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Of Narrative, Mob Mentalities, Gerald Ford And the 2017 Jets

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NFL: New York Jets-Training Camp Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Once upon a time in America there was a criminal in the White House. His name was Richard Nixon. He was reviled by the press, became embroiled in an ever growing criminal enterprise that brought the United States to a constitutional crisis and was eventually forced to resign in the face of certain impeachment and removal from office. Before Nixon resigned he replaced a disgraced Spiro Agnew with Gerald Ford as vice president of the United States.

Gerald Ford was a decent and hard working man who had the misfortune of making an extremely difficult call by choosing to close the book on the Watergate era and pardon the former president Nixon. Having only recently been appointed vice president by Nixon the appearance of a shady quid pro quo raised its ugly head, and rumors of a corrupt deal to pardon Nixon in exchange for the presidency swirled. The press, many of whom despised Nixon, turned to Ford as the new target of their ire once Nixon was no longer in office nor in legal jeopardy. Ford, a plain spoken man, had a deliberate and uninspiring speaking delivery, and he had the misfortune of tripping exiting Air Force One and on occasion spraying golf balls into galleries, once hitting a female spectator.

Out of this thin gruel a picture emerged of a clumsy, bumbling, dim-witted President Ford, immortalized by Chevy Chase’s portrayal on Saturday Night Live which consisted of little more than a series of pratfalls but captured the public imagination. The narrative became set - Ford was a stumbling, bumbling klutz, unfit by temperament and limited intelligence for the presidency. It was a great story. It allowed us to laugh in the aftermath of the country’s first loss of a major war and the worst constitutional crisis in memory. It gave late night television endless fodder for jokes. It quickly became almost universally accepted wisdom. And it also was almost entirely fictional.

In fact Gerald Ford, though he did have the misfortune of a few untimely missteps in front of cameras, was a gifted and graceful athlete, a star center and linebacker for back to back national championship teams at the University of Michigan and a participant in the East-West Shrine game. Ford was also one of the brighter men ever to serve as president, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a graduate of Yale Law School. But the power of narrative, the triumph of a good story over dry facts, set the image of Ford in many Americans’ minds of the dim-witted oaf unfit for the presidency, an image Ford could not overcome.

What does this tidbit of history have to do with the Jets? Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot. It serves to illustrate the power of narrative, and how we often choose not to let the facts stand in the way of a good story.

Narrative is deeply embedded in our cultural DNA, so to speak. It is what allows us to make sense of what is often a contradictory, confusing and chaotic mess. Think, if you will, about how we answer something as simple as a question about how our day went. What do we say? If we’re like most people what we most assuredly don’t do is relate a minute by minute account of the actual facts of the last few hours of our lives. If we did that we would no doubt soon lose our audience in a snooze inducing blizzard of uninteresting minutiae. How would this sound as an answer to the question:

Well, I gradually became aware of my own consciousness as my daily sleep cycle ended. I went to the bathroom and excreted waste built up over my hours of slumber. I entered the shower, turned on the water and adjusted the temperature for maximum comfort. I applied soap to my body and shampoo to my hair in order to remove dirt, grime and the offensive smells that gradually accumulated on my body over the prior day. Once this daily cleansing ritual was complete I rinsed with clean water, turned the water off, exited the shower and applied a towel to my body to remove any excess moisture. I then picked out some clothes to wear. I put on my underwear, followed by my shirt, pants, and socks. I took several steps to arrive in the kitchen. Upon arrival I located a clean cereal bowl and spoon. I then opened the refrigerator door and located some milk. I removed the milk container from the refrigerator and carried it to the kitchen table along with my cereal bowl and spoon. I then located a box of breakfast cereal, picked it up, and carried it to the kitchen table, setting it down near the milk. I pulled out a seat and sat down. I then poured cereal and milk into my bowl, thrust my spoon into the bowl to capture a cereal/milk mixture, and brought that mixture to my gaping mouth, shoving it in and closing on the spoon. I removed the spoon from my mouth, leaving the cereal/milk mixture inside my mouth for further processing. I proceeded to masticate, chewing the cereal/milk mixture and mixing it with my own saliva into a slimy slurry suitable for swallowing. I proceeded to swallow the slimy slurry, then repeated all steps starting with thrusting my spoon into my cereal bowl and ending with swallowing a slimy slurry numerous times, until the cereal and the milk in my bowl were consumed. Upon the end of this period of consumption I arose from my chair, picked up the milk container, and returned it to the refrigerator. I then returned to the table and picked up my empty cereal bowl and spoon. I proceeded to the sink, turned on the faucet, adjusted the water temperature for maximum cleansing power, and rinsed off the bowl and spoon. I then opened the door to my dishwasher and placed the bowl and spoon inside the dishwashing compartment, there to await a full load of dishes suitable for washing. I then returned to the kitchen table, picked up the cereal box, closed the box, and returned it to its proper place in the kitchen pantry. And so on and so on.

Riveting story, is it not? Hello? Hey, I’m talking here! How very rude of you to fall asleep. Perhaps you found that story a bit less than riveting? But why? Isn’t this in fact the correct answer to the question of how my day went? So why is it utterly banal and dreadfully boring? Because it is missing something we do without for the most part even being aware of it. The problem is it doesn’t tell a story. Story telling is how we communicate. Not just in books and plays and ummm ... really boring GGN articles. Virtually every time we open our mouths we’re engaging in narrative. Without even thinking about it we are trimming and polishing, choosing only the best and juiciest bits to convey to others while discarding the vast majority of information on the cutting room floor. We automatically edit and embellish, dramatize and choose plot lines, create characters and attribute motivations, every time we open our mouths or type at a keyboard. We communicate not with dry facts and droning, incessant factual detritus, but with narrative and plot and conflict and character. In the process we gain the virtues of keeping others’ attentions, and bringing order to and making sense of what constantly threatens to devolve into chaos. At the same time we sacrifice a certain level of accuracy and completeness, and at times lose nuance and subtlety. This is who we are, all of us. It helps us pass along tradition and transmit knowledge. It creates the plays of the Greeks and of Shakespeare, the novels of Dostoevzky, the story arcs of the New York Times; it also creates the neighborhood gossip and the half dazed stories we share in various states of intoxication with our friends. And it creates the story lines we read about our favorite sports teams.

Narrative is powerful stuff. Tell a great story and the whole world fetes it, repeats it, and re-tweets it, until it becomes accepted fact, sometimes regardless of its relationship, or lack thereof, with objective facts. Great narrative makes compelling reading and great theater, interesting dinner conversation and riveting film. As it gains currency among the masses it is propelled forward by its own momentum. It takes on a life of its own and a certain mob mentality kicks in tolerating little in the way of dissent, since everyone knows the story is true. We no longer need to delve deep into the actual facts nor question the underlying assumptions and prejudices of the story, because it’s just the truth, simple as that.

All of which brings us to the current NFL season and the narrative involving the Jets. It has become fashionable to dump on the Jets to an extreme degree. The Jets are the worst team in the NFL. The Jets have the worst NFL roster in the last 10 years. The Jets won’t win more than one game, and probably won’t even do that. The Jets are a joke, a laughingstock, utterly incapable of competing at an NFL level.

Certainly this narrative has a certain amount of truth to it. The Jets surely do not have one of the best rosters in the NFL, and on paper there are so many question marks you can certainly make a case the Jets might have the worst roster in the NFL. That much is true. But the narrative has gone well beyond that, to the point where there is little or no recognition of any positives for the 2017 Jets. A sister SBN site which shall remain nameless says the Jets offensive line consists of a collection of young and unproven players and players “aging and washing up on the shores of time.” This is said about an offensive line group that will most likely not have a single player older than 28 at the end of the 2017 season. This isn’t meant to disparage our sister site, which is well run and generally well informed. It is only offered as an illustration of the power of narrative which can at times take on a life of its own, impervious to facts or reason.

The New York Daily News just ran an article calling the Jets “Jerks Of the Week” for signing Lucky Whitehead. Their supporting reasoning? Whitehead missed a team meeting or two and was involved in a car accident which he failed to report to the Cowboys. Signs of immaturity on Whitehead’s part, and reasons to be skeptical about his long term prospects with the team? Sure. But does that make the Jets “Jerks Of The Week” for seeing if they can’t turn Whitehead around and giving him a chance on a 90 man roster in a league liberally populated with players with histories of far greater transgressions? Ummm ... no. No, it does not. Not even close. But, hey, the current narrative dictates taking potshots at the Jets, regardless of whether they are in fact warranted.

Most of you are probably familiar with the story of the unnamed NFL executive who called the Jets roster possibly the worst in the last 10 years. In response CBS Sports published a story backing up that claim, comparing the Jets roster to several bad teams like the 2008 Detroit Lions and the 2013 Houston Texans. Literally their entire argument for the 2013 Texans being better was “J.J. Watt was on this roster. Moving on.” That’s it. The entire roster analysis can be disposed of with the Texans had J.J. Watt, because LOLJets. This is the perfect illustration of the power of narrative over the objective truth. The narrative of LOLJets was so powerful there was no need to engage in meaningful discussion or analysis of the rosters. In fact a good case can be made that the 2013 Texans had a better roster. There were some talented players on that team, including Andre Johnson, DeAndre Hopkins and Arian Foster. THAT would have been a good argument, but the LOLJets narrative was so powerful it dispensed with the need to even bother thinking about the question in a serious manner. Instead, in this universe a single admittedly great player trumps an entire NFL roster, without any need to even bother to examine or compare the other 52 players on the team. Narrative wins, analysis and reason can be checked at the door, thank you very much.

None of this is to suggest or imply the Jets are likely to be a good team in 2017. Instead, what I am trying to convey, perhaps unsuccessfully because my story sucks and doesn’t entertain, is that the need for actually examining the facts and actually analyzing the situation in any meaningful way has been tossed aside, steamrolled by the current fashionable narrative that the Jets will be epically, historically awful in 2017. Muhammad Wilkerson struggled in 2016, so we will ignore the entire rest of his career and go with the Wilkerson sucks narrative. It might turn out that way, but it’s not the way to bet. But the LOLJets narrative is more entertaining than a dry analysis of probable regression to the mean in a positive way for Wilkerson. Sheldon Richardson also had a down year in 2016, so we will go with he also sucks. Again, that might happen, but it’s not the way to bet. The more likely scenario in a contract year is a resurgence by Richardson. The defensive backfield is likely going to be manned with two rookies at safety, an untested Juston Burris and a perpetually injured Morris Claiborne at the outside corners. That could be disastrous, sure. But Burris showed some nice things at the end of 2016, Claiborne was excellent in 2016, although he only played half a season, and Jamal Adams by most accounts looks and plays like a veteran at safety. So while the defensive backfield COULD be a trainwreck, it also could, without too much imagination, be pretty decent. The truth is uncertainty; the narrative is certain inescapable travesty in the defensive backfield. Narrative wins in the hearts and minds of men, but that doesn’t make it true. Let’s see how this plays out.

The quarterback situation is epically horrific. So the story goes. Well, it isn’t pretty. But maybe it will actually be an improvement over the 2016 Jets. Josh McCown, the expected starter, has never in his long career ever endured a season as monumentally horrific as Ryan Fitzpatrick and Bryce Petty combined for with the 2016 Jets. The more likely situation is that as long as McCown stays healthy he will be an upgrade at the position. If he gets beaten out by Christian Hackenberg on merit then the quarterback situation should be better still. Only if McCown goes down and neither Hackenberg nor Petty can come close to McCown’s level of play are the Jets likely to take a step back at the quarterback position. Sure, that could happen, but it’s far from being written in stone. A more realistic assessment of probabilities likely has the Jets slightly improving at quarterback in 2017, but that doesn’t fit the LOLJets narrative.

Story telling is wonderful and powerful. It binds us and instructs us, inspires us and uplifts us. It sure beats the heck out of dry statistics and boring analysis for entertainment value. But sometimes the story becomes bigger than the truth. The 2017 Jets are a story everybody is telling each other all across a nation of football fans right now. It entertains and provides laughs and a common foe to kick while they’re down. It is a story as old as mankind, but that doesn’t make it true. In time the true story of the 2017 Jets will unfold. True stories can often have an interesting way of providing unexpected endings. I’ll be interested in seeing how this one turns out.