By Lenn Robbins
Admittedly, this is a big ask.
Compounded by years, check that, decades of disappointment if not resignation, many sports fans in this town have been left cowering in his or her safe place. There’s a psychological term for it, “Learned Helplessness.”
Every psych major learns this freshman year. Scientists put a mouse in a cage with two levers. When the mouse taps on one lever it gets a piece of food. When it presses on the other, it gets a mild shock. Then scientists flip the switch and both levers emit a shock. Eventually the mouse gives up and sits down in the middle of cage, resigned to his miserable fate.*
That more or less sums up the existence of Knicks and Jets fans over the last 40 years.
Here’s the big ask: Try to envision, say, in three years, the Knicks and Jets as functioning, even successful franchises. I know. Breathe.
If it happens, we will look back on the last weekend of the worst July in most of our lifetimes, as the turning point. That’s right, circle this weekend as the possible end of misery for Knicks and Jets fans.
Let’s look at the Knicks first, because theirs is the more realistic rebirth. The Knicks hired proven coach Tom Thibodeau, giving the franchise instant credibility.
Although the specifics of Thibodeau’s reported five-year deal is not known, we can rest assured he was not enticed to the Knicks by a ridiculous sum of money (see Phil Jackson) and a Barcalounger. He was not hired with the expectation of luring free agents (see Giannis), although a solid organization would help.
He was hired for what he is – a proven commodity. A coach’s coach and a player’s coach. A winner.
“Tommy’s a seasoned veteran who it goes without saying understands what wins what loses,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters. “He knows how to put a program together, create a culture, be demanding. At the same time, make people accountable. It’s easy to demand things, but making people accountable and wanting to play the right way is not something that’s easy for everybody to do. But Tom knows it inside and out.”
He has to, because the new Knicks coach faces a daunting challenge. He’s tasked with putting a plan in place that includes developing young talent and instilling a system that maximizes the roster’s talent. Don’t chuckle. There is some talent combined with the very real possibility of acquiring more. The trades of Kristaps Porzingis and Marcus Morris netted the Knicks additional 1st-round draft choices in upcoming seasons.
If Tibs and new GM Leon Rose are allowed to do their jobs without the meddling of James Dolan, there is a real sense that for the first time since the Glen Grunwald Era, the Knicks have the right combination of coach and GM in place. If Dolan doesn’t want to face chants of “Sell the Team,” when fans return to the Garden (and they will one coronavirus-free day) he’ll leave Tibs and Rose to the business of basketball.
The Jets are a more complicated matter, simply because of roster size. One or two good NBA drafts can revitalize an NBA franchise – just ask the Pelicans or Bucks. Football requires more smart, meticulous building, a plan not found in any Jets playbook of late.
But with the trade of the disgruntled tantrum safety Jamal Adams to the Seahawks, Joe Douglas now is 3-for-3 as the Jets GM.
Regardless of his talent, Adams had to go. Instead of becoming the defensive face of the franchise, he became a reminder of “same old Jets” with every contract-motivated outburst. A perennial playoff team can’t be built around a pain in the %ss. Remember what Douglas said at his introductory news conference.
“To Jets nation: You’re getting a general manager that is a relentless worker, someone that understands a winning culture.”
Adams has a me-first culture. Good-bye.
Jets fans might not see it that way today or even this season. Adams was the team’s best player. But Douglas stuck to his guns. He wasn’t going to move Adams unless he received at least two, first-round picks. He got that in addition to a third-rounder in 2021 and safety Bradley McDougald, who’s been a productive player.
Of course, the deal can’t be evaluated for years. That’s secondary. Faced with his first migraine Douglas didn’t blink from his vision of building a franchise. He also won’t have to worry about what Adams’ future contract would do to the team’s salary cap. This remains a team with a lot of areas of need, no less a crucial decision regarding the future of quarterback Sam Darnold (Keep Him!).
Douglas began his Jets build by bolstering the offensive line with the reasonable free-agent deals given to Connor McGovern and George Fant. He orchestrated a disciplined draft that netted a possible 10-year tackle in Mekhi Becton and game-breaking wide receiver in Denzel Mims. This might not be a sexy build but it’s one with the best chance for long term success.
So much of what the Knicks and Jets become is impossible to predict. We don’t know what becomes of the players drafted. We don’t know if an injury (see Derrick Rose) will cripple a franchise. We don’t know if Jets coach Adam Gase is the answer or if Knicks rookie RJ Barrett is a superstar.
What we do know is that in one weekend in July, the Knicks hired a coach who checks all the boxes and the Jets stayed the course. Imagine where this might take both franchise in three years. It’s a big ask, for sure. But when is the last time we even dared to ask?
*The author does not condone the mistreatment of animals.