- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. — Their superb young quarterback, Chad Pennington, is out — maybe for the season — with a broken wrist. Four of their better players, including leading receiver Laveranues Coles, jumped ship during the offseason to sign lucrative contracts with the Washington Redskins.

The player they traded up to select with the fourth pick in April’s NFL Draft, defensive tackle Dewayne Robertson, hasn’t met expectations. And their schedule includes six playoff teams from 2002 in addition to their six games in the rigorous AFC East.

So it would be easy for a “woe is us” feeling to take hold of the New York Jets, even though they’re one of just three AFC teams to reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons.

However, the Jets say they’re just where they want to be heading into Thursday’s season-opener against the Redskins in Landover.

“There are negative perceptions out there? Really? That can’t be,” Jets coach Herman Edwards said jokingly. “There is perception, and there is reality. I deal in reality. What was the story when we lost Chad? … ‘Maybe Vinny [Testaverde] can still do it.’ That’s reality. No one knows. The reality is that we’ll find out. If I lived with perception, you would have another head coach in here. I would still be in the neighborhood where I grew up.”

Halfback Curtis Martin, who has averaged slightly more than 1,300 yards during his five seasons in New York, doesn’t buy the perception that runners are past their primes at 30, the age he reached in May. And Martin doesn’t think the Jets are in a dire situation, either.

“We’ve always been at our best when we’re facing adversity,” Martin said.

That’s a bit of a stretch, but after a 7-5 start during Edwards’ first season in 2001, the Jets won three of their last four to grab the final AFC playoff spot. Last year, the Jets stood at 1-3 after three straight blowouts before the untested Pennington replaced the struggling Testaverde. New York wound up becoming the first NFL team in 32 years to recover from a 2-5 start and win its division.

But now Pennington is out, and Testaverde — who will turn 40 in November — is back.

“Everyone in this locker room is not down because they know what Vinny is capable of,” Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae said. “We’re disappointed that Chad is injured, but we know that we are going to do fine with Vinny. We have all the confidence in him.”

Some of that stems from Testaverde’s career year in 1998, when he quarterbacked the Jets to the AFC Championship game. Some stems from his still strong arm, which helped place him in the top 12 all time in passing yards, touchdowns and completions. And some stems from a belief that, as Martin said, Testaverde became the fall guy for a host of problems in 2002 when Pennington unexpectedly played like Joe Montana after taking over as starter.

For his part, Testaverde has quashed doubters several times during a 17-year NFL journey that began with six fruitless seasons in Tampa Bay and includes being cut by Baltimore and suffering a career-threatening torn Achilles’ tendon at age 36.

“Outsiders looking in want to see how well I’ll do because they think that how I do is how the team will do,” Testaverde said. “We lost some good players, but we’ve replaced them with good players. This is a big challenge for me, but I know I’ll only get better after not having many reps [before Pennington was hurt Aug. 23] this summer. I hope I can step back in and continue to keep this thing running well.”

As for Coles, guard Randy Thomas, kicker John Hall and kick returner Chad Morton — or, as Jets cornerback Aaron Beasley called them, “Jets South” — their replacements are fortunate. As newcomers to New York, they don’t really know what the new Redskins meant to the Jets. Kick returner Albert Johnson and guard Brent Smith are unproven, but wideout Curtis Conway and kicker Doug Brien, both 32, actually are more experienced than their predecessors, so they’re not trying to match anyone’s legacy.

“A lot of people will make it out like I’m filling Laveranues’ shoes, but I’m really not,” Conway said. “He was the go-to guy last year. He had [1,264] yards, and the next guy had [691]. We’re going to spread it around more. I’ve had big years. At this point in my career, I want to win the Super Bowl, whether I have 500 catches or one catch this year.”

That’s the kind of attitude Edwards wants his whole team to take. On Sunday, when asked about the Redskins’ pillaging of his roster, Edwards said, “Sometimes the better thing said is nothing.” But yesterday, the coach said he doesn’t begrudge the Redskins trying to improve their team and that they did nothing wrong.

The other beneficiary of the New York to Washington shuttle is the media, particularly ABC, which will do its best to hype the grudge match as the story of Thursday’s game.

“People are trying to make it like we’re going against four players,” Edwards said. “They are good players who were part of our success the last two years and for whom we have a great deal of respect. … In 1977, I took the place of a guy named Al Clark [in Philadelphias secondary], but I didn’t worry about the guy I was replacing. If you worry about that, then you can’t do the job. It’s no different for a coach. If I had walked into this building thinking, ‘Wow, Bill Parcells coached here,’ I would have turned around and walked out the door. If a guy has to worry about [his predecessors], then he doesn’t have a lot of confidence. If you don’t have confidence, you won’t play in this league [very long].”

Beasley, for one, couldn’t be happier with the opening night circumstances.

“Laveranues has my phone number,” Beasley said. “He’ll let me know if he has a good day. You don’t want to get beat by anybody, especially your old teammates. You’ve got to talk, and then you’ve got to back it up. Laveranues called me the day he signed. I couldn’t be mad with him. I’m sure all of those guys are excited. It will be fun out there.”

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