Eric Mangini stepped in front of the cameras and microphones for his postgame news conference yesterday, and before a question was asked, he delivered five subtle little words that summed up the afternoon.
“This feels a lot better,” he said softly, almost too quickly to notice. It was the first time all week that Mangini gave even a hint that the Jets’ 0-2 start was disappointing, and provided what was really a verbalized sigh of relief.
On a day in which the starting quarterback returned from an ankle injury and the marquee running back had his first big game in his new uniform, 60 minutes of decent football against a not-so-decent opponent was all that was needed to turn gloom into optimism.
With a 31-28 win over the AFC East rival Dolphins, the Jets avoided the almost inescapable hole of three losses to open a season. And with winless Buffalo up next, followed by the Giants, the idea that the team is about to go on a roll isn’t far-fetched. “Losing is frustrating,” linebacker Jonathan Vilma said. “We knew we were going to get [a win], we just didn’t know when. But this is just the start for us.”
Although the score wound up being close and the statistical advantage leaned heavily toward the Dolphins, the Jets dominated the game. Thomas Jones, who had been lackluster in his first two games as a Jet, had 92 second-half rushing yards and 110 in the game. His straight-arm to the face of cornerback Travis Daniels on an 11-yard run early in the fourth quarter exemplified a physical authority the Jets had lacked in their first two games.
Coming out of halftime with a 21-13 lead, the Jets ran the ball 11 straight plays to go 67 yards, their longest drive of the season up to that point. They settled for a field goal after getting to the 3, but set the tone for the second half.
“As a running back, you love to wear a defense down,” Jones said. “I think they were getting a little tired just tackling us and we were breaking off 4- and 5- and 6-yard runs. That’s the best part of being a running back, when you can feel the defense wearing down.”
Still, it was Chad Pennington who scored the Jets’ first and only rushing touchdown of the season, ignoring the injured right ankle that kept him sidelined last week to take a designed quarterback draw in from 2 yards and make it 31-13 with 12:51 left in the game. The Dolphins (0-3) scored 15 points to make it close, but Eric Smith recovered an onside kick with 1:15 left to seal the win.
Pennington’s rushing touchdown was impressive (though his touchdown dancing left a little to be desired), but his passing accuracy was spectacular. On the Jets’ first touchdown, he lofted a 3-yard pass into the hands of Laveranues Coles to make it 7-0. And at the end of the second quarter, he engineered a nine-play, 57-yard drive in which he placed a perfect pass to Jerricho Cotchery on the sideline and followed with a 4-yarder to Chris Baker in the back of the end zone. Both were acrobatic grabs, and both players credited Pennington for putting the ball where it needed to be.
“He’s just a natural,” Cotchery said. “He can wake up and make pinpoint throws.”
Pennington completed 15 of 22 passes. After a career-high 16 picks last season, he has yet to throw an interception this year.
For the second game in a row, Leon Washington burned the Dolphins. This time, it was a 98-yard kickoff return that made it 14-7 early in the second quarter, a point from which the Jets never lost the lead. Last year, on Christmas in Miami, he had a 64-yard pass reception that set up the winning field goal.
Unlike that victory last year, this win doesn’t all but assure the Jets a playoff spot. But perhaps just as importantly, it doesn’t all but preclude them, either. “We’re 1-2, so we can’t get too excited about things,” Baker said. “But we can try to build on this win.”