Sports

THE JETS: THE DEFENSE RESTS

For all of the positive omens the New York Jets can take into their wild-card playoff game—7-1 on the road, including a combined 3-0 against their possible opponents, Miami and Oakland—the potion that coach Herman Edwards and his team have concocted to reach their first postseason since the departure of Bill Parcells has grown increasingly rank. It's the stench of a decaying defense.

Although the symptoms have been apparent since New York whitewashed Miami 24-0 in mid November, the inability of the Jets to stop opponents from moving the ball, especially on the ground, has become particularly acute during the team's playoff drive. Over the past five games, New York's supposedly revitalized defense has waved a white flag at opposing runners to the tune of 140 yards a game, a number that compares favorably—if you're an opposing offensive coordinator—with the 154 yards a contest that defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell's troops surrendered over the season's first five games. While any yard given up is a bad yard, those that come on the ground are even more devastating because they keep a defense on the field and methodically swallow time, a commodity as valuable as field position to the unproductive unit led by quarterback Vinny Testaverde.

The Jets run a league-low 58 plays a game (in contrast to the league-leading Cincinnati Bengals, who run 66 a contest), an average that severely limits the effectiveness of the 5.2 yards New York's offense gains with each snap. Oakland, in comparison, also gained 5.2 yards per play, but with an additional 100 plays under its belt, produced an additional 35 yards a contest, yards that kept its defense off the field and helped tally five more points an outing than the Jets produced.

If you liken the Jets to a living organism, what happens to one appendage affects the others. So a defense that can't stop the run not only gives up more points but also takes away valuable opportunities for its offense to score. No one around the Meadowlands may have understood this better than former New Jersey Nets coach John Calipari. Saddled with a poor-shooting ball club, Calipari mentioned in a postgame news conference a few years ago that his team's ability to win games was based largely on getting more shot opportunities than the opposition, something Calipari felt was best addressed not by improving his offense, but by simply playing (or at least trying to play) stifling defense.

With all of the attention Edwards and the press have had to pay to the Jets' bickering offense of late, the defense quietly has grown more porous by the week. And for a team whose offense needs every snap it can get to scratch out a score, every yard it gives up puts it one yard closer to the off-season.


A FLEURY OF PUNCHES

Pound for pound, there's no athlete tougher than the Rangers' Theo Fleury. He plays a foot taller and 30 pounds heavier than five feet six and 180, and with determination and a mean streak that invites retaliation. It's made him a world-class talent. He's also got world-class troubles.

As the tottering Rangers face a most significant week—including their first trip into Philadelphia (former home of their oft concussed star Eric Lindros) and a decision on the status of captain Mark Messier's damaged shoulder—Fleury is coming off a shaky six-game Western trip in which the summary reads Fleury's demons: 2; Fleury's point production: 0; Fleury's penalty minutes: 40.

On December 28, he was tossed from the game for attempting to injure an opponent, and as he exited the ice, he encountered the poor schlemiel who wears the San Jose Sharks' mascot costume in the hallway to the dressing room. Apparently, angry Theo punched S.J. Sharkie in the ribs, either breaking or bruising them, depending on which Bay Area paper you believe.

Perhaps Fleury was sending a message on behalf of the many fans annoyed by those humans dressed as stuffed animals who infest sports arenas. Or maybe it was fraternal payback for the decades-old shame caused by the Pittsburgh Parrot, the mascot who was fingered as the drug supplier to the '70s Pirates clubhouse. More likely, Fleury just lost it, as he does regularly when tossed from games, throwing tantrums—and hockey sticks—on his way to the shower. For the record, while Theo denied punching Sharkie, the Rangers and Sharks were negotiating an apology.

Then, last Saturday, after taking his third slashing penalty in a loss to Pittsburgh, Fleury didn't get tossed. Instead, he tossed himself, skating not to the penalty box, but off the ice and into the dressing room with over seven minutes left and the Rangers trailing 3-1.

The Rangers adopted a delicate approach to their star winger. They cited personal problems at home—unrelated to last year's rehab from substance abuse, which forced him to miss the season's final quarter—and did not discipline him. But on Canadian TV Saturday night, popular, outspoken, old-school hockey commentator Don Cherry was less lenient. The man called "Grapes" unleashed this bit of wrath on Fleury: "I think he's goin' a little wacko. In 50 years, I've never seen anyone walk off the ice like that. Somebody better get that guy under control."


Contributors: Paul Forrester, Stu Hackel Sports Editor: Ward Harkavy

 
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