Somewhere up in my parents’ attic in rural Illinois, in a box of old neglected toys that would make Woody and Buzz cry, lies a beaten-up G.I. Joe figurine of William “Refrigerator” Perry. He came with a black football attached to a chain, wore a No. 72 tank top, and sported dark-green pants. He’s probably got grass stains on him, and he might be missing an arm. But he was my favorite toy; Cobra Commander was no match for him.
The real-life Refrigerator Perry, of course, was a massive defensive tackle for the 1985 Chicago Bears, perhaps the most popular, most famous team in NFL history. That team captured the imagination of the country in a way few other teams, in any sport, ever have. They turned their boisterous head coach, Mike Ditka, into an icon so renowned he was inspiring Saturday Night Live sketches a decade later. They had a “punky QB” named Jim McMahon who turned headbands with black marker written on them into pseudo-political statements. Most famously, they recorded their own rap—back when rap was still mostly the underground domain of Kurtis Blow and Rock Master Scott—called “Super Bowl Shuffle,” which actually hit pop charts and inspires parodies to this day. (I guarantee one of your friends can still do Walter Payton’s verse: “Running the ball is like makin’ romance.”) They were the type of team whose players got their own G.I. Joe figurines.
What the 1985 Bears were, mostly, was brash: From the very beginning of training camp that year—after a season in which they’d surprised observers by reaching the conference-championship game—they carried themselves like the best team in football, even though they’d never won anything. You couldn’t escape the Bears that year; at one point, Coca-Cola used McMahon and Perry as the centerpieces of their ad campaign to retreat from the New Coke marketing disaster. The thing was, the Bears backed it all up. This group of crazy characters and their wacky coach beat everyone who crossed their path, losing only one game all season and trouncing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Bears were a fad, sure, but had they not won a championship, history would have forgotten them. That they won it all, after claiming all along that’s what they were going to do—that’s what made them legends. We like nothing more in sports than a cocky champ, whether it’s Joe Namath, Reggie Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, or the 1986 Mets. We haven’t seen a football team like the Bears since. But I’m looking around these parts these days … and I’m thinking we might have the closest thing in 25 years right here in town.
When the Jets agreed to appear on HBO’s Hard Knocks before this season began, they were asking for trouble. Until last year’s Cincinnati Bengals, every Hard Knocks team had ended up with a record equal to or worse than the previous season’s. More to the point, the Jets carried themselves on Hard Knocks as if they’d won the Super Bowl last year, rather than a team that needed an inordinate amount of luck just to get into the playoffs. The Jets—the quieter, less successful franchise in town, at least since the days of Namath—were full of characters, from Mark Sanchez setting off stink bombs in the coaches’ office to Antonio Cromartie hilariously struggling to remember the names of all his children. (“I have Alonzo, who is 5. I have, uh, Karis, who is 3. I have my Junior, which is, uh, 3. I have my, um, daughter who just turned 3 as of yesterday. I have another son, named Tyler, he turns 3 in December. I have another daughter that was born October 16th named London. Another daughter that was born named Lelani who is 2 years old. And, ah, I have my newborn with my wife—her name is Jerzie.”)
But the real hero and breakout star was coach Rex Ryan, who unleashed more F-bombs than a Mamet play being filmed by Quentin Tarantino and scored by Eminem. Ryan was so compelling and entertaining on Hard Knocks that you wondered why he even bothered being a football coach; the man is destined to host the world’s first NC-17–rated cooking show. What was most striking about him, and why the Jets players love playing for him so much, is his total lack of guile about his confidence in his team. In a risk-averse league full of coaches terrified to make headlines lest it cost them their jobs, Ryan, in discussing whether he was pumping up his team’s chances too much, brayed, “Fuck that!” On camera, he responded to a question about his team’s goals for the upcoming season: “Leading the league in fucking wins!” Linebacker Bart Scott explained why his teammates would follow Ryan into hell: “He talks like us.”
The football gods hate this, and by “the football gods” we mean the mythical, Parcellsian, Belichickian, Lombardian notion that football is won by sweat and blood and hard labor, by staying out of the spotlight and digging in. The Tom Landry “act like you’ve been there before” school. (The current representative of this is NBC analyst Tony Dungy, who would have hated the 1985 Bears.) The Jets—perhaps aware that an upcoming labor nuclear war could make this season the last one for a while that actually crowns a champion—spared no expense in a non-salary-cap year to bring in all armament, ranging from wizened veterans looking for titles, like Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson, to supposed “troublemakers,” like Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards.
There was nothing prudent about how the Jets came into this season. They wanted it all, and they wanted it now. These are the types of sins the football gods love to punish. And when they lost a heartbreaker in week one to the Ravens, with Sanchez and the offense looking awful, the vultures began circling: The first half of the Jets’ schedule was one of the most daunting in the NFL, and they’d started 0-1. Now the Jets would pay for their insolence!
They haven’t lost since. The Jets have won in dominant fashion (destroying the hapless Bills), in vengeful, we’re-cock-of-the-walk-now fashion (stomping on the neck of the Patriots in week two), erase-the-past fashion (eradicating old “friend” Brett Favre), and, perhaps most important, in off-game-but-still-finding-a-way-to-win fashion (an ugly but effective win over the Broncos last week). The defense hasn’t had cornerback Darrelle Revis at 100 percent health all year, and it hasn’t mattered. Sanchez is still learning on the job, and it hasn’t mattered. Just like Ryan said they would, the Jets currently lead the league in fucking wins. Heading into the bye week, they’d won five in a row and were facing their easiest stretch of the year: five games—three at home, only one against a team with a winning record (Houston), before a season-determining Monday Night Football game against those blasted Patriots in Foxboro on December 6. The Jets could well be 10-1 going into that game, on a ten-game winning streak, on top of the football world.
That, of course, won’t be enough. What if the Jets really are as good as they think they are? What if they go 13-3, win the AFC East, and clinch home-field throughout the playoffs? What if they back it all up? What if the Jets—gasp—win the Super Bowl?
I’ll tell you what happens: The New York Jets become the closest thing this niche-media generation will have to the 1985 Chicago Bears. They line up in almost every way: charismatic and brash head coach; handsome, popular quarterback; future Hall of Fame running back; dominant defense; a tortured franchise history desperate for the breakthrough season that erases the past. This could be the Jets team everyone remembers. This could be the Jets As America’s Team.
Sure, there are still issues. Revis needs to get healthy. Tomlinson has been a godsend so far but is still an older running back who was considered washed-up last year. You never know when Holmes or Edwards is going to do something dumb. But the major worry, as always, is Sanchez, who will be a better quarterback for this team in five years than he is right now. He’s not the type of quarterback who can win games by himself, no matter how many color commentators call him “poised.” He’s still young, inexperienced, and, all told, a bit erratic. At his best, he is an efficient game manager who simply needs to avoid mistakes and let the team’s superior talent elsewhere take care of everything else. That might not be inspiring and that might not generate the pinball-machine stats we like in our quarterbacks, but hey: Namath’s stats weren’t that great either. Sanchez can be the Hollywood idol for this team without having to do all the heavy lifting, just like Broadway Joe.
But as long as the team has Rex Ryan as head coach, we’re going to believe. Ryan is an absolute gift for fans, in every way: He’s a brilliant coach (particularly on the defensive side of the ball), he bears a striking resemblance to that fun, drunk uncle from Long Island, and, mostly, he’s a lone voice of gloriously self-aggrandizing bluster in an NFL world that turns more beige every week. He gives guys the finger at MMA fights; he drinks beer in baggy shorts at Yankees games; he tells everyone who will listen that he, and his team, are better than you. So far this season, he’s been nothing but right. Guys like that are rare, and seasons like this are even rarer. Strap in for the ride: The Jets are all anyone’s gonna be talking about all winter. Ryan is going to make such a great action figure.
You can write to Leitch at firstname.lastname@example.org.