By Mike Vaccaro
They laughed at Herman Edwards. You bet they did. All these years later, you can still hear the responses and the replies to Edwards, whose second season at the helm of the Jets, in 2002, had rapidly disintegrated into an ugly 2-5 mess.
During a Wednesday press conference at Hofstra a few days after his team had lost a miserable game to the Browns, 24-21, Edwards was asked if he was worried that some of his players might choose to mail in the rest of the season. Edwards’ eyes narrowed. He took a few deep breaths. And soon his inner preacher was on full display.
“Not on my watch, they won’t do that,” Edwards said. He was just warming up. “It’s inexcusable. That’s unthinkable to me.” There was more: “You don’t quit in sports, you retire.”
And then the money shot:
“This is what the greatest thing about sports is: YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME. HELLO?! You play to win the game. You don’t play to just play it!”
Oh, they laughed at Herm all right.
But a funny thing happened a few days after that. The Jets flew to San Diego, where they were expected to get blasted by the 6-1 Chargers, and instead they annihilated the Bolts, 44-13. They won four in a row, seven of their final nine, and when they beat the Packers in Week 17 and got help from the Patriots storming back to upset the Dolphins in Foxborough, they had their second (and most recent) AFC East title since the merger.
Then, for good measure, they obliterated Peyton Manning and the Colts, 41-0, in the first round of the playoffs.
No one was laughing by Jan. 12, 74 days after “You play to win the game!” when that joy ride of a season finally ended in Oakland.
That’s the thing about coaches who use their weekly podiums and bully pulpits to get a different-sounding message across. It doesn’t have to age poorly.
Which brings us to Robert Saleh’s Herm Moment this week, on Monday, when he defiantly declared: “We’re all taking receipts on all the people who continually mock and say that we ain’t going to do anything. I’m taking receipts, and I’m going to be more than happy to share them with all of y’all when it’s all said and done.”
And here’s the thing: If the Jets can get this turned around, even a little, then he can present those bills to whomever he was referring to, primarily those of us in the media who had our share of fun with that one. He’ll be entitled. And we will all look back to that as the moment Saleh arrived as a head coach, maybe the moment the Jets arrived as a viable team.
But you have to win now.
You win, those words become legend, the way Joe Namath’s did in January 1969, at the Miami Touchdown Club Dinner, when he responded to a heckler a few nights before the Jets played the Colts in the Super Bowl: “I’ll tell you what, we’re gonna win the game, I guarantee it.”
You win, they become the first paragraph of your obituary, as happened to Jim Fassel (who actually scored the bigger local headlines the day Herm said “Hello!” because that was the day he removed Sean Payton’s play-calling responsibilities). But two years earlier, the Giants were coming off back-to-back losses and were scuffling at 7-4.
“This is a poker game, I’m shoving my chips to the middle of the table,” Fassel said, “I’m raising the ante, anybody wants in, get in. Anybody wants out, get out. OK? This team is going to the playoffs.”
The Giants didn’t lose again until running into Ray Lewis and the Ravens in Super Bowl XXXV. And, yes, when Fassel passed in June 2021, that quote was right in every lead.
Of course, there is also the cautionary tale of Joe Judge, who spent a lot of last year fertilizing notebooks with defiant observations — my personal favorite was, “This ain’t a team that’s having fistfights on the sidelines. This ain’t some clown-show organization or something else. OK?” — and couldn’t ever get out of his own way before the Giants mercy-fired him.
We all had a little fun at Robert Saleh’s expense this week, and he was fair game. But he’s right about one thing. He does have plenty of receipts. And there’s only one way to take maximum advantage of that possession, starting Sunday afternoon in Cleveland.