December 29, 2004 -- THE JETS like to remind us of the small progresses they make, the way the culture in Hempstead is so much better than it used to be. They seem proud as hell to win 10 games. They seem delighted at the prospect of making the playoffs for a third time in four years.
Bully for the Jets!

They aren't a football snuff film any more!

Can that possibly be enough? Can that possibly be the length and breadth of this team's ambitions, especially in a season like this one, founded in such promise, grounded in such early prosperity? Is that really all the Jets believe we should judge them on? That it's been a while since they inspired their fans to wear paper bags on their heads?

They really need to be more than this. They need to expect more of themselves than this, to demand more of themselves than this. They need to be held accountable for more than this, especially now. The next few weeks loom as an ominous crossroads for who they are and what they want to be.

Forget the playoffs. They'd better make the playoffs. They'd better get after the Rams early and hit them in the mouth and jump out to the kind of lead that will inoculate them to the kind of weirdness Jets teams are so susceptible to. The Rams are a lousy team that let the Eagles' JV hang around almost to the final gun Monday night.

It isn't about making the playoffs, not with this Jets team, not in this season. In a now league, the Jets constantly inspire thoughts about the future, about next week, next season, the next five years. They constantly are a work in progress.

The fact is, there is no guarantee the Jets ever will be better than they are right now. There is no certainty they ever are going to have the confluence of strengths Hall of Fame running back, occasionally brilliant quarterback, above-average line, solid if unspectacular defense any time in the near future.

The NFL is a fluid league, players coming, players going. There is no such thing as a five-year plan anymore, or even a three-year plan. You get a shot to compete for something special, you'd better take your shot. You'd better not leave any tricks in your back pocket.

The biggest lie the Jets can sell you right now is that this season is a building block for something better down the road. No way. They are a now team. They have enough talent to compete with the AFC elite in a way that belies what they've done when they've actually played those teams this year. That talent won't be around forever.



Curtis Martin isn't getting younger. Neither is Kevin Mawae. Lamont Jordan probably will be somewhere else next year. John Abraham might, too. Soon enough, the usual machinations of the NFL square dance will sparkle, and the roster will spin around, and who knows if the same elements will be in place the way they are now?

This shouldn't be about survival for the Jets. They were 5-0 at one point this season. They looked every bit the Patriots' equal for long stretches of that first game, in Foxboro. They were tied with the Steelers after three quarters. A bounce here, a bounce there, and you legitimately could be talking about a 13-2 team still fighting for an AFC East title.

But it was two weeks ago when Herm Edwards slipped in the point that "this team has won 10 games, and they've only done that around here about four times [actually eight]." It was a few days ago when a whole lot of Jets still talked about bravely fighting their way into the playoffs, failing to mention that the playoffs sure seemed like a foregone conclusion not so long ago.

The bar has to be higher than that. The Jets have to be better than that. There's no telling when they'll have the same kind of opportunity again. Maybe next year, maybe not until next decade.

Better to take your hacks when you still have a bat in your hands.