New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez walks up the tunnel after a 24-19 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 23, 2011. The Steelers advance to the Super Bowl to face the Green Bay Packers. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
It was fitting that Dennis Byrd took part in the pregame coin flip on Sunday evening.
Byrd’s horrific injury is just one of the many painful memories collectively held by the Jets fan base, even if his remarkable recovery is one of the few items on that list with a happy ending. It felt like Sunday night was going to be another one.
A first half from the deepest depths of hell turned into a second half that raised the spirits of every Jets fan in every corner of the globe. Little by little, the team chipped away at the lead and found themselves in a spot where all they needed was a stop by the Rex Ryan defense to make every dream come true. To say there was a soul alive who didn't believe it would come is the greatest lie ever told, yet it never did. And we now have a moment that was worse than any other in Jets history.
Everyone had their own choice for a clubhouse leader before Sunday night. For me, it is the Fake Spike game. It’s not that the Jets lost to Dan Marino and the Dolphins, lord knows that happened often enough, but the way that they lost their lead because of sheer stupidity instead of simply getting beaten by a better team. It left you with a blank stare not knowing whether to throw a brick through a window, start crying or just laugh at the absurdity ofit all. That’s the game that captures everything about being a Jets fan in a nice tidy package for me.
This one was worse. Not only did it have the Jets falling way behind early, it also had a stirring comeback that felt just short on a night that felt, however briefly, like it was ours to lose. There will never be another night that feels quite like this. Lord knows there are competitors for the crown, though.
Other people have different horror movies racing through their minds. Maybe it is Doug Brien missing two field goals while Herman Edwards refuses to even try for a touchdown that makes him irrelevant. Or perhaps it is Curtis Martin and Keith Byars fumbling away a 10-0 halftime lead to the Broncos in the AFC Championship Game. For some, it is Mark Gastineau roughing Bernie Kosar to give away a playoff lead in Cleveland while others will never live down A.J. Duhe treating Richard Todd like his own private whipping post on a muddy field in Miami.
The nice thing about the Jets is that they don’t always make you wait for the playoffs to drive daggers into your spine. Sometimes they just got it out of the way in the last week of the season when they needed a win to make the postseason.
There are probably some people who use Leon Johnson throwing an interception on a halfback option pass in the end zone against the Lions as a way to remember that things can always get worse. If that’s not your speed, what about getting shut out by the Oilers while Buddy Ryan is punching Kevin Gilbride on the Houston sideline? Or two Jermaine Lewis punt returns?
Sometimes the Jets were actually kind enough not to get your hopes up in the slightest. That courtesy didn’t make it any easier to watch Vinny Testaverde blow out his Achilles in the second quarter of the first game of a 1999 season that started with high hopes.
Those with really, really long memories might have set the bar very high in 1969 when Joe Namath got stopped on a quarterback sneak on the goal line against the eventual champion Chiefs in the playoffs. If Namath gets in, maybe the Jets win that game and go on to a second straight Super Bowl win that changes the trajectory of the franchise forever. Namath would never play another playoff game as the rest of his career was spent with painful knees, heartbreaking interceptions and several terrible coaches balancing out all the more wonderful parts of his existence.
The Jets didn’t get back into the playoffs until 1981. Bruce Harper, clearly excited about the situation, fumbled the opening kickoff of that game. The Jets lost, naturally, but this is barely a paper cut compared to the other indignities suffered over 42 years of Jets history.
How horrible? We’re more than 500 words into this and haven’t mentioned Rich Kotite, Lou Holtz, Blair Thomas, Brett Favre, Johnny Mitchell, Browning Nagle, Neil O’Donnell or DeWayne Robertson. That’s not enough? What about Bill Belichick’s departure, “Joe Must Go” and the brief run of the Mangenius?
Jets fans have been asking themselves what it will take to stop the bleeding almost as long as there has been a Jets franchise. We still don't know the answer. The pain on Sunday night is greater than anything else we've experienced. All we wanted was one more chance with the ball in Mark Sanchez's hands. One more chance to overcome the ghosts that have haunted us for so long.
We never got it. The Jets lost. Again. Another offseason of pain and regret and wondering what if. How many more will it be before satisfaction comes our way?