What We Talk About When We Talk About Shit Talk

Taking the knee to ice out the clock at the end of American Football games is a tradition. One team has the ball. The other team has no timeouts. The Center gives the ball to the Quarterback who takes a step and kneels. The Quarterback has a man to his right and to his left and one behind him should he fumble and have the ball wildly go behind him. Kneeling makes the clock count out 45 seconds or so. It’s almost ceremonial. One time the New York Giants messed up by not kneeling out the ball to end a game. There was a mishap with the ball, Herman Edwards of the Eagles picked it up and went on to score the winning touchdown against them. In many games, the kneeling out is so lackadaisical that opposing players are already shaking hands and wishing the winning team well as this process is still going on and the game is still technically in doubt.

The New York Jets, shruggers-off of convention, tradition and decorum decided last night to use this time jumping desperately over the line petulantly, trying to knock the well-protected ball free, coming down dangerously on the heads of Pittsburgh players headed inevitably to the Super Bowl. If a Steeler had been injured during one of these routine snaps by a falling Jet, the blowback from the Sporting Set would be immense. It’s incredibly bad sportsmanship, it’s petty, it’s punchy, it’s stupid. That’s the image of the 2010 New York Jets for me.

The pervading rubric in The American Football has been to respect your opponents in the press, say all the right things before games and then close the locker room door and Completely Shit on the other team to your team. The Unsecret Secret Life of American Sports is that Shit Talk rules at all times when reporters are not around. Shit Talking in front of reporters is deemed unclassy, disrespectful and unprofessional. When it’s done in-game while the microphones are too far away to hear, it is considered a competitive edge or a sign of intensity.

This year’s version of the New York Jets reveled in being reviled (See how I did that?). They Talked Shit in front of more microphones to the point where you thought Talking Shit was their main occupation instead of scoring touchdowns and stopping other people from scoring touchdowns. Which New York loves, let me tell you. There’s almost as many reporters per square inch in the five boroughs as there are hungry, hungry bedbugs. And nothing sells papers more than Football Shit Talk. You have an entire week of No Action between Football Games. What are these hungry, hungry reporters to do but invent stories? Stories that feed the radio and TV shows, that boost ratings, that get everyone interested. Including the players. So if these Green Kings of Shit Talk had started talking in Training Camp on HBO of how they were going to win the Super Bowl, why did they inexplicably stop Talking Shit this very week? And then come up so flat in the First Half of their loss against the Steelers, who will lose the Super Bowl to the Packers in Dallas on Februrary 6th?

Never mind they almost came back to win in what would have been the greatest comeback in the history of the NFL Playoffs.

One was beginning to imagine that Jets’ Coach Rex Ryan may have been some kind of Evil Shit-Talking Genius who knew that belittling his enemies would soften and confuse them the week of big games. My New England Patriots fell into such a Green Bear Trap. The Jet Shit Talk on the Week-long run up to the Divisional Playoff Game in Foxboro, New England, started early and lasted until game time. And very arguably threw off Tom Brady’s game and caused the downfall of that 14–2 team and most likely the Longterm Reputations of QB Brady and alleged former genius Bill Belichick. They Came, They Saw, They Talked Shat and did the Spread Armed Jets Dance all over the field as a Billion New Englanders felt the 2nd Big Beatdown from a New York Team to their Invincibility in the last 5 years.

This week the Jets were nearly silent until the Friday before the game. No “This Game is Personal, Between Me and (Opposing Coach).” No “We Ain’t Going There to Lose.” It was like how “Twin Peaks” stopped being “Twin Peaks” before the end of “Twin Peaks.” Suddenly, inexplicably, someone had pulled the plug on the script. They teach pitchers not to be beat on their second-best pitch. Ride the horse you came in on, go to your strengths. Do what brought you here. So why was Rex Ryan so nice and respectful of the Steelers and Coach Mike Tomlin leading up to Sunday’s game? That was Old Way, the Respectful Route. Say nothing in the press. Be nice. Don’t give them any fodder to hang on their Bulletin Boards. Try to beat them on the field. The Rex Ryan Shit Talking Way had become, through multiple wins on the road, a viable game plan. Beat them in the Press. And then they, used to being given respect in the Press, will be Surprised/Shocked out of their game plan, play angry and fail. It was the Jets who failed to take off in the First and Second Quarters, no doubt lacking the requisite Hot Air to initially get off the ground.

Class and Classiness may be in the eye of the beholder. It’s easy to stay classy when you’re winning or you’re a dominant team. The 2010 Jets had been as Crass a group as the NFL has ever seen, since possibly the Chicago Bears of the famous “Super Bowl Shuffle” Era, the last time a member of the Ryan Coaching Clan was in the Super Bowl. That Buddy Ryan-coached defense goes down as the greatest of the last 40 years or so, arguably the greatest ever. The Jets had many off the field distractions. Santonio Holmes, their star Wide Receiver, celebrates first downs as wildly as he does touchdowns. The Jets have threatened to injure players in career-ending ways. The NFL fined the Jets for their pre-Patriots’ game antics. They were worth every penny. The Jets humiliated the Patriots on their home field and their talk was definitely worth the price of admission.

Shit Talk is good for NFL Ratings, we found out. That Patriots/Jets Tilt was one of the highest rated Playoff games ever. Even the casual sports enthusiast wants to see if the blusterer can back up the bluster. Muhammad Ali knew this. He goes down as the greatest because he called himself the greatest and then proceeded to back it up in the ring numerous times over the span of years. The Jets haven’t been in the Super Bowl since their last great Shit Talker, Quarterback Broadway Joe Namath brought them there and won the game against the heavily-favored Baltimore Colts in 1969. Joe had off-handedly “guaranteed” victory in the press. And then went out and was actually victorious. What do we do to Shit Talkers who cannot back up their
shit? Forget them? How do we remember Nikita Kruschev, former Soviet premiere, who banged with his little shoe and shouted “We will bury you” to the United States? As a lunatic or a comedian. As an afterthought.

Reporters on the one hand deeply enjoy Shit Talk because it makes for a great story. And a great story is the kind of story that spawns stories. It also inspires the “they talk too much” kind of stories. The wisdom of coaches suggests that Shit Talking in the Press only Fires Up the other team. Wouldn’t you rather play a bunch of guys who seem to have a lot of respect for your skills? When you Shit Talk there’s the reverse effect of reporters repeating your Shit Talk to Those About Whom The Shit Was Talked. Sports is run on Respect. Respect is Money. It’s also Championships and Money. And Not Having To Put Up With Your Bullshit is also Respect.

Sports figures are surprisingly sensitive to perceptions. On the SNY Jets’ Postgame Show, former back-up Quarterback Ray Lucas insinuated that he would punch people in the face on the street anyone who called these Jets “The Same Old Jets.” Meaning heartbreakers, underachievers. Imagine those being fighting words in your world. Rex Ryan bristles at the mention of “The Same Old Jets.” But, as the Legendary Shit Talker Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.”

The ultimate failure of the New York Jets’ season will be that they ultimately were not what they said they were. What they insisted they were. It has nothing to do with football. It has to do with how the Jets came out and saw themselves in that First Half. After all the talk had faded away, they ended up with a failure of their own imaginations. They met the rare air of the AFC Championship game and failed to just be themselves.

There will be many who try to replicate the Shit Talking Ways of Rex Ryan and these Jets. The New York media will start early and often to hang on Ryan’s every word this off-season. A few New York Giants have already signaled they prefer the Rex Ryan Way to the Old School Ways of their coach, who won a Super Bowl against the Patriots just a few years ago. HBO will select a team to follow in the off-season for their “Hard Knocks” program and will expect television-worthy drama. Shit Will Have to Be Talked.

There’s no reason to expect that the Jets won’t be in the AFC Championship game again next year. There’s every reason in the world to expect the Shit Talk won’t stop until that team has reached the mountaintop.

But what of this perceived, elusive class? Many fans throughout the league refused to give the Jets credit for being a terrific team and are no doubt delighted to watch them fail. I will miss the Green Empire State Building. And when New York is involved in big events they always seem bigger. The Packers and the Steelers might actually go out and get the biggest ratings of any Super Bowl ever, with two incredible fan bases spread across the country. Last year’s Super Bowl between the Saints and Colts was the most watched program of all time, bigger than the last episode of “M.A.S.H.” They add an extra week so they can add extra Talk.

We equally immortalize those who Played the Game the Right Way and those who Were “Brash” But Backed It Up. The American Imagination is tickled by both those who quietly went about their business and those who Talked a lot of Shit. In America, we just want you to be you, as long as you’re a winner. If you lose, Americans want to have nothing to do with you.

Americans’ relationship with humility is more imagined than actual. We simultaneously think we’re awesome and will crush you. But say all the right boring things. Rex Ryan said whatever it was that popped into his head. And it was great for ratings. The Super Bowl will be very ordinary without him and his bluster. He will be missed. When the game is just a game, it’s just a game. It can be more when we elevate it to the position of theater, when the thing you’ll remember most is not who played, but What Was Said. I won’t bemoan the end of sportsmanship or salute the coming Shit Talkers of the Future (they should maybe add a wing to the Halls of Fame to fit those who boasted best). Like those funny beer commercials have shown us, sometimes the game isn’t won on the field, it’s won during the post-game news conference.