A swarm of HBO cameramen weaves between the players, gathering footage for Hard Knocks. Johnson’s been watching the show closely. “I plan my whole evening around it,” he says. When the producers started looking for a team to cover in 2010, the Jets were an obvious candidate and more than happy to take part. “We knew we had a home run with the Jets and Rex Ryan,” says Ross Greenburg, the program’s executive producer. “Just being around the organization, seeing the way the culture presents itself, and the willingness of the players to participate, we recognized this would be special. And it’s been a huge success by any reasonable standard.”
It’s all part of the 2010 Jets show. The Jets have something to sell. They have an exciting team and a brand-new stadium, with expensive Personal Seat Licenses for season-ticket holders. So the Jets are striving to make the world forget the Same Old Jets and introduce them to the Brand New Jets—what we might better call the Bad News Jets.
Because if you ever wanted to cast a feel-good sports movie about a charmed crew of lovable misfits, malcontents, young guns, and aged vets, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the 2010 Jets. There are the marquee players you likely already know, like Sanchez, or All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who’s arguably the NFL’s best defender and inarguably the Jets’ best player. He takes his coverage job so seriously that he mirrors the movements of the other team’s receiver not only on the field but also while he’s on the sideline, a state of concentrated isolation he calls putting someone on “Revis Island.” Unfortunately, for much of camp the role of Revis was played by understudies: Revis himself was holding out for a new contract, and his absence became the main story line of Hard Knocks. Then, on Labor Day, Revis finally agreed to a new deal, which was joyful news to the Jets faithful and, no doubt, the producers of Hard Knocks. Their final episode aired the following Wednesday, and, as is fitting for these storybook Jets, the Revis signing gave them a perfect ending.
There’s no shortage of compelling subplots, either, from LaDainian Tomlinson, a fading future Hall of Fame running back signed to New York for one last run at a ring, to Antonio Cromartie, an expert cornerback shipped in from San Diego, who arrives with his own baggage. For starters, at age 26, he has eight children by six different women. Four of those kids are, or will turn, 3 years old this year. In his locker there’s a card that says “We love you Daddy!” and features no fewer than sixteen photos on it.
And then there’s Ryan. The garrulous, scurrilous, irresistible coach has, thanks to Hard Knocks, become a reality-show rock star. If you have been watching that show and you are not entranced with him, you are either stonehearted or brain dead. He laughs and swears and prowls the sidelines, shouting zingers like (about a blossoming player) “We’re seeing his nuts drop before our very eyes!” or (about an underachiever) “You couldn’t play dead in a B-movie Western.” Disappointed by his team’s preseason effort, he rages, “Let’s make sure we play like the fucking New York Jets and not some fucking slap-dick team,” then ends the upbraiding with the highly quotable rallying cry: “Let’s go and eat a goddamn snack.”
“There’s never been anything like this,” says Woody Johnson, soaking in all the buzz. Of course, he helped engineer it, in part by putting it all on TV. Now he’s like a proud producer watching his show hit No. 1 in the ratings. “If you wear a Jets hat in California, you will be stopped, guaranteed,” he says. “They’ll ask you about Sanchez. A friend of mine was over in Europe wearing a Jets hat, and he got mobbed. People like the cast of interesting characters around the team. Everyone wants to know about the Jets.” Johnson has put together a compelling attraction. Now he just has to hope the Jets show, like Hard Knocks, has an uplifting finale.
When Woody Johnson bought the Jets back in 2000, he was so press-averse that his name was habitually preceded by the adjective “reclusive.” “Enigmatic” and “mystery man” also came up. He shunned interviews and stymied reporters who approached his friends and associates. “It takes a while to decide exactly what your relationship to the press is going to be, how open you want to be,” he says now. “So I tried being closed. I tried to keep everything secret.” In his life, he was accustomed to a certain kind of notoriety, which came with his famous name, but he’d never been in the spotlight. Owning a sports team—let alone a New York–based NFL team—is, he says, “like politics. Everybody knows what you’re doing all the time. Everybody has opinions. And they’re all willing to share.”