FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — For 20 years, they have been the standard by which the Jets have been measured.
And for nearly all those two decades, the Jets have come up hopelessly short.
Since Bill Belichick and Tom Brady began their historic collaboration in 2001, when they won their first of six Super Bowl titles together, the Jets have stood by with a helpless contempt as their AFC East rivals produced unprecedented success.
The Jets have been humiliated on a regular basis, with some of their ineptitude having been captured by unfortunate catchphrases like "Butt Fumble" and "Seeing Ghosts." Belichick famously left the Jets hanging in 2000 with the infamous words and initials written on a napkin — "I, BB, resign as HC of the NYJ" — and handed it over to then-team president Steve Gutman. And ever since, he has tortured this franchise with an assortment of victories on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
Six coaches have come and gone in the time Belichick has presided over the longest dynasty in NFL history, and only Rex Ryan managed to topple the Patriots in an epic playoff win that came on the heels of a 45-3 regular-season blowout. Ryan once famously proclaimed to Newsday, "I didn’t come here to kiss Belichick’s rings, I came here to kick his ass," but that divisional playoff win after the 2010 season was as close as he could get to dethroning the perennial champions.
Now it is Robert Saleh’s turn to try and slay the dragon. Even though Brady is now gone and has shown the world he’s capable of winning a Super Bowl without Belichick, and even though the Patriots are in a true rebuild for the first time since the coach took over, there is still an aura around this team and this coach. At least as far as the Jets are concerned.
Belichick already inflicted misery on Saleh’s Jets and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson, who threw four interceptions in a 25-6 loss at MetLife Stadium on Sept. 19. The rematch is set for Sunday at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots, now 2-4 with rookie quarterback Mac Jones, lay in wait.
Saleh seemed in awe of Belichick before their first meeting.
"God, he’s been coaching the Patriots since I started coaching," Saleh said days before they faced one another. "So, just to watch his legacy grow and the coach that he is, it’s an honor to share the same field as he does."
This time, Saleh is taking a more businesslike approach.
"Forgive me on this one. Call it arrogance if you want," he said after I asked about the Jets-Patriots rivalry. "You have rivalries all over the league, but if you make it bigger than it needs to be, then that’s exactly what it becomes."
Don’t get Saleh wrong. He still respects the heck out of Belichick’s Patriots.
"Yes, New England has done a lot of winning over the last 20 years," he said. "They have a Hall of Fame coach, they’ve had Hall of Fame players, and [I have] a lot of respect for the organization."
"But they’re another team that’s in the way of us trying to be our absolute best, and that’s the main focus."
Put another way, this is about the Jets and not the Patriots, at least as far as Saleh is concerned.
"It’s another opportunity to own your own moment," he said. "It’s another championship opportunity, no different than a championship opportunity in practice."
Saleh presides over the youngest team in the league, and the Jets’ 1-4 record reflects that inexperience. Wilson has mostly struggled, the running game isn’t what it needs to be, and the defense, while mostly sound, was run over by the Falcons in their Week 5 game in London.
Saleh’s advice for his players: Don’t make the Patriots out to be bigger than they really are.
"Ignore the noise," he said. "It’s just noise. That doesn’t matter."
Same goes for the coach.
"That one’s easy. It’s about the players," he said of any worries about the Saleh vs. Belichick subplot. "I believe that there’s internally motivated people and externally motivated people. No disrespect to Bill. He’s one of the greatest ever. [But] he’s an external motivation that doesn’t matter. It’s about being internally ready and prepared to put your best foot forward for the people who are counting on you."
Refreshed from a bye week, Saleh hopes the restart can work in his team’s favor.
"It’s an exciting group we’ve got," he said. "These are really good football players. They’re going to figure it out. When they figure it out and learn not to lose football games, you’ll see the swing. You’ll be able to feel it from the outside looking in."
There’s no better time to see that transformation than now, against their most heated — and hated — rivals.