New York City, where the news media specializes in making mountains out of mole hills, the area’s two professional football teams — the Jets and Giants — have quarterback issues right out of the box.

The Giants’ Eli Manning, playing perhaps the best game of his career against Dallas on Sunday, sustained a right shoulder injury that may force him to miss a start.

The Jets face a more delicate problem: Chad Pennington, the 31-year-old quarterback who has battled back from an assortment of shoulder and arm injuries, was temporarily knocked out of Sunday’s 38-14 loss to the New England Patriots with a high ankle sprain. Pennington returned to the game, but judging from the nasty reaction of many fans, there seems to be a sense — maybe a consensus — that Pennington is not the one to lead the Jets to the Super Bowl. But who is — Kellen Clemens?

Welcome to Jets/Giants 2007.

The opening of an N.F.L. season is like the first day of school: fresh, new back-to-school-clothes, new classmates, new teachers, the promise of a clean slate. Unlike baseball, basketball and hockey and their marathon seasons, the N.F.L.’s 16-game regular season gives every contest, every quarter and every play great weight.

So while a result in Week 1 is not necessarily a death sentence or a ticket to the Super Bowl, you can draw some general conclusions from the first day of school.

If you’re an Oakland Raiders fan, you can look at the season-opening loss to Detroit and safely predict another disappointing season. Perhaps Raiders fans should petition the image-conscious commissioner, Roger Goodell, to take the reins from Al Davis, the Raiders’ managing general partner, and have the N.F.L. operate Oakland as a trust until the league finds a suitable owner.

Similarly, I could fully understand Atlanta Falcons fans who watched a 24-7 loss to Minnesota petitioning United States District Judge Henry E. Hudson to sentence Michael Vick as harshly as he pleases — if he will just let him play for the Falcons on Sundays.

What Jets fans should take away from Week 1 is that the Jets and Patriots are still oceans apart. When the Patriots lost receiver Deion Branch, Tom Brady complained. The franchise then gave him Randy Moss.

Pete Kendall, the Jets’ former valuable veteran guard, wanted a million dollars more. The franchise traded him, and if Sunday is any indication, there is no replacement in view.

A rejuvenated Moss treated the Jets’ secondary like a collection of schoolboys. The Patriots treated the Jets the way the Patriots usually treat the Jets: like little brothers who needed to be reminded who was still the boss.

Moss gives the Patriots personality and reminds Jets fans that their team really doesn’t have one. Organizations like New England, Indianapolis, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and, recently, San Diego, have mastered the art of getting players who fit into their respective identities.

The Jets are a franchise in search — for the last 38 years — of an identity.

Without a Curtis Martin, there is no offensive player who terrifies the opposition; no one who keeps coordinators awake trying to figure out “how do we stop this guy?”

Coach Eric Mangini’s message after Sunday’s dismal loss was to change the team’s focus as rapidly as possible. “It’s never about what happened,” he said. “It’s about how you respond to what happened. It’s about the adversity; it’s how you respond to the adversity.”

Jets fans don’t respond so well. Never have.

When Pennington was injured in the third quarter, a large number of moronic Jets fans actually cheered, validating arguments in some quarters that football fans — witnesses to an absolutely brutal sport — are only a few steps removed from devotees of animal fights.

Who would cheer a player’s injury?

Pennington’s replacement, Kellen Clemens, said yesterday that he was flabbergasted by what he heard.

“For anybody who knows Chad, there should be nothing but concern for him at that moment,” he said.

Clemens said his wife did not notice that he was going into the game but cried for Pennington. “She was crying because he was hurt,” he said.

Someone quipped, “Are you sure she wasn’t crying because you were going in?”

Clemens laughed.

You can laugh in early September with 15 games to go because the end of an N.F.L. season rarely looks like the beginning.

But if the Giats lose Eli Manning and the Jets lose Chad Pennington for any significant time, pro football season in New York will be a catastrophe.

And that’s no hype.



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