Joe Namath is on the phone from Florida. He’s maybe 15 minutes into a conversation about the Jets, their offseason, their momentum and their blockbuster trade this spring. But if it wasn’t Namath on the line, if it wasn’t his voice, wasn’t his number, and someone happened to be reading a transcript, they’d think he was talking about … anything or anyone else.
“We can hope, you know,” Namath is saying. “Realistic hope, too. As long as there’s hope in our lives, we’ve got a chance …”
He follows that with an abrupt Oh, boy! Perhaps he has come to his senses, optimism dimming in real time. Perhaps not. “I’m looking at a shark right now,” he says. “A shark’s fin. It’s swimming through the water outside in the river. Holy cow! This is the longest time I’ve seen one there.” Long pause. “No, it still hasn’t gone under.”
This apparently happens occasionally outside the home Namath has occupied for more than three decades in the Jupiter, Fla., area, north of West Palm Beach. Not a lot. But several times.
“Sharks go wherever they want to go,” he says. “They’ve gone to New Jersey and back south, through the harbor. Man! …”
It feels like there must be a metaphor for the J-E-T-S in there somewhere. But what, exactly? In an AFC East that appears stacked with formidable swimmers, jaws all sharpened, will the Dolphins upend another season that tends to start (with hope) and end (without) in the same places? Will Broadway Joe’s old team be attacked by the same NFL-Jaws (the Patriots) as throughout most of this century? Or will the football team that’s not really from the Big Apple but claims New York take a bite out of the apple it hasn’t tasted since Namath himself won Super Bowl III?
Namath laughs over the phone. He might have made the most famous guarantee in the history of sports in 1969 and then backed that sucker up. But there will be no similar guarantee today. After all, Namath is now a Jets fan. He cannot know what’s lurking ahead; only that it’s lurking, something, whatever it may be. Instead, he says the swimming shark reminds him of the Jets’ defense and all its elite players. Seems accurate enough.
I tell him that I covered the last Jets playoff team, the Rex Ryan–Bart Scott–Mark Sanchez–Darrelle Revis group that upended the Patriots in Foxborough before losing to the Steelers in Pittsburgh in the conference championship. The next day was my last on the Jets beat for The New York Times. “Wow, long time,” he says.
Tell me about it. The ensuing 13 years featured a change in beats, another change in beats, a change in jobs, a cross-country move, two kids and a million other things—except one. The Jets haven’t made it back into the field, let alone nabbed an ever-elusive postseason win. But here they are, Gang Green, ostensibly headed back into the playoff business, fortified and—apologies, Jets Nation—stacked.
The 2023 roster will feature a deep and talented receiving corps, talented running backs and a defense with Sauce Gardner, Quinnen Williams, C.J. Mosley and much more. All that, plus Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback they traded for this spring, making it feel like ’08 all over again, when Rodgers replaced Brett Favre in Green Bay, and Favre went to the Jets, to nearly topple their tortured history and … well, different movie, same endpoint.
Namath didn’t draw the connection at first—young star in waiting, veteran star pushed out, Packers, Jets, etc. When the trade first seemed likely, Namath was thinking that Tom Brady had not yet retired. And … maybe? Then he heard Rodgers’s name connected with his old team all over the airwaves. He didn’t see a need to hope for anything beyond one of two of the best quarterbacks in NFL history. It also signaled to him something else, something deeper, tied to the playoff drought that will not end. “We’re in the mix, moving forward,” he says. “I appreciate Brady, like the rest of the world. But I always go back to Kenny Stabler, Roger the Dodger [meaning, Staubach]—the No. 12 is special for me. And just thinking about Aaron, or Tom before he retired, I said, Man, if we get one of those guys, we got a shot.”
He considers the Rodgers trade a major lift for a fan base in need of hope once more. Namath likes the Jets’ offensive line improvements, loves their defense and views Rodgers the same as most Jets fans. To them, Rodgers is the final piece, another final piece, the master touch to return the franchise to the Super Bowl. For, in case anyone forgot, the first time in 55 seasons.
Namath isn’t sure about the kicking game. But who the heck is? And he throws in the word potentially, as a caution. Because, with pro football in general and the Jets with heartbreaking specificity, there’s always a note of caution.
Still, Namath looks at the Jets and sees a team that’s fast and young and deep. That process started years ago, and he credits coach Robert Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas with continuous improvement. “Those guys are giving the fans a chance to cheer a hell of a lot more,” he says.
People sometimes ask Namath why he wants the Jets to win so badly, why he hasn’t given up hope rather than embracing, as he is, what remains in the most optimistic of green hearts. “It’s because of the fans that have been loyal over the years,” he says. “Hell, they want to win more than just about anyone. Their loyalty deserves a championship, and I think [the team] is getting there.” Long pause. Then: God al-migh-ty!
It’s as if, at that moment, Super Bowl III flooded Namath’s veins. He pivots into competitiveness, not the process of wanting to win but the feeling when you do. He wants the Jets’ fan base to experience that feeling, since most cannot recall when he gave it to them more than half a century ago. “As bad as we’ve been, they keep coming back,” he says. “It’s just better when you win. That feeling runs through your body. Surges. Builds. The fans haven’t had that in a long time …”
He keeps going.
It’s awful …
But those other three teams … injuries … Lady Luck …
I hope Mother Nature’s good to them …
She can be pretty fickle …
I guess I am a Jets fan myself!