The last time Leonard Williams played in a game between the New York metroplitan area's two NFL teams he was most decidedly and by any sensible definition a former Jet. He was less than two weeks removed from having become the first player ever traded between the clubs and the unique absurdity of essentially switching sidelines in a contest he always figured he’d be playing in anyway. It was the same stadium, but he was still getting used to his new squad, new teammates, new uniform, new locker room, new culture.
That’s not the case this time.
By the end of this season Williams will have spent just as much time with the Giants as he did with the Jets, four and a half years with each team. He made his only Pro Bowl appearance with the Jets, but he made the only playoff appearance of his career with the Giants, reaching the postseason last year. He said he has learned to love his time with the Giants more than he did his term with the Jets, mostly because of the deeper tradition and history and trophy case that his current employer boasts.
On Sunday, when the two teams meet yet again, exactly four years and one day after the trade that sent Williams from Florham Park to East Rutherford, there will only be a handful of players, coaches, executives and staffers who were even with the Jets when Williams was. Any ties he had to that team have mostly come undone.
So yeah, this time, Williams is a Giant.
Purely a Giant in his mind. Period.
“I think I’ll forever be grateful to the Jets for giving me my first opportunity in the NFL by drafting me there, but I’ve been with the Giants so long now that the Jets almost feel pretty distant to me at this point,” the defensive lineman said on Monday. “Like, when I see the Jets on the schedule, it’s not something where I’m like, ‘Woah! I used to play there!’ You know? I kind of just see them as another opponent on the schedule at this point.”
In fact, he claimed, it wasn’t until he started getting texts from those few former teammates still with the Jets regarding the upcoming clash that he even remembered it was scheduled for this week.
“I forget about it until those moments,” he said.
The personal tug from the Jets may have been severed, but Williams’ perspective on the two very different personalities of these organizations that share a stadium and fight for attention and only occasionally run head-long into each other on a football field stands out among the rest of the competitors about to embark in this latest clash. Not everyone has been around long enough to truly get what this rivalry means, and certainly no one who will play on Sunday has been around longer than Williams.
Even the two head coaches are new to this, at least in their current roles (Brian Daboll was an assistant on the Jets staff for the 2007 meeting).
“I know that this is going to be a game that’s near to a lot of people’s heart,” Giants offensive lineman Ben Bredeson said as he heads into his first experience with it. “Personally, I can’t speak a whole lot out of that at the moment, because I’ve only been here for a couple of years, and we haven’t had a regular-season game against the Jets while I’ve been here.”
Second-year Jets running back Breece Hall was equally unsure about the visceral impact of this coming game.
“I don’t even know how often the Jets and Giants play each other, other than in the preseason, but you know whoever wins is going to have bragging rights for the next few years,” he said. “So it’s going to be cool to get out there and compete … It’s going to be fun.”
It goes beyond all of that, though.
There are only two cities that have two NFL teams, New York and Los Angeles, so let’s face it, only one city with two teams that truly cares a lick about football.
These turf wars between the Giants and Jets often seem to have bigger implications, too, from the Christmas Eve game in 2011 that sent the Giants on a Super Bowl run, to the Jets’ overtime win in 2015 that helped harken the end of Tom Coughlin’s run. They usually serve as measuring sticks, an opportunity to get a truer sense of the direction each franchise is headed.
This year’s game, too, seems fraught with depth beyond just the two teams on one afternoon. Despite neither sporting a winning record, both believe they can still make a push for the playoffs. Both need a win to bring that vision closer to reality, or at least earn the right to continue their optimism.
Because of Williams’ dual heritage with both franchises, and owing to the fact he is the longest-tenured football player in New York having arrived as a first-round pick in 2015, no one on either team has a clearer picture of what this game signifies to the region, the fans and the organizations involved.
“Honestly, throughout my career, no matter what coach I played for, they try to let you know that it’s a big game to the people of New York,” Williams said. “I think it’s a big one because it’s two New York teams. This area is known for the blue-collar type of people, so it’s a gritty type of old-school football per se. I think fans love to see it.”
He said his advice to current Giants teammates who are new to the phenomenon of a New York-New York football showdown is to treat it like any other game. He’s even attempting to do that himself, clearly.
Too bad he knows better than anyone else that it just flat out isn’t.