And the Gambling Gods Wept: A Visit to the Meadowlands for Broncos-Jets
I admit it. I came down just to see triple digits.
I got on a train before dawn, saw the sun come up over the sounds — both Long and Block Islands’ — and watched the autumn colors catch the newborn sunshine, from Massachusetts through Rhode Island and Connecticut. I slept for three hours, off and on, awakening only when the train took that long bend through the Bronx and then underground to Penn Station. I took New Jersey Transit, jammed as it was with drunks-in-training. The sumac was blazing red in the midmorning as we pulled into Secaucus Junction and changed for the Meadowlands, as the drunks made great progress in their training. We all got disgorged at a Party Zone run by a beer company where, I was fairly sure, there would be further great disgorging later in the afternoon. And I made this long, but not entirely unpleasant, trip for one reason and one reason only. The Denver Broncos were coming to play the New York Jets, and the Broncos were very good and the Jets were not. So I took a nice seat atop the iceberg and waited for that big old ocean liner to sail by.
And what did I get? The very good team beat the very bad team by the very pedestrian score of 31-17, and there was no ominous underwater grinding of the hull until the final minute of the game, in which New York quarterback Geno Smith made an enemy of every gambler between here and the Horsehead Nebula. Peyton Manning threw a mere three touchdown passes, leaving him two short of the NFL record (508 career passing touchdowns) held by Brett Favre, once America’s most highly paid migrant worker. So, I didn’t get 78-0, and I didn’t get the record. All I came away with, as the train slipped back through the tall reeds to Manhattan, was more proof that the Jets are not likely to be as good as the Broncos for a very, very long time.
Life is full of disappointments.
Don’t kid yourself. Everybody felt the same way I did. This shaped up as a cataclysmic mismatch. The Jets were 1-4, and the Broncos were 3-1. A week earlier, Denver had shredded the Arizona Cardinals, with Manning throwing for 479 yards and four touchdowns against a secondary that is manifestly better than anything the Jets can throw together. (Hell, Patrick Peterson alone makes the Arizona secondary better than anything the Jets can throw together.) Meanwhile, New York was being trashed, 31-0, by Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers. Rivers completed 20 of 28 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. By comparison, Geno Smith, the second-year New York quarterback out of West Virginia, was an ugly 4-for-12, before being replaced by Michael Vick, who was an equally ugly 8-for-19. Before the game, Smith had missed a team meeting because he’d gone to the movies, a lapse for which he blamed the time differential between New York and San Diego, confounding all of his teammates. Vick responded to being dragooned in to replace Smith by admitting that he hadn’t been prepared to do so. Ryan congratulated Vick publicly for having had to courage to admit that. All week, the Jets appeared to be getting ready to play the Broncos by dedicating themselves to a game plan of Not Making Sense.
This prompted everyone to anticipate a disaster on Sunday, and it also fattened the betting line to the Broncos minus-10 points, which I mention, of course, for entertainment purposes only. Usually, you can’t get 10 points on the home team unless the visiting team is the Tonawanda Kardex, all of whose players are, at the moment, dead. Which brings us to what happened in the final minute, when Geno Smith made thousands of enemies he never will meet.
Strangely enough, with six minutes left in the game, the Jets were very much in the game, trailing only by a touchdown, at 24-17. Throughout the first half, the New York defense had Manning extremely uncomfortable, chasing him around in the pocket and toward the sideline. (Manning moved more in the opening 30 minutes than he likely has moved in the last five years combined.) On two occasions, Manning simply turtled. The 17-7 halftime score was closer than it appeared to be. In the fourth quarter, then, when Smith hit Eric Decker on a lovely slant route to the middle, and then forced a Denver punt, the Jets had the ball at their own 33 with a legitimate chance to tie and/or win the game.
Unfortunately, Smith threw two incompletions and the Jets had to give the ball back. Denver killed most of the last five minutes on a drive that stalled at the New York 42, and Britton Colquitt pinned the Jets on their own 5-yard line, which is when the long-anticipated burlesque finally broke out.
Smith threw an incompletion on first down. Then, on second down, flushed from the pocket, he went two yards downfield, and then four yards back into his own end zone, barely escaping a safety, which would have been embarrassing, but which also would have kept safe the bankrolls of anyone who’d jumped on those 10 points.
You know what’s coming, don’t you?
I mean, you have to know what’s coming, right?
Smith underthrew Jeremy Kerley on a deep out to the right sideline. Denver’s Aqib Talib, dove for the ball, came up with the interception, got back up onto his feet and waltzed into the end zone. This set the final score at 31-17 and, as you know, 14 points is more than 10 points, and I mention this for entertainment purposes only, of course, but, wow.
After the game, Geno Smith was cool, if a bit rumpled. Over the previous week, stories had popped up that he was not respected by his teammates, that he already should be declared a bust, and that he had personally come to represent the ongoing futility of the moment for the Jets, a futility that seems ever likely to cost Ryan his job. The ownership of the team came under some heat for its quarterback choices, and Smith seems at the moment to be the focal point of all of the criticism. He stands for everyone else’s failures, as well as his own. Nobody bargains for that, least of all a quarterback’s who is still on a steep learning curve. Watching Smith go through progressions is as painful as watching me do math. (Carry the three, no, wait …) He has his problems, and everybody else’s, too. If Ryan gets fired, it’s going to be on him, and not on, say, the Jets ownership, because those luxury suites you see in every stadium are bulletproof on things like that.
“What’s the challenge?” Smith said. “We’re going to come back next week1 with the same intensity we had opening week and the same intensity we had today. That’s why you play the games. Going into the season, everybody has high expectations. Obviously, we fell short of our expectations. That should be enough for everybody this week.”
He talked in long, rapid bursts, as though he were pitching himself and was a little unsure about the reliability of the product. To be entirely fair, Smith had a solid third quarter yesterday, when the Jets briefly made a contest out of it. And he got New York within a touchdown by leading the team 63 yards in nine plays on its first possession of the fourth quarter, including an 11-yard scramble on second-and-10, and a lovely pass to Greg Salas that went for 27 yards to the Denver 7-yard line and set up the touchdown pass to Decker. And he did all this without the remotest semblance of a running game; the Jets had 31 total yards on the ground on only 15 insubstantial running plays.
“When it comes to that, running game should be better,” Smith said. “But the passing game’s got to pick it up.”
“I thought he had his moments,” Rex Ryan said. “I mean, he was OK. That last interception, we were trying to force something there. He was just trying to make a play.” And total cataclysm was staved off, at least for a few days. The ship, leaking at every rivet, but still afloat, sails on — and to the disappointment of all of us who had good seats up on the iceberg, and only the gamblers got the disaster that everyone expected.