New Yorkers like to think they have access to the best and most and worst of everything, and quite often they do, whether it happens to be pasta or murders, music or shouting, architecture or cab wrecks, or even, as in the year 1976, the most of the worst in professional football.
Last Sunday the two New York teams came home after four weeks on the road with a combined record of 0 and 8. The New Yorker who owed no particular allegiance to either the Giants or the Jets but had the know-how to obtain a ticket to one of two stadiums was faced with a curious dilemma. Should he try to find the New Jersey swamp where the Giants had moved and watch what used to be the darlings of Manhattan lose to the Dallas Cowboys while christening their new home? Or should he perhaps go out to windy old Shea and watch what used to be the darlings of Queens play a game they might have a chance to win, inasmuch as the Jets were matched against the Buffalo Bills, a team that is every bit as inept and possibly as unhappy?
There were side benefits to each choice. By going across the Hudson River into dark and strange New Jersey to watch the gang that still claims New York as its nest—but has carefully replaced the familiar "NY" headgear logo with "Giants," in case anybody from Essex Fells or East Orange notices—the New Yorker could at least be treated to seeing what a solid club looks like, this being the Cowboys. And by going out to the Jet-Buffalo game the extra treat would be to visualize a couple of millionaires, Joe Namath and O. J. Simpson, combating the media. Earlier in the week both Namath and Simpson had sounded off about the same press that has helped make them wealthy. Such ironies are not new to sport, however.
In any event, something special was happening on both flanks of Manhattan last Sunday afternoon, and about 135,000 people went to the trouble to see it live. In Shea Stadium the fans got very little of Namath passing or Simpson running, and while it can hardly be said that they were served up a thriller of a game, at least they could leave the place with the memory of a win. The Jets outgroped the Bills 17-14 for their first victory of the season but, as any hard-core New Yorker knew, even the old Titans with Al Dorow throwing end-over-ends won occasionally.
October 17, 1976
At almost the very same moment that Pat Leahy was placekicking the winning field goal for the Jets, a group of astute Giant fans over in the new stadium in the Hackensack marshes was hoisting a homemade banner which said it all as far as New York's other team was concerned: BRAND NEW STADIUM—SAME OLD GIANTS.
By then it was obvious that the Cowboys were going to christen the premises with a relatively easy victory (the final score was 24-14) and leave the Giants, for the first time in their history, with an 0-5 record. If these Giants are not really as bad as some recent Giant teams, they are going to have a splendid experience trying to prove it, for, as everyone knows, they are in the NFL East, tough as divisions go, and overall their schedule looks to be a horror.
It had been suspected by the more optimistic Giant enthusiasts that moving into the new stadium would inspire the Craig Mortons and Larry Csonkas and John Medenhalls into the sort of mood that might produce a spectacular upset. After all, they would have more than 76,000 partisan throats to call on for emotional sustenance. Realists knew better, if only by reading the local newspapers, in which the Giant press corps had of late been forced to retreat to the team's punter, Dave Jennings, to find any sort of hero to write about.
The game itself was hardly more than one quarter old when the Cowboys proved they could do just about anything they wished. Roger Staubach and his legions of outstanding runners and receivers made nine straight first downs and 14 points the first two times they controlled the football. It was 17-0 at half-time, and most Giant fans probably settled back in their seats to dwell on what the stadium will be like in future years when the swamp isn't seeping through the floor of the service level and the players in the blue uniforms more closely resemble the old fellows that were introduced before the opening kickoff, the Giant champions of 1956. Conerly, Rote, Grier, Webster and that bunch.
It is a fine stadium the Giants have, a pure football parlor with comfortable seats, but in obtaining it the club lost a lot of hearts, no doubt some soul, and probably in the long run an identity with New York City and the glories of its past. The loyal and faithful can argue all they want that Hackensack is as close to the womb of Giant love—midtown Manhattan's taverns—as Yankee Stadium was, but they cannot take it out of New Jersey. It would, in fact, be appropriate if the team one day became the New Jersey Giants, in name and logo, because, well, there is hardly anyone around these days who still refers to the Chicago Bears as the Decatur Staleys.
Actually, the Giants more than likely are no worse this season than the Jets, and this has been more or less true for the past few years. It could be argued that the Giants have tried harder than the Jets to do something about it. Getting Craig Morton, giving Csonka most of Wall Street, changing coaches, etc.
On the other hand, the Jets are still waiting for Namath to return to his Super Bowl form of eight years ago, almost as if the next Brut commercial will bring it about. It was not Namath who beat the Bills, incidentally, although he finally threw his first touchdown pass of the season, a two-yard lob to Tight End Mike Osborne. The pitiable effort on the part of the Bills was largely the difference. They fumbled a lot, and O.J. did not get the ball often, and the entire second half was mostly a question of which backup quarterback, the Jets' Richard Todd or Buffalo's Gary Marangi, could hold his team back more consistently.
They blew the proper buildup for the game. A shrewd Madison Avenue type would have labeled it the Millionaires vs. the Media. Earlier in the week it was being written that Namath's passing skills had deteriorated. This has been true for quite a while, of course, but nobody around New York wanted to admit it, Namath being one of the few sports celebs the city has to brag about. But, alas, it leaked. The fact that Joe had not thrown a touchdown pass in four games, and the Jets were 0 and 4, was too much to overlook.
"Am I doing anything differently?" Namath said testily to a writer. "Am I missing any reads? Look at the films. It's the media. I'm sick and tired of it."
It was not known whether several members of the media stepped forward to volunteer to take the blame for Namath's poor throwing statistics. Perhaps many of them should have, having already received from him over the years the rewards they cherished most: any number of friendly hellos, up to three or four a season.
Curiously enough, the normally amiable O.J. was having something of the same kind of trouble up in Buffalo. A newspaper chap had written that Simpson wasn't rushing so terrifically and that his home life was closer to Mary Hartman's than the little house on the prairie.
O.J. countered by attacking through radio interviews. He accused the writer of telling lies. He wrote a letter and had his lawyer write a letter, and the saga continued, and it was all very messy and isn't over yet.
Nothing can be proved by any of this, naturally, except something that mature people already know: stars vs. the media is a standoff. The press will always have the last word, but the stars will console themselves with swimming pools and sports cars.
Where all of this leaves New Yorkers is difficult to say. Right now, in all likelihood, most of them are laughing at the state of their pro football teams, for New Yorkers learned long ago, way before anyone else, that you have to laugh and stay nimble to survive.
New York humor is like this: two guys are in a saloon, a Giant fan and a Jet fan, and they are arguing about who could have had the better team if the clubs had drafted properly. The Giant fan has come up with such names as Ken Anderson, Lydell Mitchell, Lynn Swann, Nat Moore. Jack Youngblood, Mel Blount and Jake Scott, among others, and the Jet fan has come up with Ken Stabler, Franco Harris, Terry Metcalf, Cliff Branch, Jack Ham, Bill Bergey and Elvin Bethea, among others, and they have declared it a standoff, and they have bought each other a round of drinks, and the Jet guy has said, "Here's to Rocky Thompson," and the Giant guy has said, "Yeah, well, here"s to Al Woodall then."