Has the fun run out for the Jets?
The late afternoon of Nov. 14 was chilly on the shores of Lake Erie, but it was just warm enough for an impromptu party.
The Jets had decked the Cleveland Browns in a wild overtime game, and now, an hour later, on a concrete walkway outside Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Jets' head coach, Rex Ryan, and general manager, Mike Tannenbaum, had gathered with others to celebrate with a fistful of cigars.
The win was significant -- it featured a sibling rivalry, a former Jets head coach, and wideout Braylon Edwards facing his old team -- but I was fascinated with the boldness of the scene at a visiting stadium in the middle of the season. As the Jets' buses idled a few feet away, those cigars kept on burning.
I scribbled a few lines in my notebook and smiled. Rex's Jets. This was how they rolled.
One month later, there are no cigars burning for the Jets, though they might opt for a smoke flare. The team that has spent the season squarely in the spotlight has tumbled in consecutive weeks in remarkable fashion. Two weeks ago, in a game billed as the season's biggest, the New England Patriots spent three hours pummeling them on national television.
Last week, in another AFC East tussle, the Miami Dolphins defeated them in a game memorable for the boorish behavior of the Jets' strength and conditioning coach. In the span of six days featuring two spectacular flameouts, the trajectory of the Jets' season shifted.
"I think we are confident," Ryan said Monday, "but we are also not blind."
Neither is anyone who's watching the Jets.
What is most striking is how the Jets ended up here, streaking in the wrong direction at 9-4, and staring at back-to-back roadies in Pittsburgh and Chicago. Mark Sanchez, a wonder boy just weeks ago, is searching for confidence. The offensive line, so often impenetrable, is fighting injury and springing leaks. The defense, while still among the league's best, is hardly the unstoppable force it has been built up to be.
Even worse, the Jets have lost that bully's swagger, the one that alternates between endearing and maddening.
"We noticed that when you hit them in the mouth [first], they tend to be the ones getting off the ground second," said Dolphins wide receiver Brandon Marshall after Sunday's game.
Added Dolphins linebacker and long-time Jets nemesis Channing Crowder: "They haven't won anything. They act tough, but they're not tough. They're a good team, but they're not what they come off as they are."
The Jets, of course, are complicit in this scrutiny, at times have seemed to even beg for it. From the moment Ryan accepted the head coaching job two years ago (predicting that the Jets would be meeting President Obama "soon enough") the Jets have straddled the line of confident and over-the-top cocky.
The Jets were made for HBO's cameras, which trailed them all summer on its Hard Knocks series. The shows were funny, vulgar, brash, bold, everything that the Jets seem to encompass.
But there can be a flip side to that heat and noise, and maybe the Jets are figuring that out. In 2010, their behavior as an organization has been a constant storyline -- from Ryan flipping the bird to heckling Dolphins fans, to the league investigating the Jets for their treatment of a female reporter, to Edwards' arrest for DUI, to the Jets' strength and conditioning coach, Sal Alosi, tripping Miami's Nolan Carroll as he raced down the sideline Sunday. Alosi later admitted to ordering five inactive players to form a wall to impede Carroll's progress as well.
Ryan was asked if the Alosi incident would damage the perception of the team -- a perception that has become increasingly negative.
"This is a terrible thing that happened -- there's no doubt," Ryan said of the incident, for which the Jets fined Alosi $25,000 on Monday and suspended him without pay for the rest of the season, then increased that suspension to indefinitely on Wednesday. "We had a DUI. I know we had all that stuff. I'd rather not rehash all that. It would be an unfortunate thing if that were the case."
December in the NFL isn't the time for releasing statements, suspending employees and apologizing to the public, but that is where the Jets find themselves with three weeks left in the season. Seeing how the Jets respond over these final days will be as fascinating as anything they offered on HBO.
As a goof, I went back and watched one of Ryan's old speeches from a Hard Knocks episode, the one where he colorfully tells his team to go eat a snack.
"Can we have fun?" Ryan asked his players that day. "You're damn right, I demand that we have fun."
Ryan went on to tell the team that there's a difference between having fun and acting like boneheads, a notion that the Jets have failed to grasp at various points this season. Maybe they should watch the speech again, Ryan included. It might be the first step to picking themselves off the mat.
Then again, that's the problem with playing the role of the bully. Once he gets knocked out, everybody on the schoolyard knows it, and nobody looks at the bully quite the same way ever again -- including the bully himself.