In the wake of a 49-19 thrashing on Thanksgiving night, fans and pundits looking for historical context for the maddening New York Jets should probably look outside the NFL. Because a near perfect doppelganger to the Jets exists in another league; a franchise and a fan base just as familiar with frustration and just as frustrated with a lack of success.
That team, the Jets’ twin-under-the-skin, plays baseball just up interstate 95: the Boston Red Sox.
Think the comparison is a stretch? Read on, and accept the reality that the New York Jets are the Boston Red Sox of the NFL.
Reason #1: Stunning Victories for Upstart Leagues
Both the Jets and Red Sox experienced early success, and both provided signature wins in the formative years of their respective leagues.
Prior to January 12, 1969, most of the media and football insiders considered the NFL far superior to the upstart AFL. The Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls, and most everyone expected the NFL’s Baltimore Colts to continue that dominance in Super Bowl III. The Colts were favored by 17 points, and conventional wisdom held that the NFL possessed superior players, coaches, and management.
However, quarterback Joe Namath famously guaranteed a victory, and the underdog New York Jets backed it up with a 16-7 win. The result shocked the football establishment, and it gave the AFL a much-needed shot of confidence and respectability. Including Super Bowl III, former AFL teams would go on to win 4 of 6 Super Bowls, which made it clear that old-guard and new-guard had no meaning in the merged league.
The Boston Red Sox had their own signature championship, when they beat the National League’s Pittsburgh Pirates in the first World Series in 1903. That upset was just as surprising for its time, if not more so. The National League had at least a 25-year head start on the American League (derisively called the “Junior Circuit”), and the entire baseball establishment believed the Pirates would toy with the AL champs from Boston.
The Red Sox served notice with that victory, and the AL won 10 of the first 15 World Series, including 5 championships by Boston. Just as with the Jets in 1969, the established order was turned on its head, and newcomers changed the course of the sport.
Reason # 2: Decades of Ineptitude
After that early success, both teams experienced quick and prolonged falls from grace.
The Jets made the playoffs the year after their Super Bowl victory, but they never posted another winning record under Namath. They won at least two-thirds of their games in only 3 of the next 38 years (and once was a 6-3 record in a strike year), and in that time frame, they won the AFC East only 2 times and finished last (or tied for last) 14 times.
Even more telling is the Jets’ postseason futility. They did make the playoffs 12 times from 1970-2008. But several times they barely squeezed in, and the team went only 6-10 in those playoff seasons. Perhaps worst of all, they never returned to the Super Bowl, reaching the AFC Championship game twice and losing both times.
The Red Sox years of frustration are well documented. The early championships were followed by 86 years without a single one. But there are two differences between the ineptitude of each franchise: (1) the Red Sox made it to the World Series four times during their drought, the Jets haven’t made it back to the Super Bowl at all; and (2) the Jets are only 43 years into their drought -- exactly half as long as the Red Sox’ march through the desert. That second thought might be a chilling one for Jets fans.
Reason #3: Inferiority Complex
The Jets and Red Sox (and their fans) live under inferiority complexes, competing with specific teams for on-field success and off-field buzz and adulation, and both suffering “little brother” syndrome in comparison to more accomplished teams from New York.
The Jets are overshadowed by their co-tenants at MetLife Stadium: the New York Giants. The Giants are eight-time NFL champions, and currently have one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a penchant for successful post-season runs. Since 1987, the Giants averaged a Super Bowl appearance every 5 years, and the franchise retains a much stronger hold on New York fans and media than the Jets.
The Jets spend time and energy battling the Giants for media attention, for fans and season-ticket holders, for companies to buy luxury suites, and for local broadcast deals. But in the end, the Jets lack of on-field success means they come out wanting in comparisons with their more successful big brother, who resides in the same house but is lavished with much more praise.
The Red Sox nemesis wears pinstripes and plays in the Bronx: the New York Yankees. The Yankees drove Red Sox management, players, and fans bonkers for decades, finding ways to derail seasons of great potential (1949 and 1978) and breaking their hearts when all looked certain to go their way (2003). The Red Sox inferiority complex lasted for over half a century, as they watched their southern neighbors rack up 26 World Series titles before the Sox finally broke through again in 2004.
Lack of success, a close neighbor heaped with praise year after year, and the drive to compete with them at all costs -- those factors are enough to push anyone to desperate measures, which brings us to similarity #4, the unfortunate effect of the inferiority complex...
Reason #4: More Sizzle, Less Steak
In recent years, the Jets and Red Sox responded to their on-field disappointments the same way -- sign big-name players to build off-season buzz. And then they watched those big names fail to perform, as both teams got worse. (Details of the Jets history are here: http://www.footballnation.com/content/jets-blame-falls-ownership/12612/.)
Not coincidentally, the Jets shifted into big-name acquisition mode after the Giants won the Super Bowl in 2008, and they had a new stadium to fill in a few years. They signed quarterback Brett Favre, their first big splash in free agency in 10 years. Then they continued the trend toward marquee players by signing aging stars: running back LaDainian Tomlinson and defensive end Jason Taylor. And they brought in talented players with questionable histories: corner Antonio Cromartie, and receivers Braylon Edwards and Plaxico Burress.
Meanwhile, solid performers like running back Thomas Jones and return man Leon Washington went elsewhere. And important contributors receiver Brad Smith and Pro Bowl defensive end Shaun Ellis signed with division rivals while the Jets were caught up in the pursuit of corner Nnamdi Asomugha (who would end up in Philadelphia). And when the Giants won the Super Bowl again in 2012, the Jets doubled-down on hype-over-hope by trading for super-famous (and super-mediocre) quarterback Tim Tebow. That hasn’t exactly worked out.
In recent years, the Red Sox followed the same pattern. In response to the Yankees 2009 world championship, the Red Sox signed aging pitcher John Lackey. And when their television ratings started to slip, they followed that up by trading away young prospects to get big-name first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and vastly overpaid for free agent outfielder Carl Crawford. On the downside, proven players like Jason Bay, Kevin Youkilis, and Jonathan Papelbon were shown the door. Again, all sizzle, no steak.
Predictably, these moves did not pan out for either team. The Jets missed the playoffs last year and look certain to do so again in 2012. And the Red Sox haven’t made the playoffs in two years, despite a huge payroll, and they traded away both Crawford and Gonzalez in an effort to shed payroll and get younger.
Both teams have seen a severe talent drain, which led to poorer performance, and thus less overall buzz -- which of course, led to more big-name signings. Second verse, same as the first.
Reason #5: Memorable Blunders
Finally, what would a sad-sack franchise be without a few heart-breaking flubs? The moments of Red Sox failure are legendary: Bucky “bleeping” Dent’s home run; Johnny Pesky holding onto the ball; the grounder through Buckner’s legs; Aaron Boone’s walk-off in the 11th; and so many more.
With the debacle on Thanksgiving night, the Jets are building an impressive list of blunders themselves: Dan Marino’s fake spike; letting Bill Belichick get away (twice); Joe Namath’s halftime interview; the 2008 collapse, and of course, Sanchez’ tongue-in-cheek fumble last Thursday.
The Jets and Red Sox share an eerie historical symmetry. Unfortunately for Jets fans, they never experienced the second-round of success before their franchise started signing overpaid underachievers. And if the similarities continue, it might be another 43 years before they return to glory.
The good news for Jets fans is that it’s a lot easier to turn things around in the NFL. Every year teams go from last place in their division to the playoffs. And the salary cap means can't be outspend every year. However, there is no evidence that a turn-around is in the offing. It will be a few years before they can get out from under Mark Sanchez’ contract, and the team appears to be tuning out head coach Rex Ryan.
But if you want hope, look no further than the San Francisco 49ers. All they needed was the right coach and a new attitude. Jets fans might have thought Ryan would be that coach, but given the downward direction of the team, it appears unlikely. In fact, they appear to be much more likely to remain who they are -- the Red Sox of the NFL.