The Jets, the Bills, and the Art of Losing


On Sports

Our favorite poet/sports correspondent is back, this time with some very strong feelings about football.

Photo: Rowan Ricardo Phillips

“We’re from Buffalo. Obviously. That’s why we’re driving through this tunnel with you.”

It was Sunday, around noon. I was in a car with three men more or less my age. When driving through a tunnel there’s always a moment when I start thinking about the crushing tons of water overhead; how we’re kept safe by tons of concrete and steel; that traveling through a tunnel is an act of faith—either in science or in the benefits of simply following the person in front of you.

Somewhere outside the tunnel, the air was sun-kissed, bright, warm. But inside the tunnel, the murky orange lights overhead chased one another in single file. That’s when the dark side of our trip, something dubious tugging at our excitement, started to bubble to the surface. It was only a matter of time before we started stating the obvious as a way of confirming that, yes, we had agreed to do this. Because the question started to pose itself: “What the hell are we doing here?” Sometimes it’s as simple as “We’re from Buffalo.”

The tunnel gave way to open air. New Jersey welcomed us, as is its habit, with a cluster of gas stations, remarkably unremarkable commercial real estate, a spate of Kelly-green highway signs.

“You need to veer to the left here,” I said. “See that sign: ‘Sports Complex.’ ”

P—let’s call him P—P followed the sign and continued getting things off his chest, his eyes fixed on the road as he spoke: “My wife wouldn’t talk to me this morning … my oldest daughter, she just stared at me and shook her head when I was leaving.”

In the front seat with P was his brother B. In the back seat: their lifelong friend E, also from Buffalo. It hadn’t dawned on me what I’d signed up for until P started his confession. He gave voice to it, but we had all been thinking the same thing to ourselves.

“Are we really going to an NFL game? Really?”

We were. Really. They were going for their beloved Bills and I was going to check out the umpteenth promise of a new dawn for the New York Jets, a team that’s been waiting in the darkness for the sun to rise for almost as long as it’s existed. The Jets and the Bills are rivals, in theory: they play in the same division, which means they face each other twice a year. But in reality, they’re cousins, offspring of the same state rotting on the same miserable branch of the NFL’s family tree. Both teams have made an art of losing. Who has the upper leg in that regard is a matter of perspective.

After a generation of practicing their dark arts in the northwestern corner of New York state, the Bills took to the national stage with four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the early nineties. They lost all of them, in increasingly resigned fashion. A few months after their fourth and final Super Bowl loss, in 1994, the team’s greatest sports hero was seen on live television in a white Ford Bronco fleeing police on a Los Angeles freeway. Bills fans can’t deny their team’s haplessness. But for the people of Buffalo, the Bills are what’s there. And for a city that’s long been spinning its wheels in the mud, their football team offers them hope and a fresh start every year. As P put it, “Do you care, Rowan. Do you really care about the Jets?” I was inclined to say sure, but the more I thought about the Jets in the grand scheme of things the truth spoke up on its own behalf: “No.” “Well, we care. We can’t help it. We’re from Buffalo. It’s the Bills and not much else.” His brother B nodded in that slow fashion that stands in for an amen. Then added, “I don’t care the way I used to … having kids helps.” E in particular has developed a superpower from a lifetime of watching the Bills: he’s the greatest cooler of all time; a prediction by E, no matter how likely the outcome, will result in the opposite happening.  Fully aware of this, I’ve seen him try to trick his curse by predicting the opposite of what he wants to happen. But it never works. He’s infected by Bills bad luck, a universal donor.

Today, however, these guys were feeling bullish. The Bills had a second-year quarterback in Josh Allen who, if you closed your eyes, looked like an accurate passer. They drafted a player considered by many experts to be the best player in the draft to add to their already formidable defense. Hope springs eternal on the first week of the season. I listened and sighed.

Here the four of us were, heading to the MetLife Stadium to see the Jets play the Bills. We circled the stadium looking for our parking spot like mice in a maze. It was a beautiful day. Tailgating was winding down. I’m always shocked at the number of jerseys you see at a football game, how quick people are to put somebody else’s name on their back. Among the green-and-white Jets jerseys were also a sea of blue Bills jerseys (and those dodgy Zubaz pants that Bills fans wear: tiger-cum-zebra-striped leggings-tights-sweatpants in red, white, and blue).

Being a Jets fan is a badge of honor, and the badge’s pin stabs you in the chest and stays there. George R. R. Martin is a Jets fan. It would take a Jets fan to have written those Game of Thrones books.

But this season would be different.

You see, you have to go all in on hope. The Jets have a new head coach, Adam Gase. Gase wasn’t successful in his last head coaching job, for the Miami Dolphins, of which he had been summarily relieved only a few months before. But things would be different for him now. The Jets have a young, highly touted quarterback. Sam Darnold’s first season was a two-part tale: he played so poorly at the outset that he found himself benched, but then was one of the best passers in the league for the final quarter. He didn’t have much help. The Jets have one of the worst rosters in the league, assembled by a general manager who squandered valuable draft picks and spending power with a level of ineptness shocking in both its depths and its consistency. But the Jets finally got rid of him and have hired another promising executive, Joe Douglass. They signed arguably the best running back in the league. To their shaky defense, they drafted a player considered by many experts to be the best defensive player in the draft. They modified their uniforms to signal a new start. This season would be different. But let’s not talk too much about them. They won Super Bowl III, which is why the NFL as you know it exists. You’re welcome, football fans.

The game itself was fittingly a tale of two halves. The Bills decided to come out throwing the ball to the exclusion of all else. They set up to pass nineteen times in a row to start the game, leaving their faith in Allen’s erratic arm and decision making. This went as would be expected, with Allen throwing two interceptions and fumbling once. The Jets, of course, took all this good fortune to the dumpster and lit it on fire: running an offense designed to go sideways instead of forward, topping it off by running one play with ten players on the field instead of eleven. The kicker, inexplicably picked up at the last moment by the new general manager after being cut by another team, missed an extra point and a short field goal. Nevertheless, at one point, it was 16–0 Jets. Teams gifted four turnovers and a sixteen-point lead rarely ever lose a game. But this is the Jets we’re talking about. With three minutes left in the game it was suddenly 17–16 Buffalo. The Bills fans sitting behind us, who hadn’t said a word for most of the game, left the moment Buffalo took the lead, as though they feared being present for a looming disappointment at the end. Any Jets fan would understand.

As the clock wound down and the stadium emptied, as the Jets tried futilely to drive into field goal position, a disappointed Jets fan yelled down to the field, “Come on, make a living!” A herd of Bills fans were escorted out of the stadium, one of them bleeding profusely from the nose. Another stumbled around in a Bills jersey with TRUMP and the number 45 on the back. A handful of Jets fans, one wearing a baby in a front-facing harness, argued about sunflower seeds so violently that one squared up to another threatening the worst ass-kicking of his life. No one blinked at any of it.

Any way you look at it, it’s football. And football is what it is. Football is a menace to society. Football is a sport with many lofty ideas of itself—that it fosters spirit, that it provides an opportunity for young men to receive an education they otherwise wouldn’t have, that it teaches personal and group responsibility. But let’s be honest, let’s get serious. From the inherent brutality of the game to its non-guaranteed contracts; from the resource drain it places on schools to the not-political-but-obviously-political hocus-pocus of its redundant genuflections to the military-industrial complex; from the ethical void at the center of its heart that wipes away serious allegations of sexual misconduct with swaths of silence, no-comments, and we’re-moving-ons to the silly sense of self-importance with which coaches carry themselves, the only thing football reliably does is the thing it has always set out to do: it assaults.

As the game clock reached zero, I congratulated P, B, and E. We left to a rising chorus of singing Bills fans walking the long, covered overpass to the parking lot. Neither team did anything to write home about, but Buffalo won and so for a couple more weeks hope will remain alive—maybe even until the temperature starts to drop.

Meanwhile, the Jets debut was as on brand as it gets. The coach brought in to improve the offense took the word offensive to heart. The general manager brought in to find good players watched the kicker he hand-picked screw up so badly that the team cut him a day later. The team’s two expensive new additions are injured. The receiver they just re-signed injured his neck and is out for the year. And Darnold, the team’s great hope, has been diagnosed with mononucleosis and is expected to miss several weeks of action. It took all of one game for the force of nature that is the Jets’ bad juju to come crashing down. Note that this still isn’t the shortest amount of time in which a season has gone up in flames on the Jets. Twenty years ago, fresh off a season that left them primed for a Super Bowl appearance, Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde’s Achilles tendon snapped in the second quarter of the opening game (against those then–fellow perpetual losers, the New England Patriots). Many teams have tried, but none have come close to the Jets’ level of perfect abjection. When the NFL goes the way of heavyweight boxing, Jets fans will always have this to look back on: the unparalleled grandeur of commonplace failure.

J-E-T-S: Jets, Jets, Jets. Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.


Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of the poetry collections Heaven and The Ground. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, the PEN/Osterweil Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim fellowship. His most recent book is  The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey.