The coach chatted up friends on his cell phone during practice. Sometimes, he coached from the adjacent parking lot, sitting on the hood of his car as he smoked a cigar and entertained visitors.
The quarterback realized a few games into his massive free-agent deal that he had made a horrible mistake — and that was before he ripped a calf muscle while slipping on the team logo in pregame warm-ups.
A few players, capitalizing on the anything-goes environment, sometimes skipped film-watching and treatment on their off day and flew to the Dominican Republic for a 24-hour getaway.
The 1996 New York Jets were a trip, all right. With the NFL’s highest payroll, they were called the “Worst Team Money Could Buy” — a 1-15 laughingstock. Nearly a quarter-century later, they’re known in Jets annals as the worst team. Period.
But maybe not for long.
The current Jets, 0-6 and getting blown out on a weekly basis, are gaining quickly with historically inept performances. The football is so bad that members of the ’96 Jets, who experienced the darkest side of the sport, are horrified and frustrated by what has become of their franchise.
“I want the Jets to be my pallbearer when I die so they can let me down one last time,” linebacker Marvin Jones said.
“I put a lot on the coach,” ex-safety Victor Green said of Adam Gase. “We got this coach because he’s supposed to be a guru. We haven’t seen that in two years.”
“I don’t know Sam Darnold personally, but I can just tell by watching him, watching the sideline … I’m not saying he’s not a leader, but I think they need better leadership,” said former cornerback Ray Mickens, who is in favor of the Jets picking Clemson Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence if they secure the top pick in the 2021 NFL draft.
“It shouldn’t be this bad,” former Jets defensive end Marvin Washington said. “I understand this is an unusual season [because of the pandemic], but it’s an unusual season for other teams, too, that are thriving and adjusting to it and overcoming it.”
The Jets’ scoring differential is minus-110 points, nearly twice as bad as the next-worst margin (Jacksonville Jaguars, minus-56). At their current pace, they would eclipse the “record” for a 16-game season, held by the 1981 Baltimore Colts (minus-274).
Maybe they should be called the “GT Jets,” because they’ve done so much garbage time. Only once in six games have they been within 10 points in the fourth quarter, somehow managing to hold a lead for three minutes, 20 seconds — a cadaveric spasm, perhaps.
The Jets’ distant cousins from ’96 found creative ways to lose, but at least they were competitive in some games — seven losses by seven points or less. Somehow, they managed to finish 11th in total offense, but they lost their will late in the year, got blown out in a bunch of games and finished with a minus-175 point differential — the worst in franchise history for a 16-game season.
“It’s pro sports, so everybody is for themselves a little bit and it becomes even more so when you lose,” former Jets tackle Jumbo Elliott said. “It’s like, ‘Hooray for me, screw you!'”
Elliott won a Super Bowl ring with the New York Giants, but he left that structured environment to accept a lucrative free-agent deal with the rebuilding Jets. They also signed quarterback Neil O’Donnell, who had just won an AFC championship with the Pittsburgh Steelers. They brought along his offensive coordinator, the well-respected Ron Erhardt, and used the first pick in the 1996 draft on wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson.
Oh, yeah, the Jets were serious. Watch out!
Then the season started, and bad things started happening. Elliott tore his hamstring, missed the first two games and thought to himself, “What am I doing here? What was I thinking?”
O’Donnell had similar thoughts. Chasing the money, he left one of the premier “culture” destinations in the NFL, thinking he could help turn the Jets into Steelers East. He injured his shoulder in Week 6, missed six games and, on the day of his return, the Jetsiest thing ever happened. Warming up on a damp field, he slipped on the Jets’ logo in one of the end zones. The pain in his calf was so sharp that he felt as if he had been shot.
“There was so much paint on the letters,” O’Donnell recalled. “I dropped back and I said to Wayne [Chrebet], ‘I think I just blew out my calf muscle or my Achilles.’ … I said, ‘Dude, I’m not kidding. Somehow, get me over to that tunnel, I got to get out of here.'”
Elliott remembers walking into the trainers’ room the next day and seeing O’Donnell and other players studying his MRI scan — one of the most surreal scenes of his 14-year career.
Others expressed frustration over the lack of talent. The only player on the current roster with Pro Bowl experience is Frank Gore, the Jets’ 37-year-old running back.
“Where are your Pro Bowl players?” Green asked rhetorically. “That should tell you a lot right there. They had about $100 million [in cap dollars] to spend and they get nobody?”
In interviews with eight members of the ’96 team, the prevailing criticism was the need for a culture change. General manager Joe Douglas said his goal is to create “the best culture in sports,” but that hasn’t materialized. The most recent example was a dust-up between Gase and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, whose veiled jab at the offense upset people at One Jets Drive.
It takes more than talent to win in the NFL. The ’96 team was proof of that. It had a 1,200-yard rusher (Adrian Murrell), five future Pro Bowlers (Johnson, Richie Anderson, Mo Lewis, Aaron Glenn and Hugh Douglas), three future Super Bowl champions (Johnson, Washington and Bobby Hamilton), a future Jets Ring-of-Honor member (Chrebet) and a future NFL head coach (Frank Reich).
And it still stunk.
“It’s tough, man. I don’t wish that upon anybody,” Chrebet said. “We didn’t quite have the right combination of players and coaches that were aligned.”
Near the end of that season, rumors began to circulate the Jets were planning to hire Bill Parcells. Suddenly, Elliott, who played under Parcells with the Giants, became a popular guy in the locker room. Curious and concerned teammates picked his brain, wanting to know what to expect from the larger-than-life coach.
Mike Greenberg is not a fan of Jets coach Adam Gase, going as far as to say he wouldn’t want him coaching a Pop Warner team.
“They had a gazillion questions,” Elliott said. “I told them, ‘Fellas, a lot of you aren’t going to be here anymore. Things are going to change big-time in this building.'”
And they did.
Two years later, the Jets reached the AFC Championship Game with many of the same players who had endured the indignity of 1-15. Those players, now in their 40s, feel a sense of redemption, knowing they were there for the turnaround. Still, when the current Jets team sinks to all-time lows, the ’96ers always get phone calls from reporters looking for them to compare then and now.
“I wish they would turn this thing around,” said Washington, who would later win a Super Bowl ring with the Denver Broncos. “I would rather it be us over them. Guys in our 40s and 50s, we can handle that. I don’t want these guys to go through that. Psychologically, it’s a B word. Mentally, it’s a B word. Physically, it’s a B word. But I don’t want them to go through it just so we could say, ‘We’re the second-worst team in franchise history.’
“I’m fine with being the worst team because if we’re going to have that discussion, let’s talk about the Pro Bowls and Super Bowls that came later for some guys. I just hope [the current team] can win games and this can be something they can redeem themselves from. I hope they have long careers and win Super Bowls, and look back at this and see it as an aberration.”