FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Marvin Washington watched the game last Sunday and felt a familiar pain. It triggered bad memories from a long-ago season, when the New York Jets were a laughingstock. They were 1-15 in 1996, the worst record in franchise history. Once again, they’re in a dark place, 1-7 after an embarrassing loss to the previously winless Miami Dolphins.
“If I could tell these guys something it would be play hard for the rest of the season and be a professional, because in ’96 I know a lot of guys quit,” said Washington, a Jets defensive end from 1989 to 1996. “After a while, you lose all hope. I know I quit, too, because I didn’t believe we were prepared and I didn’t believe that we were going to win. It was the worst year of my professional career.”
Some of the current players weren’t born when that disaster unfolded, but any diehard fan in his or her 30s remembers it well. If not, the current Jets are providing an eye-opening refresher course.
There are eerie similarities between then and now, ranging from the schedule to the helmets to the roster construction. It’s as if they’re re-playing the season, one loss at a time, one calamity at a time. The cast has changed, but the storylines are … well, you be the judge.
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Compare the 2019 and 1996 schedules, and you will notice they have 11 common opponents. The reason is because the Jets are playing the NFC East as part of their non-divisional schedule, same as they did in ’96. They’re also playing out of the division against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders, same as they did in ’96.
Not only are the schedules similar, but the dates are, too — 11 games on the exact same date as ’96.
What are the odds of matching this many dates and opponents? In non-mathematical terms, the odds are pretty freaking long, considering the NFL schedule is based on a four-year cycle and this marks only the third time since the 1-15 year that the NFL season has been played on the same calendar as 1996. (Sunday, Sept. 8; Sunday, Sept. 15, etc.)
Same Old Jets, indeed.
Stealing from the Steelers
Coming off a bad season, the Jets wanted to add credibility to their offense, so they made a large free-agent splurge for former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell — four years, $52.5 million. An odd set of circumstances allowed Bell to hit the open market — a long, acrimonious contract dispute — and the Jets seized the rare opportunity.
It hasn’t worked out, as Bell has rushed for only 415 yards and one touchdown in eight games.
Let’s rewind to ’96. Looking for credibility, the Jets chased the big name in free agency — former Steelers quarterback Neil O’Donnell. He was coming off an AFC Championship, so it was considered a coup for the Jets to sign a Super Bowl quarterback. They paid a premium — five years, $25 million, including a $7 million signing bonus. That was big, big money at the time.
It didn’t work out, as O’Donnell lasted only two years. He was raised in the Steelers’ winning culture, and he assumed he’d be able to instill that mentality in the Jets. That he grew up in the area — Madison, New Jersey — made it even sweeter.
Or, so he thought. The team’s inferiority complex, exacerbated by having to practice on Long Island and play home games in New Jersey (in the New York Giants‘ home stadium), broke his spirit.
“There was so much unknown with the Jets that I really didn’t think would come into play, and it really did — the whole environment at the time,” O’Donnell said. “There were some great teammates on that team that I’ll never forget, the relationships I built with that team and the people I met. But it was just such a hard burden to change the whole culture and environment of winning for the Jets when we were out in Long Island [at Hofstra University]. It was just an uphill battle.”
Crazy quarterback hardship
On Sept. 14, coach Adam Gase began his daily news conference by reciting the team’s injury report, as he always does. He concluded by announcing that “14” — Sam Darnold — would be out indefinitely with mononucleosis.
Truly one of the Jetsiest moments in franchise history.
It was only the second documented case of mono for an NFL quarterback; Chris Chandler was stricken with the illness while playing for the Houston Oilers. In retrospect, Darnold’s diagnosis was the tipping point, as the Jets lost the next three games to fall to 0-4.
In ’96, their sorry season was epitomized by what happened to O’Donnell on Dec. 1. Returning from a six-game shoulder injury, he tore a calf muscle in pregame warm-ups. In a light rain, he practiced his dropbacks in the end zone and slipped on the Jets’ logo that was painted on the artificial-turf at the old Giants Stadium. The injury was so severe that it ended his season.
“There was so much paint on the letters,” O’Donnell said. “I dropped back and I said to Wayne [Chrebet], ‘I think I just blew out my calf muscle or my Achilles.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I think I blew out my calf or Achilles.’ He said, ‘Get out of here.’ I said, ‘Dude, I’m not kidding. Somehow, get me over to that tunnel, I got to get out of here.'”
By the way, the Jets played the Oilers that day. Their backup quarterback?
Dressed to be killed
The organization decided it was time for a new look, so it unveiled new uniforms in the spring. A new helmet, too. Their white helmet was replaced by one that includes “JETS” in stylized white letters over Gotham Green (a newly created color). Look familiar?
The design actually resembles a previous model — the helmet they wore in 1996 and the 18 years before that, sans the Concorde-style jet pictured about the letters. Former coach Bill Parcells, hired in 1997 to rebuild the franchise, wanted to change the look immediately (can you blame him?), but the process took a year before they were able to re-brand everything — helmet and uniform.
So not only are they losing like the ’96 Jets, but they look like them, too.
Two hundred million things (to complain about)
Flush with cap room, the Jets executed an unprecedented spending spree last offseason, doling out a record $110 million in guarantees for Bell, linebacker C.J. Mosley and wide receiver Jamison Crowder, among others. It increased the cash payroll to $203 million, which ranks ninth in the league, according to overthecap.com.
It was a pedal-to-the-metal approach by former general manager Mike Maccagnan, who believed the moves would transform them into a contender. They excited the fan base. There was hope. An infusion of proven talent.
The franchise took a similar approach in 1996, giving out big contracts to O’Donnell, wide receiver Jeff Graham and tackles Jumbo Elliott and David Williams. The total values of the deals approached $60 million, giving them the league’s highest payroll. They drafted flamboyant wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson with the No. 1 overall pick, generating real excitement around the team.
By midseason, they were dubbed “The Worst Team Money Could Buy.” They started 0-8, with a point differential of -98.
This season, the Jets are 1-7 with a -115.
“They spent a boatload of money to bring in guys like Bell, but for some reason they’re just not meshing,” said former linebacker Marvin Jones, a member of the ’96 team. “To me, it’s just regressed. From what I see, the coaches don’t connect with the players or the players don’t have faith in the coaches. They play like they just reported to training camp.”
Jones believes the Jets had better talent in ’96, but they were poorly coached by Rich Kotite, a New York guy who was hired despite a seven-game losing streak at the end of his Philadelphia Eagles tenure. Kotite wasn’t known as a night owl; some players felt he worked banker’s hours. True story: He kept two cars at the team facility, one in the front, one in the back. He was able to slip out the back and have people think he still was in his office, grinding away.
“It was just bad energy,” said Washington, who went on to win a Super Bowl ring with the Denver Broncos. “For me personally, I hated coming to the complex. I hated being around that team, I hated being around that atmosphere because guys had pretty much mailed it in. To see some of the coaches, they didn’t believe either. When you have coaches that are beating you out of the parking lot after practice, that was unusual to see.”
A lot of crazy stuff happened that year. Ditto, 2019.