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New York Jets history changed on one Christmas Eve, salsa-dancing play

Rex Ryan, Victor Cruz, Eli Manning
Rex Ryan, Victor Cruz, Eli Manning, Jet X Graphic, Getty Images

The New York Jets have yet to recover from Victor Cruz’s 99-yard breakout

‘Twas the afternoon before Christmas, and all through MetLife, the Jets and Giants engaged in a Week 16 strife. The standings were hung on each team’s bulletin board with care, in hopes that a playoff berth’s “X” would soon be there.

On third and 10 from the one, there arose such a clatter. The New York Jets‘ defense sprang from the bench to see what was the matter.

On Dasher, on Dancer, on Prancer and … Victor?

For the sake of brevity—and to spare you, dear reader, from further awful gridiron rhymes—we’ll cut to the ending: a 99-yard scoring hookup between Victor Cruz and Eli Manning that permanently turned the momentum of a rare regular-season MetLife Stadium civil war blue.

Through the 13th such distanced score in NFL history, the Giants took a 10-7 lead shortly before the halftime break and it would become the extra push they’d need to secure an eventual 29-14 victory over the Jets.

The disruption of New York City’s football fate went far beyond the metropolitan area.

The win over the Jets was the Yule Log behind the roaring fire personified in a six-game winning streak to wrap the 2011-12 season, one that climaxed in a thrilling Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots.

Though the Giants’ fortunes have taken a major dip since that Christmas miracle, fans of East Rutherford’s blue affairs at least have the solace of their team earning a Super Bowl triumph they could realistically tweet about.

The Jets, however, never appeared to get over it, trapped forever in an endless cycle of rebuilding.

What makes Cruz’s historic dash through the turf so painful is that it served as a swift kick back to reality for a Jets team in the midst of a genuine, legitimate effort to shed its star-crossed identity used primarily for football comedy. It was a return to the days of not only having to deal with a loss but losing in the most hilarious/embarrassing way possible.

Though the loss to the Giants didn’t fully eliminate them, the Jets missed out on the final AFC playoff seed (which eventually went to Cincinnati) by one game.

Every Jets coach post-Weeb Ewbank, from Winner-to-Saleh, has had a blueprint, a plan to make things right amongst the green football citizens. But what made Rex Ryan’s tenure, as well as that of general manager Mike Tannenbaum, so different were the actual results.

And more importantly, sustainable efforts were present in his on-field vision. The late-90s to early-aughts were relatively kind to the Jets through the efforts of Bill Parcells and Herman Edwards, but Ryan seemed to be working with something that could truly push the Jets into the future.

By now, everyone’s familiar with the fact that the Jets were coming off consecutive appearances in the AFC championship game. In true Jets fashion, much of the modern discussion around those appearances is now satirical in tone, many lingering in disbelief because Gang Green’s semifinal marches were made with noted draft bust Mark Sanchez under center.

Putting aside the fact that Sanchez did rise when the occasion called for it—at least pre-Cruz—the Jets of the late-aughts slowly built a contender through shrewd asset management, primarily doing so in the name of surrounding their franchise quarterback with a strong support system.

A pair of first-round picks in 2006, Tannenbaum’s first draft in the captain’s seat, was spent on D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold, eschewing flashy, high-profile skill players.

Ferguson, the fourth pick of the proceedings, was in fact booed upon his New York introduction because his would-be supporters wanted Matt Leinart instead. The line was further built through the veteran additions of Damien Woody and Alan Faneca.

Getting back into a relatively muted offseason was imperative for the Jets after the Brett Favre circus in 2008. Curating a strong support system through blocking, as well as lesser heralded pick-ups like Jim Leonhard, Kerry Rhodes, Thomas Jones, and Tony Richardson led

The Jets could never truly invoke “Silent Night” thanks to Ryan’s boisterous personality, there was consistency, a plan, a step in the right direction. As long as the Jets were winning, Ryan was more than tolerable.

But as it watched the Giants run plain out of sight…the NFL bid a not-so-Merry Christmas to the New York Jets, thanks to Cruz’s good night (last one, sorry).

Since that moment, the Jets have reverted back into sideshow mode, fueled, perhaps, by a combination of desperation to find that last missing piece to move toward a Super Bowl or simply wrangle back the NYC area’s attention away from the second blue Super Bowl parade in five years.

Mere weeks after the Giants made another trek down the Canyon of Heroes, the Jets gained eternal attention through a trade that acquired literal passing sensation Tim Tebow from Denver at the height of “Tebowmania”‘s battle for headlines alongside “Linsanity” in Manhattan.

The Jets also embarked on a mission to neglect the “boring” offensive line spots, instead opting for selection that would produce happy faces when ESPN cut to the fans’ draft parties, namely smashmouth defenders that fit in with Ryan’s persona.

Kyle Wilson went four picks before Rodger Saffold. Quinton Coples’ name was called shortly before Riley Reiff and David DeCastro. The negligence extended to the Mike Maccagnan era: only in his final draft did Maccagnan take an offensive lineman during the draft’s first three rounds (third-rounder Chuma Edoga).

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The offense as a whole was relatively looked down upon; after choosing Sanchez fifth overall in 2009, the Jets went seven straight drafts without using a pick on an offensive player in an increasingly offense-friendly NFL that further pledged its devotion to a deity known as fantasy football. None of those defensive selections are with the team anymore and only two (Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams) are still in the league.

The defensive obsession extended to veteran acquisitions, such as the massive contract offered to Trumaine Johnson. Other big-budget flops included Derrick Mason and Santonio Holmes on offense, a place that became so desperate for any further momentum that they threw $12 million at NFL nomad Ryan Fitzpatrick after he stumbled into career-best numbers in the mirage that was 2015.

Even Darrelle Revis, arguably the Jets’ strong defensive hero, wasn’t exempt from the carnage. Having left for Tampa Bay just over a year after the Cruz incident (and later a Super Bowl in New England), the Jets threw a five-year deal at him to come back. The Revis reunion lasted only two seasons and forced New York into a $39 million bath.

All the names from that doomed 2011 team have moved on, but the aftermath of Cruz’s momentum-shifting run to glory lingers. Naturally, wins have been hard to come by since that fateful holiday.

The scoreboard has tilted in the Jets’ favor only 61 times from then until now, besting only equally doomed AFC brethren from Cleveland and Jacksonville—and those sides have the comfort of recent playoff runs to keep them company. The Jets had things right for so long…consecutive semifinal runs are a rarity outside of New England…but all it took was only play to break things down.

Obviously, it’s foolhardy to say that every negative Jets occurrence over the past decade-plus has spawned solely from the 99-yard loss. There’s nothing that Robert Saleh, Joe Douglas, Zach Wilson, etc. can do to prevent Cruz from reaching the end zone—unless they somehow convince the (fictional) Avengers to take them to the Quantum Realm.

But while New York has done its best to stay out of the spotlight, particularly after the Todd Bowles era, but there’s no denying that things have never really been the same since.

Even the Jets’ mere consolation from the event—the fact that the Giants have been equally putrid and that they’ve taken each of the two games since Christmas Eve 2011—is offset by the fact the Giants won a Super Bowl out of the whole affair.

At this time, it doesn’t feel like there’s a present under the Jets’ tree that’s capable of ending this carnage any time soon.

One play begetting years of torment? Never mind Christmas fare: it’s a Jets version of a Halloween-inspired horror movie, an origin tale that has inspired a decade-plus of even more horrifying episodes.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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2 years ago

Why do we need to be reminded of this…