Coslet's Life in Big Apple Is a Big Pain : NFL: Critical media have made Jet coach, a native Californian, a typically jaded New Yorker.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seventeen years in Cincinnati--eight as a Bengal player and nine more as a coach--didn't change him. Bruce Coslet, who was born, raised and went to college in Northern California, still thought of himself as a "California guy."

But after less than three years in New York, he's now calling himself "a typically cynical New Yorker."

Coslet became head coach of the New York Jets on Feb. 6, 1990. The team, 4-12 in '89, went 6-10 his first year and 8-8 last season, earning a wild-card playoff spot. Coslet might not have been the toast of the town, but Jet fans liked what they saw on the field. The rushing offense had increased by 35 yards per game. Sacks and interceptions had been cut in half. The defense was allowing 63 fewer yards per game.

Clearly, the Jets were climbing toward the NFL's upper echelon. Then the 1992 season began, they missed a rung on the ladder and fell on their faces. The Jets were 0-2 and preparing to play San Francisco in the Meadowlands when a seemingly trite answer to a question posed to every 0-2 coach took on a life of its own.

"Coach, is this a make-or-break game?"

"It's not a make or break game if we win or lose, but we're going to win the damn game."

Now this is not the kind of stuff you stop the presses for, but we're talking about New York on a slow news day. In some papers, the quote appeared in notes at the end of a story. Others articles included the quote, but made nothing special of it.

After all, does anyone expect a coach to say his team would likely lose?

In two newspapers, however, headlines appeared saying Coslet "guaranteed" a victory over the 49ers. One sportswriter who covers the Jets admitted he was surprised to see the headline on his own story.

But the tents were already up for this media circus. Jets' players who usually get noticed only when they're called for holding were on the evening news giving their reactions. On the other coast, the 49ers were doing the same.

The last Jet to make a prediction like this was Joe Namath before the Jets won Super Bowl III. But Sunday, the 49ers, who seldom need extra motivation, won, 31-14.

Coslet wasn't feeling much like a laid-back Californian. "Get out of my face," he screamed at a cameraman as he left the field.

"I've become a cynical New Yorker," he said, noting that he'll never again be surprised by what shows up in his morning newspaper.

So it's the 0-3 Jets and the 1-2 Rams at Anaheim Stadium Sunday. The Jets, a team some experts predicted could unseat Buffalo in the power-laden AFC East, against the Rams, a team that seems more intent on securing a good spot in the draft order than winning in 1992.

And somebody suggested that the game against the 49ers was a must-win situation.

Coslet has no intention of addressing that again and is making it clear he is not guaranteeing anything. "The Rams have a better record than we do, they're playing at home and we have to travel 3,000 miles to play them and we're not playing very well right now," he says. "Interpret that however you want."

But he won't shy away from describing the pain and disappointment of the Jets' season-opening swoon after a 5-0 preseason.

"Like I said, we're true New Yorkers now," he said. "We don't worry about what people are saying about us. But we've got our own expectations. We got in the playoffs last year. We played well in the preseason and we had a tough loss against Atlanta to open the season and then have lost the last two.

"It's frustrating for us. We consider ourselves a playoff-caliber team and we haven't shown that we're anywhere close to that right now. We're not playing very well in any area. And with our expectations going into the season, (the players') attitude and demeanor is not real good right now, I'd have to admit.

"We're really searching."

And Coslet is having trouble finding the answers.

Last season, the Jets were +12 in takeaway/giveaway ratio. This year, they are already -3. In 1991, they led the conference in time of possession. They're second to last in the AFC now. They had the fifth-best rushing offense in the NFL last season. Now, only five teams in the league are less productive on the ground.

Browning Nagle, a second-year quarterback who played in only one game last year but won the starting job this summer, threw for 483 yards in the Jets' first two games before injuring his finger against Pittsburgh.

He is expected to start against the Rams, but Coslet isn't asking a guy with nine quarters of NFL experience to turn the team around single-handedly.

"We knew it would be an up and down season because we were starting a new quarterback," he said, "but this hasn't been pleasant, not pleasant at all. For the other pieces of the team to not play up to our capabilities has been distressing, to give it an adjective."

Coslet and general manager Dick Steinberg remain unshaken in their belief the Jets have a firm foundation for future success and that Coslet is the right man to guide the team through the '90s.

"Bruce came in here and established an entirely new environment that is very positive," Steinberg said. "We looked for a strong motivator, a teacher and a disciplinarian, a guy who can get the most out of his players.

"We were looking for someone who could create a winning environment. In addition, we got a man with one of the most innovative minds in the business."

Coslet, 45, the fifth-youngest coach in the NFL, says he is a "creation of all the people I've played with and worked for." It's a formidable list, one that includes Bill Walsh, Paul Brown, Sam Wyche, Forrest Gregg, Lindy Infante and Buddy Ryan.

Ryan was the defensive coordinator at University of the Pacific where Coslet played tight end in the mid-'60s. Signed by the Bengals as a free agent in 1969, Coslet played back-up tight end and a lot of special teams. Playing behind Bob Trumpy, he had 64 catches for 877 yards and nine touchdowns in an NFL career that he somehow stretched out over eight seasons.

After retiring, Coslet returned home to Stockton and started a construction business that soon employed more than 250 workers. In 1979, however, Walsh invited him to help out with the 49ers during training camp and a coaching career was born.

Coslet was an assistant with San Francisco in 1980 before going to the Bengals as a special teams and tight ends coach the next year. In '83, he was given responsibility of the Cincinnati passing game and three years later was named offensive coordinator.

In the four years he ran the Bengal offense, they were twice the top-ranked offense in the league and three times were No. 1 in the AFC. He gained a reputation for handling game plans and players equally well.

"He's a great players' coach," Nagle said. "He can relate to the kinds of problems players might have. The players love him and respect him and we know he respects us. That's the most important part.

"Sometimes he may come across stern and sometimes he may come across loose, but he's a good coach and a good guy."

When Coslet first arrived in New York, his quick wit and often caustic humor didn't always go over well with the media, however.

"He can be short, but he can be very refreshing as well," said Frank Ramos, the Jets' director of public relations. "I think he has a terrific sense of humor, very sarcastic, but terrific. And the first year, I don't think it was appreciated."

Soon after Coslet took over, the rest of the league stopped laughing at the Jets. Now, the Jets are stumbling and the Big Apple has turned sour.

"I can't control what's written," Coslet said, "so we're just going to let the past weeks die their ugly deaths and get ready for the Rams."

If he thought the past few weeks were ugly, he doesn't want to see what's in store if the Jets return home Sunday night 0-4.

The city that never sleeps isn't pretty when it's cranky.

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