Head Coach Rex Ryan would have the sporting world believe that Sunday’s AFC championship game between his New York Jets and the Indianapolis Colts is a struggle for the very soul of professional football.
Even by the measure of a man whose mouth has won him the hearts of New Yorkers – no statement too brash, no prediction too bold – Ryan’s comment of Jan. 6 was curious.
Why, he asked rhetorically, was his 9-7 team not the Super Bowl favorite?
“We have the best defense…. We have the best rushing attack,” he said. “If I had a choice to coach any team in this [postseason] tournament, I would choose this one."
To those immersed in the Xs and Os of modern football, the statement sounded like the relic of another era – as though the Jets coach was advocating a worldwide return to Commodore computers and 8-track cassettes.
The era of smashmouth football, the thinking goes, is over.
“Three yards and a cloud of dust” seems like a quaint notion from the days when Red Grange roamed the gridiron wearing an aviator’s cap. Defenses are no longer so feared that they invoke semi-apocalyptic nicknames: the Steel Curtain, the Doomsday Defense, the Monsters of the Midway.
Today’s NFL is dominated by passing – the elastic minds and arms of Mannings and Favres and Breeses – and those who suggest otherwise are muscle-headed luddites who don’t know their time has passed them by.
Or are they?
The Jet gospel
Ryan’s run through the playoffs with the Jets this year has been accompanied by an almost Messianic fervor. His team steamrolled a fading Cincinnati Bengals outfit in the Wild Card round before persuading the San Diego Chargers to press their self-destruct button last week.
But even amid some good fortune, Ryan has remained unsurprisingly unabashed: His goal is to bring the forgotten gospel of bloody knuckles and splintered teeth back to football, one grind-it-out Jets win at a time.
Along the way, he has amassed quite a following.
Despite its overwhelming popularity, the NFL has not reached its current pinnacle without some uneasiness among the blue-collar everyfan.
The league is, undoubtedly, now a quarterback’s league. Evolving NFL rules protect the quarterback as though he were made out of Waterford crystal. The merest brush to his head by a defensive lineman brings terrible and immediate yellow-flagged retribution. Defensive backs have slowly been deprived of many of the tricks and tactics they once used to disrupt receivers, to the point that they can now seem little more than spectators.
This has accomplished the NFL’s goal. It is now as exciting and offensive as at any moment in its history. This year, 10 quarterbacks threw for more than 4,000 yards. In 2000, three did. In 1990, only one did. In fact, more than half of the 4,000-plus yard seasons in NFL history have been amassed in the 10 years since 2000.
But it’s not the sort of foggy-breathed, frozen-tundra-of-Lambeau-Field football that makes men lower their voices an octave and talk about “warriors” and “gladiators” of the gridiron.
In short, the pretty boys have won. Both championship games today will be played in domes, for goodness sake. There, the field won’t even be tundra, much less frozen.
In this way, the Jets – as much as powder-blue Houston Oilers uniforms or Tom Landry’s fedora – are throwbacks. If they beat Peyton Manning and his Colts Sunday, they can call their defense Gang Green or D. Rex. They can strike a blow at the heart of pretty-boy football and its High King Manning.
Defense wins championships (?)
The model the Jets will try to follow to the Super Bowl Sunday is one as old as the NFL and its working-class, teeth-chattering origins in the early winter of the upper Midwest. The traditions and playing styles established in those days and climes gave rise to football's prime maxim: Defense and a good running game wins championships.
And so it was for much of football history.
Quarterbacks were stewards of championship offenses – often gifted, but rarely given free rein. Super Bowls were won on the legs of runners and the backs of defensemen.
Dan Marino and Dan Fouts might spin the scoreboard like a pinwheel, but neither won a Super Bowl. Jeff Hostetler and Mark Rypien, however, have rings because they were cogs in a winning machine far greater than themselves.
Yet the slow upward arc of the passing game and its influence on the NFL – begun by Johnny Unitas and accelerated by Joe Montana – has seemingly now passed a tipping point. Of the four teams remaining in the postseason, for example, three have elite quarterbacks who threw for more than 4,000 yards this season: the Colts (Manning), Vikings (Brett Favre), and Saints (Drew Brees).
The Jets’ Mark Sanchez may join those ranks one day, but as a rookie, he is the Jeff Hostetler of conference championship Sunday: His job is less to help his team than to avoid hurting it.
Yet one senses that the mountainous Ryan might prefer it this way.
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