Successful teams often carve out an identity for themselves, whether it involves a punishing running game, an air-it-out offensive fireworks show or a black-and-blue defense. And they occasionally come with nicknames -- the Steel Curtain, the Purple People Eaters, Air Coryell, Orange Crush. In the previous two seasons, the New York Jets had Ground and Pound to go along with one of the top defenses in football, not to mention a special special teams. They knew who they were, and they did what they did better than any other team. Mark Sanchez didn't have any pressure to carry the team, having help on both sides of the ball to buffer his growing pains. Defense and rushing were 1 and 1A, with passing coming in a distant third. Going back to the Super Bowl season and the couple of years following that one, the New York Giants featured one of the most menacing pass rushes in the NFL, with a physical and productive running game led by a talented and tough offensive line. And they had Eli Manning behind center to rely on when all else failed.
But in 2011? Neither the Jets nor the Giants can run the ball, their offensive lines have been inconsistent at best, soft and dangerous to their quarterbacks' health at worst, their defenses are anything but dominating and even the Jets' vaunted special teams have been awful lately. Having an "identity" may be a cliche or only a talking point, but at least it means a team does at least one thing well. The Jets and Giants haven't been able to do anything well. Yes, the offensive line may look great one week, as the Jets' did against Buffalo on Sunday, but where were they in the games that Sanchez was running for his life? And when was the last time a Giant defensive lineman came near a quarterback? Nothing stands out for either team. They're both nondescript, barely-over-.500 teams, hanging on for their lives.
Tom Coughlin and Rex Ryan both fit their franchises to a tee, and often teams take on the personalities of their coaches, but that doesn't seem to be happening this year. Coughlin is steady, he's consistent, he's disciplined, he's prepared, and his steady-as-she-goes, crew-cutted, traditional style mirrors the Giant way. But his team? They're a rocky, up-and-down, roller coaster of inconsistency, with on-field discipline issues and off-field whining and sniping. The Coughlin blueprint has not translated, and his players may have tuned him out. The Jets, meanwhile, have the talk-the-talk part of Ryan down pat (as well as the bad-boy behavior), but where's the tough, brash, bold defense that Ryan is known for? Are they just getting too old and skow? Where's his signature Ground and Pound running game? Where's the confidence? Sanchez often plays with a timidity that puts into question his future success. Rex Ryan is a take-no-prisoners coach, but his team is not playing that way.
One week, the Giants can defeat the Patriots where others have tried and failed, but then they can't beat the fading Eagles (or the 49ers and get embarrassed by the Saints). One week, the Jets are destroyed by New England, get Tebowed by the Broncos, with a defense that can't make a stop, but then they make just enough plays to pull out a win over the Bills. Who exactly are these guys? Can either team be trusted? Which is the real team and which is the imposter?
They're both on the outside of the playoff picture looking in, and this could be the beginning of the end for Coughlin, with three consecutive collapses and three consecutive playoff-less seasons staring him in the face. While Ryan is safe, Brian Schottenheimer could be the fall guy for the Jets (much to the delight of Jet fans everywhere). Are the Giants really as bad as they looked against the Saints? Can they ever regain the mojo they had when they upset the Patriots? Can the Jets recover the successful formula they had in their first victory over the Bills? Is their defense as unreliable and porous as we saw in the last drives of their last two games?
Both teams confound week after week -- wouldn't it be just like the Giants to spoil the Packers' perfect season after stinking up the city of New Orleans? And would it be more surprising if the Jets pitched a shutout against the Redskins or if they were shut out themselves? Who knows? We don't have a clue. The only sure thing about these teams is that there is no sure thing at all when it comes to these two teams. That you can count on.