MIAMI GARDENS, Fla — Jets-Dolphins may not have that transcendent quality as the Dan Marino-Ken O'Brien years, or even the Vinny Testaverde-Jay Fiedler Monday night showdown of more than a decade ago. But the game we're about to see on Sunday possesses far more drama than you'd normally imagine for a Jets' team, two Jets' quarterbacks, the Jets' mercurial wide receiver and a pair of Jets' coaches trying to rediscover themselves in the months since the last time they were protagonists inside Sun Life Stadium.
That last time here was their final and irrefutable moment of failure in a late-season collapse that saw them go from 8-5 and in control of their playoff destiny to 8-8 and out of the postseason. The one-paragraph version of the gruesome chain of events:
Mark Sanchez melted down with three interceptions in a 19-17 loss to a woeful Dolphins team. Santonio Holmes got into an argument in the huddle in the final minutes and was benched by offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. The defense, supposedly the strength of the team, surrendered a touchdown drive lasting more than 12 minutes in the fourth quarter, during which Miami converted all six third downs -- even without the injured running back Reggie Bush.
Afterward, Rex Ryan, asked one last time about the now hollow Super Bowl guarantees he had delivered throughout the season, seethed with anger. "I'm always going to chase the Super Bowl," he said. "I know I get criticized for it beyond belief, but if you don't, then you're probably a loser, OK? I'm not a loser."
Former Dolphins coach Tony Sparano, who has since replaced Schottenheimer as the Jets' offensive coordinator, and quarterback Tim Tebow weren't there that day. Sparano already had been fired, and Tebow was in the midst of leading the Broncos to the playoffs. But the two had their own dramatic meeting at Sun Life Stadium last Oct. 23; it was Tebow who rallied Denver from a 15-0 fourth-quarter deficit and reeled off the first of a string of incredible comebacks in an 18-15 overtime win.
Just another game as they all descend on this plot of land in south Florida that measures 120 yards long and 531/3 yards wide? No way.
Regardless of whether Holmes says he can't remember last year's game and Sparano insists this is just a business trip.
For these men -- and all their fellow teammates and coaches -- it is their own personal proving ground. It is a chance to correct mistakes from the past and create a new reality for the future. So much importance for these 60 minutes on a football Sunday afternoon.
"If I want to go to vacation in Miami, then I can go on vacation in Miami," Sparano told his players this week. "We're going there to play a game. I think when you go in there and you've been a head coach before, it's a little different, but it's a business trip and we have a job to do."
Sparano will be especially scrutinized in this one, and not just by the fans who ridiculed his ultimately failed tenure in Miami. After a resounding performance by his offense in Week 1 in Buffalo, Sanchez & Co. sputtered in Pittsburgh, and his curiously infrequent use of Tebow created plenty of controversy this week in New York. Does he let Tebow play a more prominent role this week? Does he go with a more imaginative game plan against his old team? Does Tebow get to display his game-altering ability in a stadium and a state where he has been feted with cheers during various stages of his career?
Sanchez needs a statement game here, too. He has worked hard to correct his mistakes of the past, particularly the ones he committed on this field last season, and can take a major step forward with a good performance Sunday.
And Ryan, too, wants so desperately to make a more positive impression than the one he left behind on New Year's Day. Ryan started searching for answers on the plane ride home, and began making decisions about the future direction of his team. No more captains, he decided, in part because Holmes was such an abject failure at being one last year. No more guarantees, because it placed too much pressure on his players. And no more circus atmosphere, just hard-core football from now on.
OK, so the circus part is still a work in progress, what with all the attention on Tebow, a training camp brawl and now Bart Scott getting into a shouting match with a reporter on Friday. So yes, there is still a long way to go on that front.
But it's one more reason why Sunday in south Florida is so important. For Ryan and for all those around him.