When Pigskins Fly

New York, New York, It's a Hell of a Football Town

It takes about a 20-minute bus ride to discover how far the New York Jets have traveled in their two years under coach Bill Parcells. That's just enough time for a Giants fan with a brown-bagged beer on his way to the annual Jets-Giants preseason scrum at the Meadowlands to pepper his conversation with the familiar boasts of Big Blue's past or Gang Green's lack of a self-named stadium. And it's also just enough

time to notice the collective smirk Jets fans a few rows back offer before returning to their own conversations— conversations, by the way, that concern not just the Battle for New York, but the Battle for the NFL.

It's like that when you are fans of a Super Bowl contender. And after a 12-4 season that netted the Jets their first division crown in 30 years, Parcells's club is precisely that— "Start Over" training camp T-shirts and cranky postgame assessments be damned. But as anyone who has suffered through traffic en route to the Meadowlands can attest, the road to football Valhalla is anything but clear. And if the Jets hope to plow through that traffic, there's plenty under the hood that Parcells and his mechanics will need to tinker with on the way. The Jets machine may appear to be a beaut, but it ain't exactly purring like a kitten.

If you look underneath, you'll see there isn't a lot of depth. Much has been made of finding a backup for Vinny Testaverde, but little attention has been paid to bolstering the reserves for the equally important Curtis Martin. Running on a less-than-healthy thigh last season, Martin rushed a career-high 369 times, third in the NFL to only Denver's Terrell Davis and Atlanta's Jamal Anderson.

Parcells has pledged to cut down Martin's carries this year in hope that a fresher running back will produce more than 3.5 yards a carry. But he'll need a healthy Leon Johnson (who missed six games with various injuries last year) and an effective Jerald Sowell to make the plan work. Together, those two averaged 4 yards a carry last year, a stat that isn't too bad for your second- and third-string until you consider the two also coughed up the ball once every 16 carries.

Rest won't be much of an option for Testaverde, who, in less than a year, has gone from waiver-wire backup to team linchpin. Parcells's Ray Lucas Project is an admirable one, but the experiment needs a few more trials before it is tested in Miami or Dallas in December. Odds are Lucas will find himself behind the former Rookie of the Year Rick Mirer, who has a perfect 62 for 62 interception per game average. Nonetheless, Mirer's 54 starts are 54 more than Lucas's, and with the coaching staff's ability to strategize around a player's strengths, Mirer could prove yet another crafty Parcells pickup.

While Mirer offers insurance behind center, Ray Mickens is the policy for the defensive backfield. The diminutive Texas A&M cornerback had not started a game in Parcells's tenure before plugging the hole left by Aaron Glenn's injured ankle in '98's last three regular season games. This summer the Jets couldn't even break camp before cashing in the Mickens policy, this time to cover for Otis Smith and his broken collarbone. With Smith out until October, and a 32-year-old Steve Atwater at safety, the Jets' pass defense is skin-deep, a bit shallow for a unit backing up a line that isn't very sack happy.

And there might be some problems on that offensive line. In a year when protecting the quarterback is something akin to breathing if the Jets are to succeed, the offensive line offers more questions than answers. Is Randy Thomas the second coming of last year's star-surprise Jason Fabini? Can converted tackle Kerry Jenkins, J.P. Machado, and rookie David Loverne clear a lane for Martin on the left side? Will tackle Jumbo Elliott spend more time suspended— for his bad barroom behavior— than he does suspending the rush of defensive linemen?

"I think we're doing some things well," says Elliott of the line's progress, a few weeks before his Long Island court date. "There's always a lot of room for improvement, and I think if you have that attitude and continue to work hard, we can [get better] as we go along."

Line coach Bill Muir worked an unsettled group into a consistent protective shell by midseason last year, and the unit allowed only two sacks over the final six games. This time, though, the Jets can't afford a few weeks of working out the bugs— Testaverde would be the one to suffer, not Glenn Foley. Nor can center-enforcer Kevin Mawae, who should be an honorary member of the grounds crew for the amount of field he covers, be at five positions at once.

Then there's the schedule. A man who loves the track, Parcells trained a late-charging thoroughbred in '98, a team that hit its stride with six straight wins to end the regular season. Now the league has altered the odds. Ten playoff teams and the second-toughest schedule in the NFL await the Jets.

"The NFL balances the money, they balance the players to keep everybody in every city happy and they [balance] the teams," says Phil Simms, a former quarterback with Parcells's Giants and now a CBS NFL analyst. "They're going to make it hard on you to separate yourself from the rest of the pack."

Complicating the task is the Faustian bargain each Jets player makes in allowing Parcells to verbally flagellate him to the playoffs. But after spending the last two years as the target of Parcells's ire and the last few months on the covers of national magazines, will it become easier to tune out the Jets' majordomo? Probably not. For one, Parcells loves the transactions page and is not afraid to add another name to the agate. And second, Englewood's favorite son hates only one thing more than losing— losing to a team he could see again in the playoffs, which the Jets figure to qualify for.

Still, no matter how much players and coaches sling the clichés about starting from scratch, a team with 14 players over the age of 30 knows better. It knows that after an appearance in the AFC Championship, there are no more "baby steps" to take. A team conscious of that is as close to the Super Bowl as it is to surrender. With New England, Buffalo, Denver, and Jacksonville on the docket in the first five weeks, a disappointing start could bury the Jets mathematically and psychologically.

The questions these Jets face are plentiful, especially for a team only a proverbial step away. But Parcells likes adversity, or at least the threat of it. The Jets won 12 games in 1998 because they were able to adapt— adapt to injuries, hostile crowds, and ineffective performances. Every personnel need is filled— quickly— with talent that is experienced or with talent that can be molded to contribute. And with a set of mechanics like that, the Jets green-and-white Cadillac should roll well into January.

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