Tuesday, July 24, 2012
Summer of peace, love and pigskin
By Rich Cimini ESPNNewYork.com
To hear the New York Jets, you would think they were heading to Max Yasgur's farm in upstate New York, circa 1969, to find peace and love.
They're going upstate, all right, but it's to Cortland, their small-town Shangri-La. They believe three weeks away from home and family, away from distractions and away from the comforts of their state-of-the-art practice facility in Florham Park, N.J., will foster strong chemistry in the locker room.
Ex-Cortland roommates Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes, who were booed loudly at a Knicks game, will try to reconnect this summer.
The Jets, of all teams, need some alone time.
A year ago, they were the poster team for bad chemistry. They never made it to Cortland -- it was canceled because of the lockout -- and some within the organization believe that robbed the team of a chance to build relationships and set a tone in the locker room.
That's debatable, but the Jets are using the return to Cortland to feed the positive momentum from an offseason that ended on an upbeat note.
"It can help with off-the-field stuff, the camaraderie, the team morale, get guys excited," quarterback Mark Sanchez said of Cortland. "When you live with guys for two or three weeks, you know everything about them. That's the best way to go into a season. You understand each other, care about each other. When you care about something, you protect it."
For four decades, the Jets never left Long Island, using their year-round home at Hofstra University as their training camp. When Rex Ryan interviewed for the head-coaching job in 2009, he told owner Woody Johnson he preferred to go away for camp. Ryan got his wish even though his boss had just built the new facility in New Jersey.
In 2009, the Jets' season began in Cortland -- and ended in the AFC Championship Game. In 2010, it was the same deal: Cortland to the championship game.
"You could argue that point," guard Matt Slauson said. "I don't know. It's just different philosophies, and Rex really believes in it."
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On Thursday, the Jets will pack up and make the 200-mile drive to Cortland, where they drew 41,000 fans over a three-week span in 2010 -- a number that promises to multiply because of Tim Tebow's enormous popularity.
With Tebow, Sanchez & Co., the Jets will be rock stars, drawing national media on a daily basis. But the primary objective is to make nice, to make sure they don't relive the chemistry problems of last season.
"I don't know how many wins we'll have," Ryan said, "but I know we'll have that corrected."
The healing started in the offseason. The Jets had 99 percent attendance in their voluntary program, said Ryan, who believes the high turnout was an indication the players have bought into the program and one another.
Not every player is looking forward to getting away. One veteran grumbled about it, saying last year in Florham Park was the best camp they'd had in years. He questioned the purpose of forcing grown men, millionaire athletes, to sleep in dorm rooms and live a Spartan existence.
In Florham Park, the veterans were allowed to go home every night, sleeping in their own beds. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, they practiced only once a day, creating a regular-season feel in training camp. Many players went home for lunch instead of eating at the facility and spending time with teammates.
In Cortland, there's no sanctuary, no home-cooked meals, no fun time with the wife and kids.
"It forces you to communicate and hang out with guys you wouldn't normally," said guard Brandon Moore, who refuses to use last summer's Cortland cancellation as a crutch for the team's chemistry issues.
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Moore recalled the summer of 2010, when he went out to dinner with a group of running backs, something that wouldn't have happened in Florham Park. Sanchez said the past two trips to Cortland reminded him of college, hanging in the dorms and chatting with teammates. The conversations, he said, included such topics as family, alma maters and allergies. Yeah, really.
"As little as that stuff may seem," Sanchez said, "it goes a long way."
By the end of last season, Sanchez and wide receiver Santonio Holmes seemed allergic to each other. They tried to patch up the rift in the offseason, working out together on both coasts. They broke bread (actually, a sushi dinner in Southern California) and attended a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, where they were booed when the scoreboard showed them sitting together.
Holmes said his ability to coexist with Sanchez will be critical to the team's success. Probably not too many remember this, but they actually shared a Cortland dorm room in 2010. Sanchez wanted to room with Holmes, who arrived that spring in a trade, so they could get to know each other.
Don't be surprised if Sanchez and Holmes room together again. Wouldn't that be a swell public-relations move? If Sanchez and Tebow room together, it might warrant a breaking-news update on "SportsCenter."
The most wide-eyed player on the team could be former rugby star Hayden Smith, a tight end playing organized football for the first time. The concept of going away to camp and roughing it in dorms is foreign to the Australian native, but he has heard the stories.
"The guys told me it's a bit of a grind," Smith said.
But they'll be grinding together.