Possibly the closest Super Bowl matchup in history also poses the question: how much does it mean when certain aspects of an NFL team improve dramatically in the second half of the season?
10 Oct 2005
by Russell Levine
First, an admission: I probably watched less football this weekend than any other two-day stretch the last few years. My typical weekend is spent largely on the couch -- except when I stand up to scream at the TV, so, you know, they can actually hear me and all -- kids wreaking havoc in the background, blissfully channel surfing my Saturdays and Sundays away. Any and all plans must be scheduled around the football season, with few exceptions.
One of those exceptions was set for Saturday night, with tickets secured for the U2 concert at Madison Square Garden. I spent the afternoon cursing at Michigan as they lost yet another game in inexcusable fashion to Minnesota. Yes, I realize Michigan is not a very good football team, but when you surrender a 60-yard run on 3rd-and-long to a team that is just trying to get to overtime with a backup QB who's not allowed to pass, that falls in the inexcusable category. After nearly four hours of that torture (and when are my rules changes going to be implemented again?) it was time to drop the kids next door and head for New York.
That kicked off what was to be an ambitious 24 hours, to say the least, involving a trip to the city, some pre-concert festivities, the concert, the train-ride home, presumably a few hours of sleep, the writing of an article for the New York Sun, and my departure for the Meadowlands and Sunday's Buccaneers-Jets game. I figured I'd get to bed around 2 a.m., and I knew that the kids would be up early next door and back at our place sometime around dawn. I had some ideas for the Sun article, but they were dependant upon either a) Texas losing to Oklahoma, or b) Penn State beating Ohio State. Thanks to Joe Paterno for complying and giving me a storyline.
With my mind clouded by lack of sleep (the kids were back home by 6:45) and a few other fog-inducing things, I focused my energies to try and pound out the article so that I could depart for the stadium by 10. The Bucs hadn't played in New Jersey since 1997, and I had been graciously invited to a hard-core tailgate party that was set to kick off by 8:30 a.m.
The article was a struggle. My eyes refused to focus. My brain felt like it was trying to escape the confines of my skull. My stomach was not happy with my attempt to channel my college years the previous evening. I had an idea, but I was having a difficult time putting it together. I thought coffee might help, but my stomach respectfully disagreed. After a few disjointed paragraphs, I took a shower break. After 10 minutes of scalding water, I felt much better. I clarified my thought process while the water cleansed the fog from my brain. Returning to the computer, the rest of the article flowed much easier. I still wasn't sure I had much of a story, but I fired it off to the editor with a bit of a warning and got ready to go to the game.
While I didn't regret going to the concert, the attempt to double up on my weekend activities was probably not the best idea I've had. This was to be just the sixth NFL game I had attended, although I don't expect any of you to feel sorry for me when you see the list:
1986, Broncos at Eagles: I talked my dad into taking me to this game, since I'd never been to an NFL contest. I was 14, and I had no idea that sitting in the 700 level at the Vet for an Eagles game was a bad idea. My memories are hazy, except that it was Buddy Ryan's home debut as Eagles coach and it didn't go well. We were about 970 feet from the field and really couldn't see much, but I heard plenty from the fans around me. It was to be a one-time occurrence for my dad and me.
1997, Buccaneers at Giants: Tampa Bay had a rare home date in New Jersey and was actually good for a change. I secured some free tickets from a friend. I wore my new-look Bucs cap, and sat out in a cold rain in the upper deck as the Bucs beat the Giants in a 4 p.m. game.
1997, Buccaneers at Jets: Emboldened by my success at Bucs-Giants two weeks earlier, I decided to pony up for tickets to see them play the Jets, in the middle of turning things around in the first year under Bill Parcells. Tampa Bay had the chance to clinch a playoff spot, but didn't bother showing up. It was 40-something degrees, but in the shade at the Meadowlands, it was approximately 58 below zero. With the score in the 38-0 range, I admitted to myself it was OK to leave early and the future wife and I packed up and beat the traffic home, staying just long enough to see "My man" Otis Smith return his second pick for a TD on the day.
2001, Steelers at Buccaneers: When a college friend settled in Tampa, I made plans for my first-ever pilgrimage to the New Sombrero. Tickets were secured, as were tickets to a Saturday PGA event in Orlando and a Saturday night Lightning-Rangers game. The Steelers crushed the Bucs, as Jerome Bettis ran for a million yards and even threw a TD pass. The highlight of the trip was probably having somebody at the Lightning game ask me if I was John Lynch. It was approximately 15 hours before kickoff, and I was on about my fourth 32-ounce beer, but none of that registered with the fan, who walked away disappointed when I revealed my true identity.
2003, Buccaneers vs. Raiders (the Big One): When I suffered through all those 10-loss seasons as a Bucs fan, I swore that if they ever went to the Super Bowl, I'd be there. But when they beat the Eagles to qualify, I had no realistic prospects for making it happen, short of paying thousands -- which I didn't have -- for one of those packages. But sometimes things are just meant to be, and I think the sports gods were smiling on me that week. A connection at work led to a free, yes free, single ticket to the game, secured on the Tuesday before Super Sunday. An airfare that was $1,300 over the phone was found for $250 online. And my best friend had moved to LA, and had a friend who owned a vacant rental condo in downtown San Diego. I went to the game alone, sat among the Raiders fans, and nearly cried when Derrick Brooks took the clinching interception to the house. Total cost of the weekend? Less than $400.
|Before I die, I want to own a vehicle like this one.|
All that brought me to Sunday, and my chance to join the J-E-T-S JetsJetsJets crowd at the swamp. I put on the same lucky red Bucs cap from 1997 and looked through the closet. I was worried the Brooks jersey might offend my hosts at the tailgate party, so I was going to go hat-only when I found a hideous button-down Bucs baseball jersey that I'd found for like $15 on a clearance rack at TJ Maxx last summer. It still had the tags on. My wife agreed it was the perfect item, and with that, I carried my exhausted, hung-over body to the car for the short drive to the Meadowlands, stopping for cash and a Gatorade along the way.
Arriving in the massive parking lots 2 1/2 hours before game time, I was impressed with the tailgating scene. What it lacked in scenery (it's not exactly the most picturesque stadium setting) was made up for in enthusiasm. There were even some RVs and Jets-themed vehicles about.
One of those belonged to my hosts, who had turned an old Snap-On Tools truck into a rolling Jets tailgate party. The vehicle's condition would rival that of Warren St. John's "Hawg" of Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer fame, complete with cracked windshield. I spotted it from a hundred yards off, but I hadn't seen anything yet. Some may think McMansions or luxury cars are the true trappings of success. Me, I'd much rather own a vehicle whose sole purpose was to further the enjoyment of football games.
Quickening my pace, I made it to the vehicle and found my friend Fitz, who had invited me and provided the tickets. He's been tailgating with this particular crew for years, and his attachment to the Jets dates to the Namath years. Like most people at the tailgate, and at the game, Fitz was sporting a Wayne Chrebet jersey. I'd say 60% of the fans at the game were wearing Jets jerseys, and about 75% percent of them were Chrebet, with a few Testaverdes thrown in for the occasion of his return.
|Bobby Flay's got nothing on Big Sal at the grill.|
Fitz had attempted to prepare me for the scene, showing me pictures of the Jets truck and forwarding the "menu" email that seemed like it would feed 50 people for an entire day:
BOB- 1 1/2 DOZ. EGGS, 1 1/2 DOZ. ROLLS, PORK ROLL, BACON, OJ, CHEESE
SAL- SAUSAGE PATTY, 6 BAGELS, CREAM CHEESE
BOB- BRUSHETTA, BREAD FOR BRUSHETTA
SAL- CAESAR SALAD, CHICKEN
BOB- HAMBURGERS, ROLLS, MOZZ. CHEESE, RICOTTA CHEESE (1 LB.), HOT DOGS & ROLLS
SAL- FILET MIGNON, ONIONS, BABY PORTOBELLA MUSHROOMS, PORT WINE
SAL- TICKETS, ELECTRIC KNIFE
BOB- TICKETS, GAS VAN, WATER, CAMERA, LAUNDRY
FITZ- BEER, SODA, WATER
AL- PASTRIES, 10 LOAVES BREAD
But neither the pictures nor the emails could do the actual scene justice, not with New York "Big Sal," proprietor of two New York restaurants called "Senor Swanky's," presiding over multiple grills and whipping up pasta dishes. Not with a fully stocked bar -- featuring a gasoline-powered blender -- manned by Andy, who moonlights as a partner in a major accounting firm. Not with the green-painted rims on the Jets truck. This was a thing of beauty. College football had nothing on these guys.
|Look, my shirt's not so ugly!|
Introductions were made. Sal showed me the largest filet mignon I'd ever seen, cooking to perfection on the rotisserie grill. Onions and mushrooms were stewing in an enormous pot. Andy came by, wordlessly handing out shot cups and pouring a green concoction of "Jets Juice." Despite the condition I was in, and a desire to keep things alcohol free, I didn't feel that saying no to this particular offer was an option. Nor did I feel it was advisable to inquire as to the recipe. A toast was made -- I raised my cup to "Zubaz pants!" -- and the shot was downed. I'm not certain, but I think my palette recognized Nyquil, I'm just not sure which flavor. Margaritas followed. I hit the pasta appetizer and had a cheeseburger when they came off the grill. Surprisingly, my body seemed to agree with this treatment and I was rounding into shape as the 1 p.m. kickoff approached.
I was not the lone Buccaneer fan at the party. I was not even the ugliest-dressed Buccaneer fan at the party, because I didn't get the memo about eye patches and hoop earrings. The eye patch had fallen apart, but some duct tape from the Jets truck -- no doubt stowed for just such an occasion -- rescued it.
The Jets fans were by and large friendly, and seemed resigned to their fate this season. I protested that I felt Testaverde would play well, and I was worried about Bucs QB Brian Griese. With Cadillac Williams out, I thought the Bucs might be in real trouble. Most of that fell on deaf ears, as the Gang Green backers assumed Tampa Bay would roll to 5-0.
After about my fourth filet mignon sandwich on fresh Italian bread (which probably ranks among the five best-tasting things I've ever eaten) and a few more rounds of Jets Juice (I'm convinced the second batch used cherry Nyquil), it was time to break down and head in. I watched in amazement as a NASCAR pit crew-worthy operation took apart and stowed in the truck multiple tables, tents, generators, bars and gas grills. In less than 10 minutes, the whole thing was packed up and we all headed for the gates.
After the scene in the parking lot the game was anti-climactic. We had excellent seats -- in the upper deck, but dead on the 50-yard line, a tremendous view. I was only slightly heckled on my way in, and the Jets fans surrounding us in the seats were friendly.
|Fitz and Bobby sporting everyone's favorite jersey.|
Fitz blamed the crowd's lackluster performance on the absence of Fireman Ed, the Zubaz-wearing leader of the J-E-T-S chant. A few imitators in Ed's section attempted to get it going, but the crowd never really picked things up even as the Jets put themselves in position to win. Maybe that's because when you've seen as much disappointment as your average Jets fan has endured, you learn not to get your hopes up when a 41-year-old QB comes off his coach to rescue a season that was circling the drain -- at least for another seven days. Either that, or you get as drunk as the fan in our section who tripped and fell over three rows of seats, without suffering so much as a scratch.
Or, if you're Big Sal or Andy or Bobby, you head back to the Jets truck for a postgame drink, and perhaps even hit the Yankee game in the Bronx after eight hours at the Meadowlands. Me? I headed home -- and for my bed. I can't wait for next weekend and the return to my couch.
And as for that Sun article? It worked out after all. I returned home to find an email from the editor saying he liked how it read. I may not be able to drink like I did in college, but I guess I can still turn out a last-minute term paper in less than optimal conditions.
We've all had some fun at Mike Martz's expense, but I can't kick the man when he's down. Martz will take a leave of absence while he tries to recover from a serious heart infection. Good luck Mike, get well soon. We hope to see you back on the sidelines, exercising your unique game-day judgment.
1. Southern Cal (1): Get ready for hype-overload with the Irish looming on Saturday.
3. Texas (3): I was impressed that they shook off early mistakes and put the hammer down vs. OU.
3. Virginia Tech (2): Horns and Hokies are 2 and 2A.
4. Georgia (5): Very physical in beating down the Vols.
5. Florida State (4): Wake Forest shouldn't have been a game in the fourth quarter.
6. Alabama (7): Who will step up to replace Prothro?
7. Penn State (16): Lions' defense was more impressive than Ohio State's.
8. Miami (Florida) (9): Requisite crushing of Duke.
9. Notre Dame (11): I have a feeling I won't be able to stomach the NBC coverage on Saturday.
10. LSU (12): Good job treating Vandy like Vandy.
11. Boston College (13): That cheap shot on Kiwanuka was as bad as I've seen.
12. UCLA (15): Meet Maurice Drew, touchdown machine.
13. Florida (17): Nice bounce-back whipping of Miss. St.
14. Ohio State (6): Tough to have "better" losses than their pair.
15. Michigan State (18): Will they pack it in after Michigan loss? We'll know Saturday vs. OSU.
16. Oregon (23): Probably benefited from catching Arizona State flat.
17. Cal (10): They still have a chance vs. USC, but Reggie could light them up.
18. Tennessee (8): They have a week off to try and get Clausen healthy.
19. Louisville (NR) 69, 61, and 63 points in their last three wins. What the heck happened vs. USF?
20. Minnesota (24): Enjoy the Jug, but one win in 19 years is no reason to plant the flag.
21. Texas Tech (20): Not sure they've earned the karma that allowed them to beat Nebraska.
22. Auburn (NR): I should have had them in last week.
23. Colorado (NR): Mauled A&M, should win the Big 12 North.
24. TCU (NR): How did they lose to SMU, exactly?
25. Wisconsin (14): Northwestern fans get their money's worth.
Dropped out: Arizona State (19), Georgia Tech (21), Michigan (22), Nebraska (25).
Games I watched: Minnesota-Michigan, parts of NC State-Georgia Tech, West Virginia-Rutgers, Oklahoma-Texas, Georgia-Tennessee, USC-Arizona State.
8 comments, Last at 11 Oct 2005, 8:35pm by NF