All I could think about was “where’s Mike Lucci?”
It was kind of an odd thought to have as my most eagerly anticipated football moment in recent memory was going up in flames before my very eyes.
Let me explain. It was August 7th, 1971, and for some reason the Jets were playing the Lions (sound familiar?) in Tampa of all places, in the season’s first exhibition game. So much of this memory seems off to me as I think about it today. First, why Tampa? Second, how in the world did the first exhibition game between two squads with so-so prospects for the upcoming 1971 NFL season manage to draw over 51,000 fans to the game?
This one mattered to me, though, because it marked the return to live action for Joe Willie Namath. Unaware that first grade was creeping up on me in a matter of days, all I cared about this August 7th was finally getting to see Namath live behind center.
You see, Namath had broken his wrist in the fifth game of the 1970 season, and missed the remainder of the year. This unfortunate event had deprived me of seeing my hero on TV, because five-year-old me didn’t discover televised football games until the 1970 season’s final month (in the category of too much information, SportsSis was born in November of 1970, and to keep me occupied and otherwise out of the way, I was introduced to football cards and the NFL by my parents shortly thereafter — God bless you, Steve Sabol and NFL Films).
It didn’t strike me as odd that Namath was getting extended preseason playing time, and I was overjoyed as he led the Jets to an early 14-0 lead. Then it happened. Heading toward the half, the Jets fumbled on their own 29, and while I don’t remember the identity of the guilty party on the Jets side who coughed up the ball, I sure remember what happened next. A Detroit linebacker by the name of Mike Lucci scooped up the fumble and headed for an easy six.
As I would learn repeatedly over the next half century or so, nothing was ever ordinary or routine when the Jets were involved. As Lucci headed down the sideline, one Jet streaked (okay, maybe “streaked” is stretching it when it comes to old number 12, but Joe was still only 28 at the time, and his last injury had been to his wrist after all) across the field with an angle on the lumbering Detroit middle linebacker, and the intent of preventing this meaningless TD. Yup, it was Joe Willie, and yup, Namath not only failed in his flailing attempt to take down the 230-pound Lucci, but blew out his knee in the process when a Detroit defensive tackle speared Namath from the side as he futilely attempted his takedown.
Asked by a reporter after the game why in the world he had decided to try and tackle Lucci in an unimportant preseason game, Namath responded “no way I could let him go, I guess it proved that I’m not a defensive back.” Nope, he wasn’t, but Joe Willie was something else — a football player first.
Now I didn’t care about any of that back in 1971, instead flying into the kind of rage that only another 6-year-old Jets fan can relate to. I raced to my bedroom, tore into my shoebox of football cards until I could find the hated Mike Lucci, buried among Mel Farr, Bill Munsen and the rest of the Lions, and proceeded to draw black eyes on his smiling face with my crayons, before deciding that was not nearly sufficient punishment for his ruining my first football season before it had even begun, so I then ripped the Lucci card into little pieces.
But per usual, I digress. Because this is Sam Darnold’s time. And as that ill-fated throw was made across his body as he ran toward the opposite sideline, and the ball floated into the waiting arms of Lions defensive back Quandre Diggs, (I’m nearly positive I could hear the ball quacking like a duck as it made it’s way across the field), I knew my pain may only be beginning.
As I sat shaking my head and staring at my barely worn New York Mets, custom-made sneakers (I had worn my blue and orange kicks to watch the game in a half-baked attempt to exorcise the demons from the shoes that had cratered any chance the Mets had at a successful season — again, only the die-hard Mets/Jets fans among you will understand), I began imagining scenario after scenario of how the already super bad could get much, much worse.
These are the Jets, after all, and as God-awful as the first throw of our new savior’s pro career was, having gone for a soul-sucking pick six, I just knew there was potential for this knife to be turned a few more times before it was all done. I kept waiting for Sam’s Mike Lucci moment, but Darnold never entered the TV screen as Diggs loped down the sideline, casually avoiding the poor tackling efforts of the Jets offensive linemen, to score what will surely be the easiest TD of his career. One play in, one throw in, and the Jets were already down 7-0 as pandemonium erupted in Detroit.
Yet somehow I was relieved, and I needed instant replay to confirm what I hoped had just happened. I mean, c’mon, the kid’s 21! On the biggest stage of his life he had just thrown a gaffe out there that had to feel like a punch in the stomach to him, his parents, his teammates and Jets fans everywhere.
I know my knee jerk reaction would have been to try and atone for this astonishing error in judgement and execution by running down my interceptor and stripping the ball away with a leaping tackle, thus saving the entire Tri-State area from certain disaster. In trying moments, my experience is the young and immature have an innate ability to pour gasoline on a burning fire. This was Sam’s chance to embrace all the negative energy associated with his new franchise.
And that’s how I got to thinking about Mike Lucci, and Joe Willie’s knee, and how some Detroit linebacker was surely going to cut down young Sam with a vicious blind side hit as he attempted to get in on the tackle, thus putting him out for the season. But he didn’t, because Sam didn’t.
Like Broadway Joe, Sam’s a football player first, too, and that’s a huge part of the narrative that we Jets fans have bought into so thoroughly as the Darnold Era begins. Yet he also appears to be an old soul. On that replay I looked for the mad dash to make a tackle, and based on the replay, it was never even contemplated by the young signal-caller. Then I carefully watched Sam’s body language. Kick at the turf? Head drop of discouraged dismay, or primal scream in agony? None of it.
Sam turned, watched the play conclude with the Lions celebrating in the end zone, and walked to the sideline. His expression never changed, his body language remained confident, and most importantly he responded on the field by answering back with his next drive (yes, big assist to Andre Roberts and his 43-yard punt return to give Sam awesome field position), and the rest, as they say, is history.
Are the Jets as good as what we saw last night? Are the Lions that bad? Pretty likely it’s somewhere in between, but for one night we got to see what the future could hold. The defense forcing turnovers? A punt return for a TD? The opposition flat out quitting in the third quarter? This simply doesn’t happen if you are a Jets fan under the age of 55.
Now the beauty of the NFL kicks in. Because we’re on to thinking about Miami next. Will the Jets feast on a weak opponent in their home opener and ride the wave of this Monday Night Football embarrassment of riches to a 2-0 start? Or will “same old Jets” return to haunt us, with some sort of lackluster 16-6 turd of a loss, to a slightly-less-bad Dolphins team, as the fans exit early? As a famous announcer used to bellow — “That’s why they play the games!”
And we’ve got 15 more of these games to go (at least 15, drool…) on the schedule! And while it’s an incredibly low bar, it feels great to head into Week 2 with a feeling of optimism. I plan to enjoy it for at least another five days.
Other thoughts around the league following Week 1:
*Is there anything easier than rooting against Ezekiel Elliott, Jerry Jones and the rest of the Dallas Cowboys? I think not. Boy did “The Boys” look awful on Sunday against Carolina. Again, first week of the season assumptions are dangerous, and Carolina has a good defense, but man, what’s up in Big D? And how the heck does Jason Garrett keep coming back year after year?
*Can a Week 2 matchup between the Giants and Cowboys already be categorized as “must win” for both teams? This will be interesting, because Giants fans are giving themselves a pass following their loss to the Jags Sunday, saying a first week matchup with a super strong Jacksonville D makes it hard to truly evaluate what Big Blue is capable of on offense. Fair enough, but if they head down to Jerry-World and lay another offensive egg and lose to what appears to be a weak Cowboys team, dropping to 0-2 in the process, you can’t feel great about the prospects for that much-anticipated Giants turnaround. It’s also a safe bet to assume that Ereck Flowers will be the first sacrificial lamb thrown overboard should the Gints head home from Dallas a last place 0-2.
*And I can’t help but wonder if Dak Prescott is any good. Was he ever? He still has that much-ballyhooed O-line, and Elliott to hand off to, but you have to wonder how much he benefitted from those experienced receivers he inherited from Romo as a rookie. Can he truly be “the man” and lead his team to wins? He misses Jason Witten a lot it seems, and I can relate, because I also wish Witten hadn’t retired, as it would spare me having to listen to him as ESPN’s new go-to guy in the Monday Night booth (and yes, his suit was, once again, at least a size too small — am I really the only person who notices this??). Hard to believe ESPN found a guy less interesting than Tony Dungy, but they did.
*Speaking of easy to root against, and dreadful in the Monday Night Football booth, let’s offer a hearty “Welcome Back” to Coach Jon Gruden out here in Oakland! I’m terribly conflicted here, as I’d really like to see the Silver and Black go deep into the postseason either this season or next, before heading off to their new home in Vegas. But I’d forgotten how much I couldn’t stand Gruden and all his facial gesticulations from the sideline. And boy did the Raiders look overmatched last night, on the field, and especially on the sideline. Seems to me that Rams leader Sean McVay may be the new prototype for NFL coaching genius, and that Gruden’s time passed over a decade ago. Stay tuned — because if Khalil Mack continues to put on weekly highlight reel displays from his new home in Chicago, Chucky’s honeymoon could prove to be a quick one.
*And what about Chicago? Talk about a roller coaster of emotions for Bears fans the other night! First, absolute joy as they watched their latest defensive all-time great take his place alongside Butkus, Singletary, Urlacher and the rest, followed by heartbreak as Aaron Rogers put on his latest show for the ages. A great football game between two storied franchises reminds us why this game puts fans in such an emotional headlock. But if you are Bears fans, was the level of excitement about the future, with Mack wrecking havoc on opponents, greater than that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomachs that the Mitchell Trubisky pick may go down as a colossal bust (footnote here — I didn’t see the first half, when I’m told Trubisky looked pretty good, but what I saw at the end was a QB with zero chance of pulling out a last-minute win. Trubisky looked completely overmatched)?
*Another Sunday classic from my vantage point was the Cleveland-Pittsburgh game. Give me a rain storm every Sunday and I’ll be just fine. It’s throwback stuff, and when you add the elements to these two rivals squaring off, it’s a recipe for a memorable game. Yes, in the end, the Browns reverted back to being the Browns, missing that last field goal attempt that could have put them over the top, but T.J. Watt had something to do with that, too (another hero from the Watt family, just what the NFL needed). Regardless, to come back from down two touchdowns in the second half, when it would have been so easy to just mail in another bad loss (hello, Detroit Lions), to me is an indicator of better days ahead in Cleveland. And we haven’t even seen Baker Mayfield yet! More to come.
*Then there’s Buffalo. More Week 1 misdirection? Could they really be that bad? They made the playoffs last year, right? And did Sean McDermott really think that the middle of a slaughter at the hands of the Ravens and their strong, attacking D was the right time to try and light a fire by inserting young, green, future franchise QB Josh Allen? Hmmm… As a Jets fan I do hope the Bills are that bad, but here’s another one to watch in the “are they the same old Jets” storyline — anything less than a Jets two-game sweep over the Bills this year is a certain sign of another sub-.500 campaign in Jets-land. The Bills appear likely to be an important progress barometer around the NFL in 2018, and little else.
*I’m going long the Chiefs right now in the AFC. How good is Tyreek Hill? The guy is maybe the scariest weapon in the league right now, and Pat Mahomes looks like the right young QB to be delivering the ball to Hill for, oh, the next 10 years or so. If those two stay healthy, it’s hard for me to imagine how even Andy Reid can mess this team up. But then again, we aren’t anywhere near December yet, are we?
*Niners start out with a tough loss on the road in Minny. I suppose Jimmy Garoppolo had to lose one eventually, but other than being in what should end up as the weakest division in the NFC, I don’t see any reason to think playoffs are on the horizon in SF. At least a year away.
*And while on the topic of teams at least a year away, they are already planning a Super Bowl parade in our nation’s capital following yesterday’s Hail To The Redskins-worthy pounding of the Cardinals out in the desert heat. Not so fast — sorry, Skins fans, but for one, the Cards are terrible, and two, check back with me on Adrian Peterson when his yards per carry falls under 3.0 some time in October. And while I like Alex Smith, he’s not putting this club on his shoulders to get them to the promised land any time soon. I still see 6-10 (but hey, at least the more likable Gruden got a win yesterday).
*It only took Miami seven hours-plus, along with a little electrical storm help from the Football Gods, to secure their 1-0 record heading into the first place showdown with the J-E-T-S next week at MetLife Stadium. My only questions is this, why isn’t Marcus Mariota better? I loved the guy at Oregon and anticipated him evolving into a terrific pro, but something just isn’t right down in Tennessee. The AFC South is the worst division in the league (again), and Blake Bortles and Tom Coughlin will be the beneficiaries of that ineptitude, riding that strong D and the legs of Leonard Fournette (let’s hope he’s okay) to back-to-back playoff appearances.
*QB controversy in Tampa Bay? I hope so. If I wasn’t so busy rooting agains the Cowboys and Ezekiel Elliott, and trying to come to terms with rooting for the Raiders to win, while somehow hoping Jon Gruden can still get tagged with a loss (and yes, wondering how Jason Witten was deemed the best choice to replace Gruden on Monday Night Football), I might be able to spend more time disliking Jameis Winston. Is there anything redeeming about this guy? Quite the off the field body of work Winston’s putting together for himself, isn’t it? If he wasn’t buried in football anonymity down in Tampa, I’m certain there’d be more of a groundswell of dislike building for him across the country. But he is in Tampa, plus he’s suspended (anyone want to wager this won’t be his last?), so there’s a bit of an “out of sight, out of mind” thing going on right now. Then Ryan Fitzpatrick shows up with one of his patented, out of the blue, nobody saw this coming, Johnny Unitas impersonations that he delivers once very two or three years, and let’s let the locker room strife (another Fitzie specialty) begin for the Bucs.
So to conclude, while it is difficult to draw any meaningful direction on where the league is headed in 2018 after only one week, there are enough storylines already alive to keep even the most staid of fans wildly entertained. Not one person wakes up today seeing his/her favorite team more than a game out of first, and we already have important matchups formed for Week 2.
And of course, most importantly, Sam the Man is unbeaten and avoided his own Mike Lucci-moment (for one week anyway), as Gang Green took a share of the division lead!