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COMMENTARY : Now . . . Introducing the New York Bengals

October 09, 1994|MIKE LUPICA | NEWSDAY

For three straight games, the New York Jets have been one of the worst teams in football.

They have not tackled anybody or covered anybody on defense, been any more precise than a Pop Warner team on offense.

The idea that Johnny Mitchell is the only bungler lately is a riot. Half the team has played the same way. Pete Carroll and his offensive coordinator and his defensive coordinator have occasionally coached like the rookies they are.

For three Sundays in a row, the Jets have been the New York Bengals. They have been no better than that.

In the fifth year of Dick Steinberg's regime, they are not a contender to win the Super Bowl or even play in the Super Bowl. The way they are going, they are going to be out of the Super Bowl tournament again. The Jets have 11 games left and they are going to need to win at least seven to make the playoffs.

They got behind the Browns last Sunday and gave the same patsy performance as in the last game of last season, against the Oilers. They looked as lifeless on the first Sunday of October as they usually do by the first Sunday of January.

Last season, the Jets started 2-4 and still had enough in them to make a stand in the Giants game, and begin a five-game winning streak that seemed to put them in the playoffs. Then the Colts beat them, 9-6, at Giants Stadium, and the Jets never recovered.

The Jets went down and stayed down. Today, there is another Jets-Colts game at Giants Stadium. If the Colts smack the Jets around the way the Dolphins and Bears and Browns have, then this will be another season when the Jets can't get over .500, which means five seasons in a row of that under Steinberg.

The Jets' record with Steinberg as boss went to 28-42 after the loss to the Browns. It is a winning percentage of .400. They lost four of their last five games last season. In the first five this season, they have suddenly lost three in a row and looked scared to death every time one started to get away from them. Carroll talked Sunday about how the mood of his team seems to fluctuate wildly from wins to losses, referring to a "condition caused by being unaccustomed to success."

If Carroll does get this group into the playoffs after all the past failures--and I hope he does--he will have come back after these three losses to do one of the best coaching jobs in football.

"Once you get in a hole, you gotta learn how to dig yourself out of it," linebacker Mo Lewis was saying in the locker room Sunday. "Just because you're down seven points in the first quarter doesn't mean you've lost the game."

Against the Bills, the Jets looked like a team ready to be one of the best in the AFC. Last Sunday, it wasn't just half of them looking like bunglers, it was all of them as they got into that 0-27 hole against the Browns. It has taken them only a month to take this kind of fall. Ronnie Lott was asked how it has happened this fast.

"The ride's easy when you're not doing the things you're supposed to do," Lott said.

Someone asked him about the leadership he and Boomer Esiason were supposed to bring to the Jets.

"One thing you get tired of," Lott said, "is people talking about how we're supposed to provide a magic formula to win games . . . You have to go out and just try to fight."

Lott has put in 14 years and been a Hall of Famer at both cornerback and safety, and been called one of the great defensive players of all time. He really thought he could finish his career with one more Super Bowl, this time as a Jet.

Lott knows as much about the Super Bowl as any defensive player could ever know. It seemed like one of Steinberg's smartest plays, bringing him in at the same time he brought Esiason in to run the offense, even though the best days of both were clearly gone.

There was supposed to be enough time left for both of them to make one more big game. It seems almost impossible now. Steinberg did not stop with them. He kept bringing in players whose best days were gone. He has never drafted a great player. He passed up Junior Seau and Cortez Kennedy to go for Blair Thomas, and the Jets have paid the price for that ever since. Now the Jets must beat the Colts or blow another season. This all happens to Lott much too late in the game.

"Your frustration goes up because you know you're not going to get too many chances," Lott said. He was one of the few Jets in the locker room last Sunday, and so a huge crowd of media people had backed him into a corner near his locker. He wore a black sweat shirt and a dark, bewildered expression about his football team. "For me, this might be my last chance," Ronnie Lott said.

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