In New York, it's no-win situation Giants meet Jets, loser facing 0-4 mark and further ridicule

September 22, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

What could be stranger than this?

The New York Giants will be visitors in their own house today -- and underdogs against a team that carries a desultory 0-3 record.

It was the NFL schedule that made the New York Jets, co-tenants at Giants Stadium, home team for this Big Apple showdown.

But it's on the merit of a futility not seen in Giants blue since George Young took the general manager's job in 1979 that these Giants enter as two-point underdogs.

"It will be a strange game," Young said in reference to the semantics of filling Giants Stadium with Jets season-ticket holders. "During the game, fans will make noise, and you don't know whether they made a play or we made a play.

"Very strange. It's not the same away-game feeling [of hostility], because an awful lot of Giants fans go to Jets games and, I think, vice versa."

Four weeks into the NFL season, it's not only hard to tell the fans apart, but the teams as well. The Giants, like the

Jets, are a dreary 0-3. They're both dragging at the bottom of the league's statistical charts. They're both desperately trying to salvage a season turned unexpectedly sour.

And they both dread the ridicule that will be heaped on the club that loses. Even though there are five other winless teams in the NFL at the start of Week 4, New York writers already have dubbed this the Peyton Manning Bowl.

That's on the assumption the loser will wind up with the No. 1 pick in next April's draft, and that Manning, Tennessee's precocious junior quarterback, will leave school early to be that pick.

Such is the sorry state of pro football in New York, New York.

It's not unfamiliar territory for the Jets, who have gone four years without making the playoffs and eight years without a winning record. But it is unexpected.

Unexpected because Jets owner Leon Hess went on a spending spree of nearly $80 million in the off-season to get the NFL's worst offense in 1995 airborne in 1996.

The Jets upgraded their offensive line at a cost of $27 million by signing Jumbo Elliott and David Williams, two of the top free-agent tackles. They overhauled a weak receiving corps with No. 1 pick Keyshawn Johnson ($15 million over six years) and Alex Van Dyke in the draft, and by signing free agents Jeff Graham and Webster Slaughter.

But the coup de grace was getting Neil O'Donnell, the quarterback who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Super Bowl last season, to run the offense. The price tag was $25 million with a $7 million signing bonus.

So what happened?

Injuries derailed the revamped offensive line through training camp. When Elliott, a former Giant, finally saw action against the Miami Dolphins last week, he was guilty of four penalties and one sack.

O'Donnell, the former Maryland quarterback, quickly learned what it is to be a Jet. In a season-opening, 31-6 loss to the Denver Broncos, he passed for 50 yards and one interception.

The NFL's least-intercepted quarterback over the previous three seasons, O'Donnell already has been picked off five times and sacked 13. In 12 starts last year for the Steelers, he was intercepted seven times and sacked 15.

Nevertheless, the Jets actually led the undefeated Dolphins 14-0 last week. Then they collapsed. The Dolphins scored touchdowns on four straight possessions and on five of the next six to go up 33-14 en route to a 38-27 win.

Worse yet, the Jets lost their best pass rusher from a defensive line ravaged by injury. End Hugh Douglas will miss two months with a broken right ankle, and it is possible the Jets will face the Giants with none of the starting defensive linemen who opened the season.

Embattled coach Rich Kotite, who has lost 23 of his past 26

games in a streak that extends to his time with the Philadelphia Eagles, knows he's on thin ice. That's why he called this a must-win game.

Losing has taken its toll even on the young Jets. After the loss to Miami, Johnson voiced his frustration: "Why us? Why is this cloud hanging over our heads? I just want it to go away and mess with someone else."

That someone else would be the Giants, whose fall from grace has been stunning since they won the Super Bowl in the 1990 season. They have been hurt by suspect drafts and the free agency/salary cap era. Twice in the past six years, Young had to change coaches -- Bill Parcells resigned after winning the Super Bowl and Ray Handley was fired after a bleak two-year run.

Current coach Dan Reeves has had his problems, too, after taking the Giants to the playoffs in 1993, his first season. The former Denver coach has feuded with management, filled roster spots with ex-Broncos, and when fans booed one of the players he brought in, Reeves ripped the fans, too.

The player in question, quarterback Tommy Maddox, ultimately was cut, exposing one of the Giants' most vulnerable positions. Reeves had two young, unproven quarterbacks -- Stan White and Danny Kanell -- behind third-year starter Dave Brown, who has been shaky at best.

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