W.C. Fields once advised young comedians to "never work with children or animals." If Fields were alive today, he would have included the Jets in that caveat.
The Jets have provided excellent comic source material for about two years, but their wacky improv has always benefited from a little punching up. In one 52-second span of Thursday night's 49-19 loss to the Patriots, however, they upstaged any effort to ridicule them.
The Jets may never win the Super Bowl, but with this sequence of plays, they achieved comedy perfection:
Play One: Fourth-Down Folly. On fourth-and-one from the Patriots' 31-yard line, Mark Sanchez hands off to Shonn Greene. Vince Wilfork completely collapses half the Jets line, and Jerod Mayo storms into the backfield to stuff Greene. But the running back desperately reaches forward with the ball, apparently forgetting that he's surrounded by Patriots defenders. The ball is ripped from his hands, and Steve Gregory chases it down for New England. By the standards of what is to come, this is actually a positive play for the Jets. By fumbling forward, Greene costs the Patriots about eight yards of field position.
Before we continue, let's remember that the Jets employ a backup quarterback named Tim Tebow whose only real utility on the football field is as a short-yardage rushing threat. The one situation in which the Jets have refused to use him all season has been as a short-yardage rushing threat. Tebow was on the injury report with bruised ribs, but he was in uniform and available. Tebow would not have appeared in this fourth-and-short situation if he were fully healthy, but he would have had a three-yard run on second-and-12 at some other random moment.
Play Two: There's the Rub. The Patriots get the ball after the fumble, and running back Shane Vereen runs a little swing route behind two receivers heading downfield. Jets linebacker Bart Scott, agent provocateur of a thousand media mutinies, ignores Vereen as he races toward the left sideline, then gets "rubbed" by Wes Welker, who suddenly becomes a 20x20-foot obstacle that Scott is forced to run around. The television broadcasters guessed that Scott had man coverage on Vereen, but that does not appear to be the case on the replay: it looks more like a Cover-3 zone, with Scott late to react. Or, perhaps it was just the media's fault that Vereen was open. Vereen races 83-yards for a touchdown.
Scott is going to take some abuse for the Vereen touchdown, and heaven knows he has it coming, but there is a mystery that will only be unlocked when the NFL provides the All-22 coaches film (which will be late this week, as the American Film Institute wants to archive it alongside some Charlie Chaplin movies). Antonio Cromartie was lined up behind Scott along the sideline. He followed a receiver into the pattern, then disappeared from every available television angle, "Paranormal Activity"-style. He is visible jogging about 40 yards behind the play at the very end of one replay. Where was Cromartie? How was he in no position to make a play? He was lobbying with the offense, no doubt.
Play Three: The Self Cold-Cocking of Mark Sanchez: At this point, the score is 14-0, and while the Jets have made a few dumb plays, nothing epic has happened. In fact, life appears to return to normal as Sanchez completes a first-down pass after the opening kickoff.
But then …
Sanchez, with his backs in the I-formation, pivots to see fullback Lex Hilliard expecting an inside handoff and Greene drifting left in search of a pitch. Sanchez looks genuinely surprised by their behavior. He holds the ball out for Hilliard, who is already past him, then turns to look at the fullback in bewilderment. You can see a little question mark and exclamation point over Sanchez's head. He looks like a guy who just drove halfway to the mountain lake and realized that he never hitched the camper on.
So Sanchez (gulp) improvises, plunging toward the interior line and slamming face-first into Brandon Moore -- his own guard! -- while attempting an abortive slide. For one glorious moment, Sanchez's face is plastered to Moore's butt as his forearm slams into the blocker's thigh, jarring the ball loose. I have the moment freeze-framed on my television as I write this, and I cannot look away. Tight end Dustin Keller is hunched forward about five yards away, squinting in disbelief.
Then Sanchez flops backward, and Moore lands on him, and Keller flails his hands a bit in something closer to exasperation than disbelief: disasperation. Pats safety Steve Gregory scoops up the loose ball and scores a touchdown.
Interlude: The Matthew Stafford Shirt Commercial. With his chubby chipmunk cheeks and wild eyes, the Lions quarterback looks a little bit like John Belushi. As he runs around a men's sportswear shop in a silly take on "Mission Impossible," you expect him to shout "Food Fight!" Stafford's facial expressions express the awkward hilarity behind the very premise of a Lions quarterback starring in a national commercial.
Play Four: The Kicker on the Kickoff. Joe McKnight receives the kickoff, Devin McCourty crunches him, the ball pops straight into Julian Edelman's hands and Edelman runs for the third Patriots touchdown in less than one minute of game time. The replay shows Chaz Schilens missing the block on McCourty, then tripping and falling into teammate Ellis Lankster, eliminating two players in position to tackle McCourty. Buster Keaton could not have choreographed it better.
At this point, Al Michaels starts making Kenny O'Brien jokes and remarking that "about 1,100" fans were chanting for Tebow, with the rest booing. Cris Collinsworth points out that the Jets are embarrassing themselves in front of a huge television audience, getting his jabs in before that audience tunes out. Brevity is the soul of wit, after all, and the Jets had us all laughed out.
In fact, even my stabs at humor above felt a little strained. That's because I was gilding a lily. Just like W.C. Fields in the presence of a wise-cracking tyke, Jets mockers have been rendered irrelevant and powerless. Thanksgiving night may have been the low-water mark for the Jets as a team, but it was their high-water mark for self-parody, and only one other NFL team has the potential to provide bigger belly laughs in the months to come.
That's why, all-in-all, I'm glad that I'm in Philadelphia.