January 20, 2011

You have to love it: a brash, loose-cannon, Us-Against-Everybody-Else franchise struts and barks its way through the playoffs, following the lead of a verbose, defiant rotund head coach with an X-rated vocabulary -- and a distinctly aberrant behavioral quirk.

They topple the favored establishment teams, and gloat over the corpses. They're people, not drones.

True, they flashed a few less-than-admirable qualities over the season. Their regard for the opposite sex is somewhere between Neanderthal and Andrew Dice Clay. One of their stars arrived from another team with a legal rap sheet that covers all the bases. Another star blew twice the legal limit as the sun rose -- on a practice day.

They were near the top of the league in penalties -- and on top of it in distractions. They not only bent the rules, but also brazenly broke them.

But what's better, in an increasingly corporate-commercial league, than a bad-boy team that still marches to the cocky beat of its own drummer -- and that could give a bleep about what everyone else thinks, as it aims for the Super Bowl? A team you either love or hate, with no in-between?

Man, do I miss the 1976 Oakland Raiders.

But since John Madden's outlaw, Super-Bowl-winning silver-and-black are all grandfathers now, I'm going to root for the rebellious, hilarious, weird-ass Jets: a beacon of refreshing chaos in a league so tightly wrapped that you can get fined for wearing the wrong sock, and defensive backs have to file in advance for permission to cover receivers. Today, as the old Raider tight end Raymond Chester told me, "players are independent contractors. They are each mini-sports corporations."

But every now and then -- far too infrequently -- the NFL, despite its determination to homogenize its entertainment product, produces a team of winning renegades who seem to muscle their way to the top by the sheer weight of their irreverence. A team whose innocent-outlaw vibe gives a collective nod to their fist-flying mercenary ancestors. The Ryan Express is a direct descendant of the Ken Stabler Badasses. And the game is better for it.

Now, to be clear: I don't endorse Santonio Holmes' checkered past, from weed possession to charges of domestic abuse to suspensions for banned substances; his Raider predecessor in the category of all-around bad-boy, the defensive end John Matuszak, never actually tried to hurt anyone, except himself. Matuszak shot guns into restaurant ceilings and out of car windows, and ingested a myriad of substances.

Nor am I condoning Braylon Edwards' September DUI arrest at 5 a.m. The old Raiders' drinking habits never actually resulted in an arrest -- just a few shattered plate-glass windows, a few bar-top stripteases, a Harley being driven through a restaurant and a fullback betting he could dive into a shot glass (and losing the bet, though he did hit the glass.)

The Jets' sexist treatment of a comely Mexican TV reporter, and Brett Favre's alleged sexts? Way over the line. When the Raiders mistreated women, they always did it with the woman's consent. When topless queen Carol Doda used her ample endowments to stop the puck at the annual air-hockey tournament, she was honored to have been asked. When linebacker Phil Villapiano asked a local girl to interrupt a Raiders' practice by circling the field dressed in nothing but socks and sneakers, she was adequately compensated. True, Pat Toomay married a bartendress to one of her customers, even though he wasn't legally a minister of anything ... but hey, the team paid for their honeymoon in Tahoe.

Of course, Jets strength coach Sal Alosi tripping a Dolphins' special-teams guy was clearly a felony, but, in a clear echo of the old Raider ideology, it was the act of a man willing to do anything to win ... like Gene Upshaw wrapping his forearms in tape and pads, getting pregame approval by the officials, then returning to the locker room to soak them in hot water, so they'd harden into casts. Or Fred Biletnikoff using so much Stickum on his hands that his trainer had to hold Freddy's halftime cigarettes as he puffed on them. Or George Atkinson and Jack Tatum doing everything short of laying land mines to keep receivers out of their territory.

Rex Ryan's apparent foot fetish? A tad stranger than Madden's fear of flying, born of his intense claustrophobia -- a neurosis that made every Raiders flight an adventure, whether Pinky was being sponged off by a stewardess or was swearing at the pilot. But both represent a refreshing slice of the bizarre in a fraternity of interchangeables. And at least Ryan has a sex life, when most of his peers spend their nights on a foldout office couch after dissecting the opponent's kickoff-return schemes until 3:30 a.m.

Of course, he also has something else: a refreshingly uncensored mouth. Ryan's verbal madness ("This one is me against Manning! This is me against Belichick! This is me against Hu Jintao!") clearly has a method: it takes the spotlight off the players who don't want it ... and empowers those who do want it, like Bart Scott, to say wonderful things like "The Patriots defense couldn't stop a nosebleed."

In truth the Raiders didn't verbally bait or boast. They let their image precede them -- and teams feared for their lives before the opening kickoff. Ryan's Jets cultivated their woolly image by letting the Hard Knocks cameras into the locker room. Now, more often than not, when a team lets HBO into training camp, the ensuing season is disastrous. These Jets have gone farther than any Hard Knocks team: the exposure fueled their fire and honed their NFL black-sheep profile ... as if it needed honing. (You think the league likes having a head coach with a foot fetish? An owner who questioned the legitimacy of the coin flip that gave the Giants the first game in the new stadium? A cornerback who has trouble remembering all of his kids' names?)

Ryan's true bond with Madden (who finished his coaching career with a better winning percentage than Lombardi's) is his trust in his players to be men, and do their jobs on the field, and then give them enough rope not to hang themselves, but be themselves.

Like the Raiders, these Jets are fueled by their faith that the organization has their back -- not to mention the certainty that they'll make the playoffs. Under Madden, the Raiders made the playoffs eight of 10 years. Ryan is two for two. And I'm guessing that, after this week, his next headline quote will be either, "This is me against Halas!" or "This is me against Lombardi!"

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