The New York Jets 2011
Credit: Illustration by Roberto Parada

At the start of 2011, the New York Jets were considered a team to reckon with. Led by Rex Ryan, their exuberant and controversial head coach, and a young and at times erratic quarterback, Mark Sanchez, the Jets had reached the AFC championship game the two previous seasons. They were thinking Super Bowl when Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum, the Jets' general manager, invited journalist Nicholas Dawidoff to chronicle the team's fortunes. "They gave me a security code, a desk in the scouting department, a locker, and the freedom to roam," Dawidoff writes in his new book, 'Collision Low Crossers: A Year Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football.' "Nobody in modern professional football had ever let someone like me inside before."

"Anything can happen," Tannenbaum warned Dawidoff at the beginning of the year. "Things can go very badly." And they did. By November, the midpoint of the 2011 campaign, the Jets had gone a shaky 5-3, largely due to the poor play of Sanchez and the rest of the anemic offense. The defense, one of the league's best, kept them in most games, but the players and coaches had begun to resent their underperforming teammates on the other side of the ball. Fissures had begun to reveal themselves in the team's unity, doubts about Sanchez continued to surface, and now they were facing crucial back-to-back games, the first against the archrival New England Patriots, followed by the Tim Tebow-led Denver Broncos.

Tuesday was the players' day off and the longest day for the coaches. For most of the morning and afternoon, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Brian "Schotty" Schottenheimer would "slow cook" their game plans, as Pettine put it. During football season, every night all over America, sleeping badly on office couches, are overweight middle-aged coaches with broken marriages. Rex Ryan was typically gone by 11 p.m. Pettine slept on the mattress he kept in Ryan's closet.

Some people question why football coaches put in such hours, but a game plan is their creative work. Coaches say that even on the best professional teams, only 10 percent of the time do all 11 players perform their roles as scripted. But you always aimed for better.

Besides, the mere idea of free time is for them anathema – they feared not working, because working all the time was the only salve for the anxiety-driven nature of the job. In August, with Hurricane Irene bearing down on New York, a Jets preseason game against the Giants had been postponed. The coaches and players were told that they should stay home, and that their practice facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, would be locked and all entry pass codes deactivated. Some of the offensive coaches began plotting to go straight to Florham Park ahead of the storm and stay there, locked in through the hurricane, bedding down under their desks.

"All right, men, Patriot week," Schotty began at the Wednesday-morning quarterbacks meeting. He said he would first show them some film before detailing his game plan for New England because "[you] gotta learn to swim before you go into deep water."

"What about swimmies?" asked Mark Sanchez. The man was loose. At times, so was his play.

Upon taking the Jets job two years earlier, Ryan had no viable starting quarterback, and to his eyes, Sanchez was the best one available. The Jets dealt three players and two draft choices to the Browns in exchange for the fifth choice in the 2009 draft, and Sanchez arrived in New Jersey to sign the most lucrative contract in franchise history. The Jets quickly made Sanchez their starter, and in his first two seasons he led them to the AFC championship game – or perhaps they led him. In Sanchez's young career, the Jets had carefully protected "the Sanchise," emphasizing his virtues, limiting his playbook, minimizing his job competition, posting a media-relations staffer by his locker whenever he gave interviews. While he flashed the potential of someday becoming the polished, dynamic professional Ryan foresaw, he was still erratic, and so mostly he was a restricted element in a conservative run-first offense stocked with able veterans who gradually, over the course of the game, wore down the opposing defense. That the Jets still had no clear idea how good a quarterback Sanchez would become was nothing surprising; it pointed again to the difficulty in predicting the futures of football players and was part of the game's mystery.

So I felt for Schottenheimer. He had a young quarterback who wasn't much better than during his rookie year. He also had three temperamental playmaking veteran receivers in Plaxico Burress, Derrick Mason, and Santonio Holmes, who all wanted the ball – a good thing, except that if Schotty played them all, as Ryan had asked him to, that meant fewer running plays and also no extra lineman to buttress his injured line. That line was a broken fence, meaning you couldn't throw deep, and if the defense knew that there was no risk of verticals, they cheated on short-route coverage. So now the receivers were feeling resentful.

It was the opposite in the offensive meeting rooms up in New England. Tom Brady was an easy man for an opponent to dislike. He seemed to have it all: talent, success, good looks, a supermodel wife, and those big eyes rolling petulantly skyward whenever things didn't go precisely his way. So pretty and so good – how could you not want to knock him around? But that was not easy to do. Peering across the line, Brady was a defense analyst; his release was rapid and sure, making even mediocre NFL offensive linemen seem staunch, and his arm was strong and accurate. The coaches all looked forward to the challenge of trying to beat Brady as well as his coach. In an era of parity, Bill Belichick was the only NFL coach who won consistently, year after year. Around the league, people talked about him as the ur-coach, the impossible model.