HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. – Herman Edwards runs his right index finger along a nearby wall, as if he's scribbling with a pen. The New York Jets' head coach traces a giant rectangle. Inside it, he makes an imaginary list, talking aloud as he goes.
"Six months ago," he says, moving his finger one line at a time, "I told my players, here are the first five teams we play, and here were their records (in 2003).
"San Diego, 4-12."
"San Francisco, 7-9."
Edwards stops with his finger at the bottom of the list and smiles. This is where he told his players – specifically a 12-man leadership committee he selected in the offseason – what was expected from this little inventory. At the time, the Jets actually fit in the same category as the teams he had just rattled off. Like all of the others, the Jets missed the playoffs, suffered a crisis of direction and felt their fan support waver. Edwards stood in front of 12 players and made a demand.
"You told them they would start 5-0?" he is asked. "Something that's never been done in this organization?"
"Yeah. It needed to be done right then," Edwards said. "So those guys knew exactly where my brain was and what we needed to do when we started the offseason."
Now the rest of the world is getting a peek into Edwards' gray matter.
"We didn't think it was overly gutsy at the time," Jets cornerback Donnie Abraham said. "It was the offseason. You want to be gutsy in the offseason, you know?"
Heading into Sunday's game against 5-0 New England, the Jets' start loses some glitz against the Patriots' 20-game winning streak. But Edwards' premonition remains impressive – particularly given the time frame – partly because the Jets have made good on it. But even more so because it was made in March, at a time when the Bengals still looked like a threat and long before someone crawled into the head of Ricky Williams and hit the reset button.
Not to mention the mess Edwards had to deal with in his own backyard. Quarterback Chad Pennington had just gone through an injury-riddled season and fallen completely off his anointed perch in the locker room. The team's defense lacked speed and would be learning a complex system under new coordinator Donnie Henderson. And, well, the Jets always seemed to have sluggish starts with Edwards. The sudden black hole in leadership wasn't going to help, either.
When rating the attitude and camaraderie of last season's team, running back Curtis Martin said, "On a scale of 1 to 10? If it's operating at an eight right now, last year it was at a two."
In the salary cap era – when teams can't be ripped apart without long-standing failure – what Edwards did next was a stroke of genius. Rather than make wholesale changes, he decided to tweak what he already had and add structure. That's how the 12-player leadership committee was born, led by players like the highly respected Martin.
As Edwards said, the players had gotten "tired of always hearing it from the coach." So he divided the power and responsibility, allowing the team's strongest personalities to rule smaller groups. As for Pennington, Edwards addressed his quarterback's hushed locker-room nature himself.
"For myself and Chad, we had a lot of talks in the offseason," Edwards said. "A lot of talks about what we needed to do to try to resurrect this thing. We lacked a certain confidence."
The remedies arrived en masse. Along with Martin, who arrived in training camp in superb shape, members of the leadership committee pressured teammates into following offseason regimens. Pennington vowed to have a louder voice. On defense, the Jets let go of aging veterans Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones, replacing them with the speed of rookie Jonathan Vilma and free-agent signing Eric Barton.
Dividends? Look back to Sunday, when the Jets lost focus against San Francisco and found themselves in a 14-3 hole at halftime. As Edwards walked to the locker room, his quarterback nudged him.
"I'm gonna get after them, coach," Pennington said.
"You need to," Edwards replied. "Don't worry about it. You're going to be the bad cop. I'll be the good cop when it's all said and done. … They'll listen to you."
Pennington ripped into the team. The Jets outscored the 49ers 19-0 in the second half.
Now 5-0 for the first time in team history, the Jets head into the biggest game of Edwards' tenure – a game that might not label them in defeat but that certainly would elevate them in victory. And there should be no ignoring the irony. The Jets could define themselves against a team that in many ways has a polar opposite mentality.
While the Jets embrace their unbeaten record ("You have to appreciate some of the things you do along the way," Edwards said), the Patriots have done everything on earth to forget their 20-game win streak ("We do a good job around here of suppressing success," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said). New England thrives under the starched autocracy of Bill Belichick; the Jets need the ever-emotional Edwards to pressure them with shared responsibility.
Both have found a way to work.
"I've got the notes. I've still got the pad from that [offseason] meeting," Edwards said of his 5-0 prediction. "I had a message."
How far it travels beyond this Sunday remains to be seen.
- Herman Edwards