The Jets’ AFC Championship Game loss to the Colts, a superior team that’s the favorite to win Sunday’s Super Bowl, ranks low on the list of civic sports disappointments. Sure, it would have been historic to have the team break through for its first Super Bowl win in 41 years, but there was a lot of pleasure in the young, promising team’s unexpected success. Now the Jets will be favored to win the AFC East next season, and quarterback Mark Sanchez has become a budding Jeter-esque crossover superstar. The best is yet to come. It seems.
Of course, the world is full of teams, players, and cultural figures who were supposed to take over the world but didn’t. (Kevin Spacey comes to mind; the man went from the Next Jimmy Stewart to the Bad Guy in Fred Claus frighteningly fast.) Particularly when they start to think the hard part is over and stop making the kind of decisions that got them to the cusp of greatness in the first place.
The most recent, and painful, local example of this is the Mets. (The Mets are often a “painful local example.”) In 2006, the team was on the verge of a dynasty. Emerging phenoms like David Wright and Jose Reyes combined with in-their-prime stars like Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado to serve as the nucleus of a team that looked like it was going to dominate the National League East into the next decade. When they fell just short in a crushing National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the agony of just missing was mitigated by what lay ahead. The Mets still had a three-to-five-year window for a championship: They seemed more prepared for the future than even the uptown Yankees.
We know what happened after that: The late-season collapses in 2007 and 2008 and the implosion of 2009. The Mets are farther away than ever. The problem was that Omar Minaya always felt he was one player addition away, and rather than recognizing the growing rot at the middle of his franchise and its farm system, he went for Band-Aid solutions. The Mets stayed mostly idle after 2006, and the 2007 collapse pushed them to bring in Johan Santana, who is great but still only one man. After the 2008 bullpen implosion, J. J. Putz and Francisco Rodriguez were the cavalry, theoretically shoring up the pen but not paving over the growing potholes in the outfield and on the bench. The Mets thought they’d already made it, but they hadn’t, and they never did. (As for Kevin Spacey, he never should have started turning down the sharply written character parts that made him who he was in favor of weirdly messianic roles in movies like K-Pax and Pay It Forward. In Hollywood, only Will Smith gets to save the world.)
Considering the Jets have been to just four conference championships in their history, you would think they would understand how difficult it is to make it back. But coach Rex Ryan is out there calling the team “the biggest show in town” and asking the front office for mere tweaks this off-season. That might not be enough. Take the New Orleans Saints. In 2005, everyone thought they were the future of the NFL. But it took them until this season — when they brought in Gregg Williams to overhaul their defense — to finally make the Super Bowl. Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum has made it clear the Jets feel their young players are a year or two away from fully maturing, but that shouldn’t stop him from trying to make major acquisitions. The team has some major needs — a better second cornerback could punish teams who throw away from Darrelle Revis, like the Colts did with great success in the AFC title game. Vernon Gholston hasn’t become the pass-rushing sack machine that most top teams feature; the Jets should keep looking for that missing piece. And while Braylon Edwards, Jerricho Cotchery, and Dustin Keller are useful receivers, none of them is the kind of top-tier star that will help provide the team with a truly balanced offense. The Saints and Colts didn’t get here by sitting around, and the Jets shouldn’t, either.
Will they address these needs? Or will they put their faith in promise and good vibes? The answer should be clear — just ask Kevin Spacey, whose next movie co-stars John Stamos.