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DOWN FOR THE COUNT THE JETS SAID SO LONG TO COACH RICH KOTITE BY LOSING A CLUB-RECORD 15TH GAME, TO THE DOLPHINS

Dec. 30, 1996
Dec. 30, 1996

Table of Contents
Dec. 30, 1996

Faces In The Crowd

DOWN FOR THE COUNT THE JETS SAID SO LONG TO COACH RICH KOTITE BY LOSING A CLUB-RECORD 15TH GAME, TO THE DOLPHINS

Not all of them were drunken louts and cowards. Some of the
people crowding against the railing above the west end zone at
Giants Stadium on Sunday hoped to catch the gloves and chin
straps the players tossed up to them. But the majority, it
seemed, were clustered above the tunnel entrance so as not to
miss their chance to kick a man when he was down.

This is an article from the Dec. 30, 1996 issue Original Layout

Two days earlier Rich Kotite had announced that Sunday's game
against the Miami Dolphins would be his last as coach of the New
York Jets. On this day he looked on with his familiar expression
of beleaguerment and anguish as his charges executed yet another
of their patented come-from-ahead collapses (after leading 14-0,
the Jets lost 31-28), and now Kotite was being vilified as he
approached the tunnel. One fan, a fleshy, pallid fellow with a
mustache, held up a cardboard rectangle on which had been
scrawled: THE END OF AN ERROR.

Unoriginal and barely legible, the sign was nevertheless
accurate. The loss, New York's 15th of the season against one
aberrant win, gave Kotite a two-year record of 4-28 with the
Jets. At his final postgame press conference, Kotite singled out
Wayne Chrebet, his undersized, overachieving second-year wide
receiver out of Hofstra, who had scored New York's last
touchdown with 4:45 left and then had run to the sideline to
present the ball to his embattled coach. Sounding like actor
Billy Dee Williams, who as Gale Sayers said movingly at the end
of Brian's Song, "I love Brian Piccolo," Kotite said, "I love
Wayne Chrebet." He went on to describe him as "the glue of this
football team."

Chrebet needed to rub some of that glue on his hands earlier in
the day. The usually reliable wideout fumbled three times
against the Dolphins, and his final turnover, with 3:33 left,
cost the Jets a chance to double their 1996 win total. Said a
dejected Chrebet, "I wanted this one more than any game I ever
have. I tried to play outside myself, and I hurt the team."

Chrebet wanted to win one for Kotite, who had surprised his
players before last Friday's practice by announcing that he
intended to "step aside" after the Miami game. While no Jet
expected Kotite to survive this train-wreck season, few expected
him to fall on his sword before the final game.

The news seemed to sadden Kotite loyalists such as Chrebet, who
credits Kotite with giving him the opportunity to play in the
NFL, but it did not exactly plunge the dressing room into a
state of grief. After Friday's practice, wide receivers Henry
Bailey and Alex Van Dyke were belting out Christmas carols. Wide
receiver Webster Slaughter and running back Richie Anderson
merrily insulted one another while competing in a game called
Morta. Elder statesman and kicker Nick Lowery was not quite
convincing as he said, raising his voice to be heard over the
cacophony, "I think over the next 24 hours people will realize
this is a sad thing."

It was also a confusing thing. "I was not fired, I am not
quitting," Kotite said at the Friday press conference. What,
then, was he doing?

He was doing a friend a favor. Kotite and the Jets' owner,
fossil and fossil-fuel magnate Leon Hess, have long been fond of
one another. By sacking himself, Kotite, who will be paid
$400,000 for the remaining year on his contract, spared Hess the
trauma of doing it. Kotite also spared the New York media the
challenge of covering two coaches' demises on Monday, when, as
expected, Giants coach Dan Reeves was terminated. Reeves
immediately joined Mike Ditka and Bill Parcells, among others,
on the list of candidates for the Jets job.

Say this for Kotite--he went out with dignity. He resolutely
shouldered the blame for a catastrophic couple of seasons:
"Sometimes you work your tail off and things just don't work
out. The buck stops here."

In contrast to this blunt talk was the doublespeak of Jets
president Steve Gutman, who presides over the NFL's most
dysfunctional front office. Since December 1994, when general
manager Dick Steinberg put aside his club duties to fight a
losing battle with cancer (he died nine months later), the Jets
have not had a general manager. Asked if the Jets were leaning
toward hiring a G.M., Gutman replied, "The process will have its
own life and be reflective of opportunities that present
themselves." Elaborating on this nonanswer, he added, "I'm not
acknowledging or in any way commenting upon anything that we're
sure about, not sure about, thinking about, talking about. When
conditions resolve themselves, they will become apparent."

What has become apparent is that Gutman, who has been with New
York since 1977, and Hess are now and have for several years
been out of their league. Kotite's departure means the Jets are
shopping for their third coach in four seasons.

In Kotite's New York debut the Jets suffered the first of their
13 losses in 1995, a 52-14 crushing by the Dolphins. Having
signed off on more than $65 million in free-agent contracts
during the off-season, Hess was looking for improvement in the
record in '96. And the Jets did show improvement, dropping this
year's opener by a much narrower margin, 31-6 to the Denver
Broncos. In that game quarterback Neil O'Donnell, a free agent
who had been lured from the Pittsburgh Steelers by a five-year,
$25 million contract, completed seven passes and was sacked
eight times. Three weeks later O'Donnell, who last January went
down to defeat in the Super Bowl, lost the so-called Stupor
Bowl, which pitted the 0-3 Jets against the 0-3 Giants. A
fortnight after that, the Jets lost O'Donnell, who separated his
right shoulder in a 34-13 defeat by the Oakland Raiders. Six
games and five defeats thereafter--a 31-21 win over the Arizona
Cardinals on Oct. 27 ruined New York's otherwise perfect
season--O'Donnell returned...for pregame warmups. While
loosening up for a Dec. 1 game against the Houston Oilers, he
slipped on one of the letters in the word jets in the end zone,
making him, as one wag noted, the first quarterback in team
history to be sacked by a logo. O'Donnell tore a muscle in his
right calf, and his season came to a merciful end.

Kotite probably figured he was a goner by Dec. 14, when the
Philadelphia Eagles visited the Meadowlands. Still, on the eve
of that game he uncorked his most impassioned speech of the
season, reminding his players that Eagles management had
mistreated him before finally canning him after the 1994 season.
(Never mind that Kotite lost his last seven games that year,
turning a potential playoff team into a 7-9 also-ran.) Fired up,
the Jets jumped all over Philly and led 20-7 midway through the
fourth quarter before succumbing 21-20. Sunday's swoon against
Miami marked the fifth time this season that New York had blown
a double-digit lead.

After such a slovenly win, the old Jimmy Johnson would have
icily pointed out the slipshod defense his team had played and
that for the fifth straight game his club had received at least
seven penalties. Instead, as Miami's first-year coach, Johnson
could not conceal his pleasure as he strode toward the team bus
after beating the Jets to finish 8-8. "The main thing today was
to just go out and have a positive feeling finishing off this
first year," he said.

Johnson wrote this season off after the Dolphins were eliminated
from playoff contention on Dec. 15. Still, it would have galled
him to finish under .500, if for no other reason than the
gloating opportunity this would have afforded his predecessor,
Don Shula.

After charging to a 3-0 start, the Dolphins flopped, losing
eight of their next 11 games. Throughout the season Johnson
reined in quarterback Dan Marino, instructing him to hand off
the ball more frequently than he ever has in his 14-year career.
The idea was sound: By establishing a formidable running game,
Johnson hoped to take pressure off Marino, who's 35 and brittle,
and prolong his career. Results were mixed. Rookie back Karim
Abdul-Jabbar rushed for 152 yards against the Jets and became
the first Dolphin in 18 years to run for 1,000 yards in a
season. In other games, however, Miami's running game stalled.
Marino, having one of the worst statistical seasons of his
career, was deeply frustrated. It was a tough year for his
offensive linemen, too, most of whom were acquired primarily for
their pass-blocking skills.

As they groped for a new identity, the Dolphins were not always
entertaining. The same can't be said of the contretemps between
Johnson and Shula. Asked in October how he thought his successor
was doing, Shula replied, "He'll be judged at the end of the
season, just like I was judged." In addition to revamping the
offense, Johnson started five rookies on defense this season,
and all told, eight first-year players got lots of playing time.
In short, he will not be judged--by a reasonable,
nongrudge-bearing person, at any rate--for another season or two.

The battle of enormous South Florida egos really heated up two
weeks ago, when Johnson dissed Shula's famously complicated
playbook, which Johnson retained because he wanted to maintain
continuity. One reason the offense had struggled this season,
Johnson said, was that the playbook was bloated and would have
to be radically streamlined in the off-season. (Why it took him
most of the season to arrive at this conclusion, he did not
satisfactorily explain.) "I had to do the same thing with the
playbook in Dallas after two years with David," said Johnson,
referring to David Shula, Don's son, who served two years under
Johnson as the Dallas Cowboys' offensive coordinator before
being reassigned. Soon thereafter David went to the Cincinnati
Bengals as their receivers coach.

Sitting at his desk last Thursday morning, Johnson grunted
theatrically as he lifted the offending playbook. "Here it is,"
he said, flipping through its many pages. "O.K., I just traded
for you, now memorize that by Sunday. Or say you're a rookie who
played last year at East Carolina. Memorize that by Sunday."

O.K., we get your point, but wasn't that kind of cold, bringing
David into it? "I don't mean anything negative toward Don or
anybody else," said Johnson. "I've got to do what I've got to do
to win games."

And who knows that better than free safety Gene Atkins? On Oct.
6 the Dolphins were ahead of the Seattle Seahawks until Atkins
was beaten on an intermediate crossing route. Wideout Brian
Blades turned the catch into an 80-yard touchdown with 2:03
left, and Seattle won 22-15. The next afternoon Johnson made the
following announcement to reporters: "I don't want you to take
this as anything negative about Gene Atkins, but we have
released him."

Who would want a meanie like him for a coach? Several Jets,
that's who. "We need someone to put his foot down," says strong
safety Victor Green. "We need someone who will get the guys to
lift weights, to come watch film. We need a more aggressive
coach. We need harder practices, longer practices. We need a
coach who's going to fine guys, for whatever reason. [Under
Kotite] guys did what they wanted to."

Keyshawn Johnson, the Jets' outspoken rookie wide receiver,
seconds the motion. Last Saturday he declared, "I would love a
coach like Jimmy Johnson, someone who would come in here and
take control of the ship, someone who won't take no s---."

Keyshawn, the No. 1 pick in last spring's draft, has a book
coming out in April. Its title, Just Give Me the Damn Ball,
reflects the frustration he felt this season. He was often at
odds with offensive coordinator Ron Erhardt, developed virtually
no relationship with O'Donnell and even begrudged Chrebet his 84
catches this season.

Keyshawn, who finished with 63 receptions, felt Jets
quarterbacks were a bit fainthearted: too quick to dump the ball
off to Chrebet rather than look downfield for him. "You need to
know who your playmakers are," he says. Did he ever give
O'Donnell a piece of his mind? "I'll get him in the book," says
Keyshawn. "Then I'll have to play with him five years.
Hopefully, he'll shove it down my throat to prove me wrong."

Kotite played at Wagner College on Staten Island, Chrebet and
Jets rookie guard Dave Fiore at Hofstra on Long Island. "We lead
the league in guys from Hofstra," says Keyshawn acidly. "We've
got more guys from Hofstra than we do from USC or Notre Dame."
Both Kotite and Chrebet reached the NFL against all odds, and
the coach never made a secret of his affection for the plucky
wideout. Their bond bugged Keyshawn, whose teammates know the
quickest way to get his goat is to say, "Chrebet's going to make
the Pro Bowl!"

Last season Chrebet caught 66 passes, a Jets rookie record.
Keyshawn came into Sunday's game needing seven receptions to
break that mark. "What do you think?" he sarcastically asked a
reporter the day before the game. "You think I'll get the
record?"

Keyshawn had three catches on Sunday. "What did I tell you?" he
shouted, upon seeing the reporter as he came off the field.
"What did I tell you?" Before entering the dressing room, he
said, "I am so glad this season's over, it's not even funny." He
showered, changed and was one of the first Jets out of the
locker room, stopping only to flip his playbook into a trash
can.

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Quarterback Frank Reich and the Jets hit bottom with another come-from-ahead loss.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Chrebet, who was thankful just for the chance to play in the NFL, dropped the ball in Kotite's finale. [Wayne Chrebet dropping football in game]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Marino was off-balance for much of 1996 as he tried to adjust to a new philosophy. [Dan Marino throwing football]COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER Kotite's befuddled mien made him an easy target of critics, but some blame the owner for the Jets' mess. [Rich Kotite]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO [See caption above--New York Jets fans holding banner critical of Leon Hess]