‘I hate the Jets,” says Tom Brady. This makes Woody Johnson smile.
No one—let alone Brady, the dimple-chinned, model-marrying, Super Bowl–ring–collecting, Bieber-haircut-wearing quarterback, raised under the New England Patriots’ strict policy of omertà—has bothered to publicly hate the New York Jets in quite some time. You don’t hate teams that are middling, mediocre, inconsequential. Traditionally, the people most likely to publicly hate the New York Jets are long-suffering New York Jets fans.
This year, though, everyone hates the Jets. Or loves the Jets. People can’t stop talking about the Jets. Sports-radio hosts ask Brady if he’s watching Hard Knocks, the reality show on HBO about the Jets’ training camp. (He hasn’t, because he hates the Jets.) Priggish TV hosts chastise Jets coach Rex Ryan for his bountiful profanity, showcased in all its glorious ingenuity on that program. In the NFL, it’s taboo to boast, or make brash predictions, or trash-talk, at least publicly. And yet, here’s an excerpt from Ryan’s preseason pep talk, delivered not only to the team but to the whole world via HBO, and already a YouTube hit: “If we play at our best, we will beat every team in this fucking league playing at their best … We know we’re better than you. We don’t give a fuck if you know it or not. We don’t give a shit if you give us your best game. We’re going to give you our best game. And we’re going to beat the fuck out of you. How’s that?”
Yes, all of this makes Woody Johnson very happy, though he’s not particularly effusive, nor foulmouthed, himself. At 63, he’s trim, assiduously fit, and wears black rectangular glasses along with, on this late August day, a white Dri-Fit athletic top, white athletic socks, white running shoes, and a white Jets cap tugged over his bald head. He sits with his legs crossed at the ankle in a bare room at the team’s training camp in upstate New York. It’s pack-up day; the team is heading back to its luxury facility in New Jersey. Johnson leans back in his chair.
“We know who we are. We’re poised to go,” he says. “We’re ground-and-pound football. Northeast football. Outside, all-weather. We love running the ball.” These words, this jargon—ground-and-pound, Northeast football—seem to feel good in his mouth, good to say out loud, natural even for a guy who was born Robert Wood Johnson IV, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. In this room, he has the fearless air of a man with a giant bodyguard standing behind him. Or in this case, a giant mouth. “As Rex says,” he continues, “we’re not going to be a team that other teams want to see. We’re up front about it. People are talking about it. They’re saying we talk too much, we do this, we do that. Fine. Whatever. Good.”
He likes this team. He likes being the owner of this team.
“Let ’em talk about us,” he says.
Cortland, New York, is about 30 miles due south of Syracuse, and in August it converts into a two-mile-long Jets souvenir store. Green-and-white jerseys, helmets, and T-shirts hang in nearly every shop and bar window, and in one gift store you can buy a Jets version of Monopoly featuring Joe Namath on the box. The game, a few years out of date, also features Chad Pennington, a recent and much less celebrated Jets quarterback. This pairing, Broadway Joe with a guy named Chad, neatly summarizes the narrative arc of the franchise: a glorious burst of glamour way back in 1969, followed by 40 years spent almost entirely sizzle-free.
This year, though, is all about the sizzle. In 2009, the Jets followed an uneven season—they finished 9-7 and barely ducked into the playoffs—with a rousing, improbable finish: two straight upset wins in the playoffs that left them just one victory short of the Super Bowl. As a result, few people remember last year’s Jets as a wobbly team that stumbled backward into the postseason; everyone remembers them as the gutsy squad that nearly shocked the world. And this preseason, everyone, from analysts to fans to the New York Jets themselves, expect the team to go even further—which can only mean, for this team, winning the Super Bowl.
The Jets hold the first weeks of their preseason camp at the SUNY-Cortland campus, and the crash of pads and the grunts of men are audible as you approach the field, where the players are doing what most of them have been doing every year since they were 10 years old: running drills, lobbing footballs, smashing headlong into tackling dummies. In the heat, in full uniform, they look oddly top-heavy, their wide centurion shoulders balanced over spindly, knickered legs. Nearby, a young curly-haired dude in a ball cap lugs some equipment to an SUV, looking for all the world like a rock-and-roll roadie save for the athletic leggings peeking out from under his baggy cargo shorts. Someone leans over and whispers, “That’s Mark Sanchez,” the team’s $28 million quarterback, who last year as a rookie led the team in touchdown passes (12), interceptions (20), and GQ-photo-shoots-in-a-swimsuit-on-the-beach-with- a-model-he-ended-up-dating (1).