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Bob Ryan

Enemy territory

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / November 14, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - What was it?

What did Woody Johnson say or not say? Or what did Woody Johnson do or not do? What was it that has so embittered Bill Belichick against that divisional rival from down New York way?

Long before Eric Mangini left the Patriots to become their head coach and long before Spygate put an entirely irreversible spin on the matter, Bill Belichick loathed the Jets. This, we know.

I have it on very good authority that in most circumstances, Bill Belichick has long been incapable of referring to the team that was across the field from him at Gillette Stadium last evening without an accompanying adjective that one would not use at, say, the Thanksgiving dinner table, or in front of your maiden aunts.

It was because of this deep-seated hatred of all things Jets that Mangini was written out of the will as soon as Belichick learned that his capable young assistant was heading south to coach those (naughty word) Jets. He would have given his blessing had Mangini been taking over the Raiders, Chiefs, Falcons, or Decatur Staleys. He considered Mangini's decision to become the HC of the NYJ to be nothing short of treasonous.

Whatever was eating away at Coach Bill, it sure came as a surprise to the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets. I was down there in Hempstead on that famous occasion when Belichick stunned everyone in the building - Jets administrators and media alike - when he sent out the infamous note saying he was no longer interested in being the "HC of the NYJ." I think my reaction was fairly representative of most everyone.

What I remember thinking and saying was, "The guy's unhinged."

(I wonder what happened to the original note? That certainly had eBay potential.)

The apparent explanation at the time was that Belichick was concerned about the direction of the team, which was transferring ownership from kindly old Leon Hess, whom everyone seemed to like, to Woody Johnson, the Johnson & Johnson heir. I think we can say that Bill Belichick was not favorably impressed with Woody Johnson. He was a Leon Hess man.

He was also a Bill Parcells man, or so we had been led to believe. We have come to realize that the two were associates, not goombahs. We have also come to understand that, although Belichick had indicated a genuine interest in being the HC of the NYJ, he was not too interested in being the same if The Tuna were hovering over the premises, like the Fill-In-The-Blank blimp (life was simpler when Goodyear was the sponsor).

Well, OK. The Parcells thing we could understand. But what about Woody Johnson? What happened between the two to make Belichick so vitriolic, then and now?

Guess we'll have to wait for Coach Bill's memoirs.

Meanwhile, the rivalry has been a bit one-sided in recent years. Since Belichick assumed control of the Patriots, the Jets have dropped 12 of 17 games. They've all hurt, of course, but few have been more mortifying, infuriating, and humiliating than the last one, New England's 19-10 triumph at Giants Stadium Sept. 14.

That was Matt Cassel's first start. People down there were sure the Jets would win that one. Uh-uh.

So here they came last evening, tied with the Patriots in the AFC East at 6-3. Such a game would be interesting at any time. Make it the Patriots-Jets and there is an extra layer of excitement. But this one didn't stop there.

The folks in New England were up for it, sure, but not to the same degree as their counterparts in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, or wherever else the Jets can claim fans. In their mind, this game was one thing.

ARMAGEDDON!

These folks were making this into some kind of Game of the Century. Geez. It's only the AFC East, and it's not as if either team is a prime Super Bowl contender. But the Belichick factor has skewed everything. It was as if the Jets had lost all those 21st century games, not to the Patriots, but to Bill Belichick himself.

Hence the New York Post headline: JETS DUE TO PAY BACK BILL.

If you say so.

Part B was the Favre Factor. This, we were told, was why the Jets had acquired Brett Favre. It was not just to get them to a Super Bowl. It was to beat the New England Patriots and coach Bill Belichick. Evil Bill Belichick.

Now is it just me, or does it seem nothing short of weird to have Brett Favre introduced into this rivalry? You can say, well, before last year what did either Kevin Garnett or Ray Allen have to do with being a Celtic, but this is different. Brett Favre is as associated with one team as anyone in the entire National Football League. Yes, he started out with the Falcons, but he threw just four passes for that team (0 for 4, with, fittingly, two INTs) before being shipped to Green Bay, where he became the most famous Packer of them all. He was larger than life in Green Bay, and it seems unnatural to see him in a Jets uniform, something like seeing Larry Bird as, say, a Rocket.

Anyway, I doubt he has any feeling, one way or the other, about Bill Belichick. To Favre, he was just the head coach of the team he was trying to beat last night, not some embodiment of football evil, and not, as he has been portrayed, some bully who has kicked sand in their faces for the past eight-plus years.

There is no harm in any of this. Anything that shines a spotlight on a game to distinguish it from the mundane event in the course of a four-month schedule is good. But the central question remains unanswered. We know the Jets want to beat the Patriots because their credibility hangs in the balance, and because they're simply tired of losing to them.

But why does Bill Belichick think of them as the (naughty word) Jets? Inquiring minds want to know.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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