COMMENTARY : Jet Faces Are New, but the Story Is Old


The New York Jets' 25 years without a championship feel like twice that sometimes, and make their fans as crazy and angry as Ranger fans used to be.

The Jets always lead the league in high hopes and expectations, and they seem to make more out of one victory than any other team I know. Now they are suddenly back in familiar territory, before they get out of the first month of the season.

They emptied Giants Stadium Sunday night as if there had been a bomb scare, and they are a .500 team. All of a sudden they need to look like a real team against the Browns on Sunday, and Pete Carroll needs to look like a real coach.

"We played like garbage," Carroll said. "Now we're starting over. Over a long season, there's always a series of new starts. We get one Sunday afternoon at 1 o'clock."

The Jets have played four games and we still don't know if Carroll can do the job in the big leagues.

It would be terrific if Carroll could do the job, because he is bright and spirited and doesn't look as if he has been sedated with X's and O's, the way some coaches do. We simply don't know yet. He is still a popular former assistant getting on-the-job training. Nobody remembers anymore, but Joe Walton was that kind of popular former assistant when he took over for Walt Michaels. The players all raved about what a good guy Walton was.

Carroll knows this: It has been a long first month in a rookie season. Now the Jets have to start over against the Browns in Cleveland. Only a couple of weeks ago, Carroll was the daring and exuberant genius of everything, and nobody had laid a glove on him.

Then it was Bears 19, Jets 7 on Sunday night. All of a sudden we are supposed to believe that Dave Wannstedt of the Bears did to Carroll what Oliver McCall did to Lennox Lewis.

"Even when I was hearing how smart I was supposed to be, all I could keep thinking was what a long haul this all is," Carroll said. "And how fast things can change."

There was a pause and then Carroll said, "I'm just not going to be too quick to categorize this team. I know fans do that, and they have a right to do that. Coaches don't have that luxury. The same thing that happened to us Sunday night happened to the Chiefs Sunday afternoon. I mean, where are the Chiefs now? They got shut out by the Rams at home. We played the way we did against the Bears. All of a sudden the Dolphins were behind the Vikings, 28-0."

Another pause. "Am I concerned? Of course I'm concerned, because we've lost the way we have twice in a row. That's why I know the words sound hollow when I say this team is different from Jet teams of the past. We've got to show we're different on the field. Which means we've got to find ourselves in a hurry."

The Jets play in the most entertaining division in all of pro football, the AFC East. They beat the Bills in Buffalo the first Sunday of the season. Then the Bills picked themselves right up. The Dolphins started out 3-0, but they keep losing running backs, and even though they came back and made a game of it Sunday against the Vikings, their defense looks so shabby you want to lend them Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason.

The Patriots were 0-2 when the Jets were 2-0. The Patriots were lucky enough to play the Bengals next; the Bengals could not beat Columbia right now. Sunday, the Patriots needed to beat the Lions on the road and did. Suddenly the Patriots are 2-2, and are going to be trouble for everybody the rest of the way.

Suddenly the Jets are the mystery team of the division. A loss to the Browns on the road does not end the season or kill all playoff hope or mean that Carroll is a bum.

Quarterback Boomer Esiason takes a seat now because of a sprained ankle so the Jets go in there with Jack Trudeau, a backup who hardly inspired anyone after the Bear game by explaining about how few snaps a backup quarterback gets in practice. It is still important for the Jets to show more precision than they showed against the Bears, and more heart.

The Jets went down the field once against the Bears, and it was as if the Bears were supposed to go down like Lennox Lewis. When they did not, the Jets fell apart. Before the first half was over, fans watching on television in New York were already switching over to the marvelous footage of Jackie Robinson on Ken Burns' baseball documentary.

"It got away from us fast," Carroll said. "All of a sudden I looked up and we'd frittered away a whole half."

By the end it had been such a dreadful, amateurish performance one month into the season that you expected the fans who had stayed at Giants Stadium to begin a chant about "1969." Even though this is Carroll's rookie shot as a coach, this is supposed to be a big playoff shot for the Jets. With football geezers such as Ronnie Lott and Art Monk and even kicker Nick Lowery around, the Jets have been built for this season.

A .500 record is not acceptable any longer for Dick Steinberg, the general manager, and he should not survive another .500 record. The Jets are supposed to go for first place this season. The Jets are not supposed to merely make the playoffs, but do something when they get there.

"That's the design," Carroll said. "That's why we got the guys we got."

Steinberg has gotten four seasons plus four games. Carroll, a good guy, has gotten only these four games. The last two have been wrecks. His quarterback is hurt. A player who is supposed to be an offensive star--tight end Lam Mitchell--still talks better than he plays. A kid who is supposed to be a defensive star--Marvin Jones--seems to get hurt as soon as he gets his chin strap fastened.

The Jets are supposed to fight for first place this season, but they looked like last place Sunday night. They looked like the Bengals.

"We're still new," the new coach said.

That gets old, fast.

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