By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
Of course all professional athletes are upset after a big loss, and as fans we expect nothing less. It never occurred to me to tell the Mets, after the heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Cardinals this fall, "Hey, buck up, guys. It's only a game." (It didn't occur to me to tell the Giants that either, but only because many of them were over 300 pounds and irate.) It's "only a game" only when it's not your game.
The Giants Stadium press box, meanwhile, is no place to watch a sporting event. A glass wall protects against the weather but also muffles most of the crowd noise, giving the space an incongruous library-like quietness. Located on the ninth level, it's high enough to make Chris Snee look antlike and requires reporters to either bring high-powered binoculars, follow along on a nearby TV, or as in my case, squint at the knot of players on the field and wonder what the fuck is happening. You can, at least, get a decent view of Fox's automated camera, which swoops over the field on a high-tech track and looks like a hostile alien robot; I kept expecting it to start firing lasers. By the fourth quarter of the Giants-Saints game, this would have been a welcome distraction.
The NFL is, deliberately and very successfully, tailored for television, and as far as I can tell, tailgating is the only real reason to show up in person. You can say what you want about the Meadowlandsthat it's a gridlocked eyesore in the middle of a desolate, radioactive swamp, for exampleand about the denizens of New Jersey, my native state. But the crowd in East Rutherford knows damn well what to do with a parking lot. We take to wide expanses of asphalt like fish to water.
Any warm and fuzzy feelings of state pride generated by the impressive spectacle of Lot 16 pre-partying, however, had dissipated by the time I finished walking up the Gate B spiral at halftime on the New Year's Eve Jets game. This is the sort of crowd that's fun to drink with but no longer enjoyable once drunk. Flocks of jersey-wearing guys gathered around the middle of the spiral, threw beer bottles, cursed Raiders fans, and chanted, "Show us your tits!" at a flattered but shy Jersey girl a few levels up. (Eventually, the lower-tier crowd segued into a rousing cry of "T-I-T-S! Tits! Tits! Tits!" which, OK guys, points for creativity. But you're still shitheads.)
I've always thought I should try to be a Jets fan; they're underdogs enough that they might offset my Yankees fandom and, in combination with the Nets, help me get into heaven. But they've given me precious little to hang on to over the last few years; it's not so much that they haven't been good, but rather that they've been assiduously dull.
I honestly think I'd love rookie head coach Eric "Man-Genius" Mangini if only I weren't trying to report on him; the pleasant, baby-faced 35-year-old has made politely stonewalling sportswriters into an art form. Well, nostonewalling sportswriters was already an art form, but in Mangini, it has found its Picasso. It's now entering its blue period. The erstwhile Bill Belichick protégé refuses to speak in soundbites or pithy quotes, which is refreshing in theory but, in practice, profoundly dull (do not ingest a Mangini press conference while driving or operating heavy machinery). He has a wry, Saharan sense of humor, which he rarely allows himself to display; after the Jets' win over the Oakland Raiders gave them a wild-card slot, safety Kerry Rhodes said, "He was happy. He may have smiled twice."
In Chad Pennington (a "Rhodes Scholarship finalist," as broadcasters never tire of reminding us), the Jets have a solid, hardworking quarterback who's also smart enough not to feed the media machine. He has an impressive bearing, though. It's easy to imagine Pennington doing something elseowning his own business, maybe, or running for local officewhereas it's very difficult to imagine the much maligned Eli Manning doing anything other than playing beer pong off of a football field.
With the team coming off a lousy, injury- riddled 4-12 season, and with Chad Pennington rehabbing a shoulder injury, no one expected much from the Jets this season, and they have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulder. "A lot of people outside, they're not with us every day. . . . We know from inside what kind of players we have," said Rhodes, before the Raiders game, in a typical statement. Asked afterward if they'd used the doubters as motivation, he said no: "Of course you're going to hear it, but . . . we didn't care what nobody else thoughtwe still don't care. We have to play for ourselves."
Wide receiver Laveranues Coles took Mangini's dictum that injuries must not be used as excusesalthough I have no idea how a fucking concussion isn't a legitimate excuseto extremes after the Raiders win. Asked about the brutal hit he'd received in the previous week's Dolphins game, he snapped, "Ask me about the playoffs." The reporter took umbrage and turned away, muttering, "Great, now you're telling me what questions to ask."