Concrete and steel, but no soul

Eric McErlain Sports Blogger
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This past Sunday night I was in the stands at MetLife Stadium for the game between the New York Jets and the Dallas Cowboys. This marks the second year I’ve been regularly trucking up I-95 on Sundays to watch in person the team that’s been torturing me for the better part of my life.

It’s been an enjoyable experience, and well worth the investment both in time and money. Yes, I was lucky enough to buy in at a time when Coach Rex Ryan was reinvigorating the franchise, but the real payoff has been elsewhere. You see, it’s been more than 25 years since I left New York for Washington, D.C., and the trips to these games have allowed me to spend more time with my father than I have in decades.

Besides, what better way to pay back my father for introducing me to the masochistic cult that is New York Jets fandom than by giving him the opportunity to watch it in person all over again.

If that sentiment seems odd coming from the fan of a team that’s made consecutive appearances in the AFC Championship game, you don’t know much about New York Jets fans.

Because as much as Coach Ryan and Jets players might believe in this team, the folks in the stands clearly have other ideas. It’s as if the burden of 40-plus years since the team’s only Super Bowl victory has pre-conditioned them to failure.

Don’t get me wrong, the team’s new home field can get awfully loud, never more so than when Fireman Ed Anzalone fires the place up with his famous cheer of, “J-E-T-S, JETS, JETS, JETS,” before the opening kickoff.

But on every single snap of the ball, you can sense that the fans don’t want to invest themselves too much in the team’s success, lest they have their hearts crushed like they’ve been so many times in the past four decades. Simply put, Jets fans hedge their bets like no other. If things are going great, the stadium is simply electric, perhaps like no other in football.

But when any little thing goes wrong, be it a long gain by the visiting team or a Jets turnover, the air comes out of the balloon awfully fast in the swamps of Jersey. I sense that visiting teams probably know this, and figure if they can grab an early lead, they can take the crowd out of the game right away. Of course, what’s so bizarre and inexplicable about all this is the team’s fans keep coming back, year after godforsaken year, for more disappointment and abuse.

That attitude has even infected some of the team’s own players. On Sunday night, as the Jets lined up for what would prove to be the winning field goal in the game’s waning seconds, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez turned his back to the field because he couldn’t bear to watch. With an atmosphere like that, is it any surprise that over the last two seasons, their home record is a pedestrian 9-7?

(Random thought: Say you’re Jets kicker Nick Folk on Sunday night. You’ve already hit the one field goal you attempted earlier in the evening. Now fate has presented you with the chance to make the biggest kick in your life. You have a chance to win a game in New York on national television, and do it against the team that cut you the season before. You turn to the sideline, and the team’s undisputed leader, its highly paid and telegenic quarterback, has his back turned to the field. At that point, what might be going through your mind?)

For an example of what the experience at the Jets home field ought to be like, I’d suggest you travel south back down I-95 and stop off in Baltimore. Shortly after the former Cleveland Browns arrived there in 1996, I started spending my NFL Sundays there on a regular basis. And despite the fact that the fans there have their own tragic past — what could be worse than losing the team you love in the middle of the night — they’ve never seemed to let it weigh them down.

In Baltimore, first at a decaying Memorial Stadium and now at their new home nestled next to the highway beside Camden Yards, Ravens fans have established themselves, at least in my eyes, as the best fans in the game. They are not only loud, but they manage to sustain that passion all game long. Every success is lustily cheered (even first downs are a reason to celebrate), while setbacks are always only temporary. And the only time the air comes out of the balloon is when the game is well and truly lost — after the final gun.

On the first Sunday in October, the Jets will be visiting Baltimore in what will likely be billed as a showdown between two of the AFC’s top teams. The last time these two teams met, the Ravens won a 10-9 slugfest on Monday Night Football. It was a game the home crowd was never really into. It won’t be the same this time.

Eric McErlain blogs at Off Wing Opinion, a Forbes “Best of the Web” winner. In 2006 he wrote a “bloggers bill of rights” to help integrate bloggers into the Washington Capitals’ press box. Eric has also written for Deadspin, NBC Sports and the Sporting News, and covers sports television for The TV News. Follow Eric on Twitter.