Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Random Musings: House Money

With the success of the New York Jets in the AFC Playoffs, the phone lines and radio waves have been burning with their hopes for this weekend’s AFC Championship Game against the mighty Indianapolis Colts. The Twitter streams and blog entries of Jet fans have crowed about how the Jets won their games, took care of business against teams that had very little to gain by suiting up and giving their all. The Jets defeated the Colts on their field, but MVP Peyton Manning only played for 2-1/2 quarters. The Jets embarrassed a Bengals team in the last game in the history of Giants Stadium, but the Bengals saw everything in the Jets’ bag of tricks.

Standing at 4-6, right before Thanksgiving, one thing Jet fans were not thankful for was the brash outspoken Jets, fresh from losing six of seven, their head coach, or their General Manager. Mark Sanchez? He is not ready to lead an offense, let alone manage an offense. Shonn Greene? He repeatedly fumbles the football. Kerry Rhodes? He was benched and, by the way, he has been a starter for the Jets since Day One and maybe he should not have had that job handed to him.

Then, the Jets beat Carolina, took care of Buffalo north of the border, and slapped Tampa Bay. After the Jet loss to Atlanta in Week 15 on a last-minute Falcons drive, the most depressing loss of the season, the fate of the Jets looked sealed. Coach Rex Ryan even admitted it.

But, just as the Shea Stadium scoreboard briefly flashed “Congratulations Red Sox” in the 10th inning of Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, the fat lady may have warmed up, the curtain may have even been raised, but she had not starting singing yet. A key loss by the Denver Broncos to the Oakland Raiders put the Jets back into playoff contention and the final two opponents were already preparing the playoffs and overlooking the Jets.

I had picked the Jets to go 6-10 this season, noting the rookie head coach and rookie quarterback would learn many lessons from this season that would be applied next season. I even expected the team to start 3-0 and lose 10 of their last 13. At 4-6, the Jets were exactly where I expected them to be. But, they learned quicker than I expected.

The offensive play-calling was better. The coach become more of a Head Coach instead of just a defensive coach by getting involved in the offense. The Jets bought in to Rex Ryan’s bravado. And, consequently, they started winning. Yes, they finished the regular season winning five of six. No matter how they won those games, they won those games. The Broncos, Texans, Steelers, Dolphins, and Jaguars need only blame themselves. The Jets earned their playoff berth.

There is saying that when a team outperforms its expectations for a year, anything more is “house money”. For any football team that makes the playoffs when they were not expected to make the playoffs, they are playing with house money. The Jets were not supposed to do much this year. You could say this is the first year of a rebuild or the first year of a three- or five-year plan. That is why the fact the Jets even qualified for the postseason meant they were playing with house money.

But, fans have a way of taking preseason expectations and changing them when good or bad things happen. It is true that the easy predictions that seem all too apparent get derailed by unforeseen circumstances. It is also true that each year, there are a bunch of teams that play better than advertised and those teams sometimes move way beyond any pundit’s expectations. A big trade or a key injury could turn seasons around, for better or worse.

The Jets have had their share of ups and downs. Braylon Edwards was traded to the Jets before Week 5, but Kris Jenkins, noted run stopper, was lost for the season in Week 6. The streakiness of the wins and losses have taken Jet fans for a rollercoaster ride and the fans are worried that the heights they are reaching now will only be equaled or surpassed by a crushing low.

Jet fans may have agreed that simply earning a playoff berth meant they were playing with house money. After a win against the Bengals in the Wild Card round, not only did the Jets vindicate their entry into the postseason, but it also vindicated part of how they got there by trampling the Bengals in Week 17, 37-0. Now, even the most hardened Jet detractors understood this was a successful season by any measure and house money was still on the table.

But, how can a win over San Diego in the Divisional Playoff suddenly squander that house money? Shouldn’t the Jets performance in the playoffs just be gravy? This week, hearing how the Jets have to beat to Colts and reach the Super Bowl, I wonder where all of that house money went. I think Jet fans are confusing the complete vindication for the Jets playoff run that a win over the Colts would bring with the house money that they should know they already have, no matter what happens on Sunday.

Jet fans are an emotional lot and this may only be an issue for fans of teams that have gone so long without winning a championship. The endless parade of quarterbacks to match Joe Namath’s 1968-69 guaranteed victory in Super Bowl III has been long and arduous. Most Jet fans are numb to the failures, which makes this year that much sweeter. But, suddenly, anything but a championship would constitute that crushing low most Jet fans know they will experience.

Take your house money, Jet fans, and enjoy the ride because next year, those expectations will make it much tougher to cash out. The combination of low expectations and high performance is a gateway to more expectations and more scrutiny in the next few years. But, that gateway is a path to glory. Seasons like this one for the Jets do not come along very often.

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