Woody: Gang is headed to Super Bowl

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Woody Johnson looked tired. He had spent a good part of Thursday in damage-control mode, trying to calm an angry fan base. There was a newspaper story about thousands of unsold PSLs in the new stadium and potential TV blackouts in the New York market -- the fandom equivalent to Armageddon -- and the Jets' owner spoke with several media outlets, attempting to clean up the mess.

Now it was quiet in a glass-enclosed conference room at the Jets' sparkling headquarters, where Johnson sat down with ESPNNewYork.com -- and a cup of hot tea -- to discuss an anniversary of sorts: Ten years as the team's owner.

On Jan. 18, 2000, Johnson's purchase of the Jets -- for a cool $635 million -- was unanimously approved by the NFL owners. He walked into turmoil -- Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick had just quit on consecutive days -- and now he's in the middle of another firestorm. Never a dull moment in Gotham.

Johnson, known mostly in high society and the financial world when he took control of the Jets, was a newcomer to the local sports landscape. He was so unaccustomed to the spotlight that he actually phoned a friend, actor Michael Douglas, for advice on how to handle his first news conference as owner.

"Just be yourself, Woody," Douglas told him.

Initially, Johnson was perceived as a mild-mannered, almost meek boss, but his voice -- inside and outside the organization -- has become louder.

Example: In his sitdown with ESPNNewYork.com, Johnson said he expects to reach the Super Bowl this season, claiming the Jets' talent is as good as any other team in the league. The expectations, already high, just climbed another notch. But, at the same time, he admitted that, even with no salary cap in the NFL, the Jets are operating on an internal budget.

In 10 seasons under Johnson, the Jets have been the quintessential middle-of-the-pack team -- an 80-80 record, 16th in the league. But Johnson, 63, said he's obsessed with winning a Super Bowl, and he vowed to make it happen. In the first of a two-part interview, he discusses the team and the upcoming season.

Q: You've made a lot of splashy moves this offseason -- LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Cromartie, Jason Taylor and Santonio Holmes. A lot of people think the moves were made to drive PSL sales. What do you say to that?

WJ: The thing that drives us is getting to a Super Bowl and winning that. Every one of these moves, if you look at the design of them, is to take last year's team, make it better and drive us to that Super Bowl. I mean, look what happened to us at the end. We played the Colts [in the AFC Championship Game] and we were weak at corner. We broke down at corner, so we changed that. Who was the best corner on the market? Cromartie. Who's better than Cromartie? Are we doing that for flash? I think that's called good team-building myself. We're probably going to face them again and we'll be ready for it.

Q: How disappointing would it be if you don't make the Super Bowl?

WJ: I'm not going to speculate. I think we're going to make it.

Q: You sound like Rex Ryan. Has he rubbed off on you?

WJ: A little bit, yeah. It's very refreshing to be able to tell your players and your fans what you want to do and not have to hide it. I like that. It's liberating. You can actually tell people where you want to take them, where they want to go. Do you want to jump aboard a team that comes in 15th? That's not what we're shooting for. That isn't why we're here.

Q: Why so many moves after coming so close to a championship last season?

WJ: Every move we made was well thought-out ... you don't like to lose someone like Thomas Jones or [Alan] Faneca, but we have to make tough choices in this environment, in this business.

Q: There is no salary cap this year, but you got rid of Jones and Faneca, two team leaders, and you played hardball with Jay Feely over maybe $500,000 -- and lost him. It looks like you're cutting payroll in a year where that shouldn't be a concern. Are you trying to save money?

WJ: No, we got everybody we wanted. It's just that the rules make it more difficult to spend. We had a budget; it's still a pretty hardy budget in the NFL. I don't know if it's the highest, but we're spending quite a large chunk.

Q: You were criticized for acquiring players with off-field issues, namely Cromartie and Holmes. It's a 180-degree shift in philosophy from a few years ago. Why the sudden change?

WJ: We looked at those two as young men that had what we thought was manageable risk. Yes, they made mistakes. We've all made mistakes -- maybe they've made a few more -- but the coach and the security people looked at it. It was a group decision that, yes, this is a manageable risk. These are very young men. We talked to them, and we believed them that they wanted to make a change. We're doing everything we can to help them along. We feel both of those players ... will make us a better team.

Q: What about signing Jason Taylor, a former rival hated by Jets fans? Did you consider how your fans might react before making that move?

WJ: The fans are going to react if he sacks a couple of quarterbacks. What do you think the reaction will be when he comes out and sacks three or four quarterbacks in a row? He's a high-character guy, and we're happy to have him with us.

Q: You've taken an active role in recruiting free agents, especially Taylor. Some people around the building call you "The Closer." Are you The Closer?

WJ: No, Mike [Tannenbaum] is The Closer, but I'm part of the process because you want to give the athlete a sense of where he's going. You're Jason Taylor and you're coming into enemy territory. He had trepidations. How do you make him feel he's welcome here? We want to embrace Jason Taylor when he comes up here. We can't wait until he gets here, and make him immediately part of the family. A lot of people let him know what the deal is here: 'You're one of us now.'

Q: Were you that involved in your early years as the owner?

WJ: No, it was a different situation. This is much better. There are a lot more ways you can make a player feel welcome. That's very important. That's why we're getting all these guys. Everybody wants to play here now.

Q: You have a lot of players at the end of their contracts, some of whom you acquired this offseason -- Holmes and Cromartie. It has created the perception, even among some of your own players, that it's all-or-nothing in 2010. Is it?

WJ: That could be the perception, but it's not true. We're in a strange kind of cap situation, where we're very, very limited [by the "Final Eight Rule"]. The fact that Mike and his team put this together is pretty much a miracle. We got four major players, so it's, "How in the heck did you do that?" It was threading the needle.

Q: Tannenbaum often says it's his charge to win the Super Bowl. How often do you remind him of that?

WJ: We talk about it every day. We talk about what it takes to build a team and how to build sustainable success. You've got to manage your financial resources. ... You have to be careful. It's part talent and part balance sheet. And bookkeeping; you have to be good bookkeepers. You have to really understand how to place assets in the portfolio to give you the highest probability of success.

Q: Is winning a Super Bowl an obsession?

WJ: Yes, that's what I'm obsessed about. We talk about it, we plan for it. It's going to happen at some point, hopefully this year.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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