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NFL PLAYOFFS: DIVISIONAL MATCHUPS

Chrebet Is Key to Jet Chances

Wide receiver has had an erratic season, but New York will need him to step up his game when it takes on Oakland.

January 12, 2003|NFL PLAYOFFS: | Newsday

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — For most of this season, Wayne Chrebet has not been himself. Or, at least, he has not been the player New York Jet fans and opposing defensive backs were accustomed to seeing.

There was that awful moment last month when he left the football on the sod of Memorial Stadium in Champaign, Ill., calling to mind the gaffe of top draft choice Blair Thomas, whose fumble in a road game against the Chicago Bears sentenced the team to defeat by an almost identical score 11 years earlier.

The public complaints about being overlooked in the offense were reminiscent of former teammate/adversary Keyshawn Johnson.

Rarely did Chrebet resemble the wideout who made his reputation with clutch third-down catches, if only because the flood of passes in his direction slowed to a trickle in those situations.

No longer the celebrated overachiever who rose from obscurity to become a prolific receiver and popular figure, he signed a lucrative contract befitting a leading man before the season and promptly was cast in a supporting role.

Vinny Testaverde, the quarterback with whom he had developed a special relationship, was benched and replaced by Chad Pennington, who had eyes for the younger, faster Laveranues Coles.

Chrebet's world turned upside down, the way he appeared when his attempt to hurdle a tackler deep in Chicago territory in the final 70 seconds resulted in a giveaway that sealed a shocking 20-13 loss in Game 14.

Fortunately for the receiver and his team, the Jets overcame that dreadful performance to win their next two games and benefited from the failures of some rivals to earn a division title with a 9-7 record.

Then they flogged the Indianapolis Colts last week, gaining a postseason rematch against the Raiders in Oakland on Sunday. The Jets fully expect a major contribution from Chrebet, even if other names precede his in the credits.

Despite the disappointment of the final offensive play four weeks ago and the criticism to which he was subjected when he lobbied for greater involvement in the midst of the Jets' winning streak, the man had a productive season by most standards.

"Although his 51 catches and 13 third-down receptions were the fewest of his NFL career with the exception of 1999, when he appeared in only 11 games, he finished the regular season with nine touchdown grabs, a personal and team best.

"In the red zone," offensive coordinator Paul Hackett noted, "he's had his best year -- TDs, scoring.

"I can't imagine him playing much better."

It's not the player who has changed but the circumstances. Coles, in his third season out of Florida State, has clicked with Pennington and blossomed into a game-altering target. Santana Moss, a first-round draft choice from Miami whose rookie season (2001) was ruined by a knee injury, has worked his way into the rotation as a dangerous deep threat.

Even though he wasn't drafted and enjoyed little acclaim at Hofstra, Chrebet didn't have a beef with his teammates. His problem, he decided, was with Hackett, and he sought a meeting with him a week after going public with his dissatisfaction.

"I never had any question about Wayne and his contribution," Hackett said this week. "You don't want a guy who sits on his hands when he's frustrated because then the frustration builds."

After Chrebet spoke out, Hackett explained that the team now had the flexibility of three wide receivers capable of a third-down catch, making the Jets harder to defense, and that Pennington's focus was on delivering the ball to the open man, regardless of seniority.

"I have said from the very beginning that in order for us to be at our best, Wayne Chrebet has to play at his top level because he has the one thing the other guys don't have.

"He has the experience. He's been in it, and you can always count on Wayne Chrebet," Hackett said.

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