FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets are preparing for a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that could be remembered as one of the low points in franchise history. They can set the team record for most consecutive losses in a season and, win or lose, they will feel like strangers in their own house because the Terrible Towel-waving Pittsburgh fans will turn MetLife Stadium into Heinz on the Hudson. It has the look of a perfect storm.
In a case of painful symmetry, the pinnacle of the Rex Ryan era occurred during a Pittsburgh week -- the run-up to the 2010 AFC Championship Game. The Jets had just stunned the New England Patriots in the divisional round, and there was every reason to believe the 40-year Super Bowl curse was about to be lifted. Ryan, who led the Jets to the title game for the second year in a row, was a rock star, big and brash, just like New York.
The game ended with Ryan firing his headset into the ground after Antonio Brown sealed the Steelers' 24-19 victory with a third-down catch with 108 seconds on the clock. The Jets never got that last chance to win the game, a what-if scenario that will haunt them. As Ryan said Thursday, "That'll stay with me the rest of my life."
Since then, the Jets have gone in the direction of Ryan's headset: straight down, with a 23-34 record that probably will get Ryan fired at the end of the season.
"From the moment that clock showed triple zeros to now, this team doesn't even resemble what the team was a few years ago," said former tackle Damien Woody, who played in that fateful game on that frigid night in Pittsburgh.
Only nine players remain from the 2010 team, but Woody's comparison stretches beyond the number of holdovers. He was talking about the overall quality of the team, and how the talent base has eroded over the years. He's right. The Jets are a classic example of a franchise that had it good and let it go bad. They made bad decisions (start with the quarterback position), deviated from their Ground & Pound philosophy and got burned by a win-now mentality that prioritized free-agent spending over drafting and developing talent.
And that was before John Idzik arrived. He changed the approach, but it's only worse. The Jets (1-8), losers of eight straight, haven't been this bad since 2007.
"Man, I want to get back, there's no question," said a reflective Ryan, thinking back to the good times. "In my best dreams, it would be [the Steelers], because you feel like you owe them something -- outside of New England, obviously. But, yeah, I think it fuels the competitor in you to get back. But you never assume that. I always tell our guys you can never assume you'll get back because it's tough.
"In this league, it's tough to make the playoffs. You've got to earn every bit of it, and the last few years that hasn't been the case. But do I long for getting back? You're darn right."
Center Nick Mangold was a rookie in 2006, preparing for a wild-card game against the Patriots, when he got the "don't take it for granted" speech from teammate Pete Kendall. By then, Kendall was a sage veteran, dispensing wisdom. He made the playoffs with the Seattle Seahawks in his fourth year but had to wait seven years before returning with the '06 Jets.
"It struck me as, 'Wow, it's crazy that a guy could play that long and not be able to go to the playoffs,'" Mangold said.
Mangold's drought will hit four years. The same goes for D'Brickashaw Ferguson, David Harris, Calvin Pace, Nick Folk and a few others. Four consecutive years out of the postseason is forever in the NFL, especially in a city like New York that demands immediate gratification. The last time the Jets went this long without going to the playoffs was 1992 to 1997.
Four years ago, as they prepped for the showdown in Pittsburgh, the Jets recognized they were an older team and the window was closing. Their hope was built around Mark Sanchez and Darrelle Revis, but Sanchez regressed and Revis was sent packing because of his contract demands. Now Revis is winning with the Patriots and Sanchez is poised for his second incarnation, starting for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Meanwhile, the Jets are crumbling. Correction: They've crumbled. That playoff run in 2010 is a distant memory.
"This team," Woody said, "is far, far from that team."
That team will be remembered as the one that never got that last possession, thanks to Ben Roethlisberger-to-Brown on third-and-6. With second-half momentum, the Jets might have been able to do something in the final minute and a half.
"That's what makes it so difficult," Mangold said. "You have the woulda, coulda, shoulda, and that's unfortunate."
Ryan remembered the way his team rallied in that game, how it nearly overcame a halftime deficit. That team was loaded with character and fire. He went on and on, waxing nostalgic. At one point, he seemed misty-eyed.
"Nah," he said, smiling, "that's about the 1-8 record."