FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The Super Bowl mission starts Monday night in a sparkling $1.6 billion stadium. In reality, it began Jan. 24 on a charter bus outside Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, where Rex Ryan turned to Mike Tannenbaum and said, "I want basketball players."
The New York Jets had just lost the AFC Championship Game to the Colts, in part, because their secondary was banged up and overmatched. Nickelback Donald Strickland was injured early in the game and, aside from Darrelle Revis, the Jets didn't have enough athleticism at cornerback to keep up in the Indy 500 -- Peyton Manning's fast-paced passing attack.
So Ryan, already plotting revenge, told his general manager on the ride to the Indianapolis airport that he needed basketball-type athletes, lithe and long. No names were mentioned, but Tannenbaum knew what had to be done. In essence, he was handed his to-do list for the next three months.
In a 48-day span, from March 5 to April 21, the Jets rocked the NFL by acquiring two surefire Hall of Famers, a former Super Bowl MVP and a former All-Pro -- LaDainian Tomlinson and Jason Taylor, Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie, respectively.
They did it without breaking the bank and without mortgaging the future. Total bill for the two free-agent signings and two trades: about $6 million in guarantees, a third-round pick and a fifth-round pick. And they got it done despite severe spending restrictions placed on the final eight teams because of the uncapped league year.
The Jets knew the type of player they wanted, but, unlike past offseasons, they didn't have a blueprint with a priority list of names. They went with the flow, seizing opportunities as they developed. Sometimes an organization has to set aside the script and work on the fly. The Jets did that over seven weeks, completing what they believe is a championship-caliber roster.
A look back at how Tannenbaum got his men:
• • •
Fittingly, it started in Indianapolis, scene of The Defeat.
At the scouting combine in early March, Tannenbaum heard that the San Diego Chargers were trying to trade Cromartie, once regarded as a rising defensive star. Tannenbaum and Ryan looked at each other and wondered the same thing: "Why is a talented player like this available?"
Inside Lucas Oil Stadium, where the draft-eligible players were working out for NFL scouts, Tannenbaum visited the Chargers' work box and met with GM A.J. Smith and coach Norv Turner to discuss a possible trade.
Only six weeks earlier, the Jets had stunned the Chargers in the playoffs, putting Turner on the hot seat. But now Turner was dangling a commodity, a player Ryan absolutely loved out of Florida State in 2006. Tannenbaum smelled an opportunity. That meeting provided the groundwork for the trade, but Tannenbaum wanted to dig into Cromartie's checkered past, which included paternity issues and attitude questions.
JoJo Wooden, the Jets' assistant personnel director, called former Chargers defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell, who coached Cromartie in his breakout year, 2007. Cottrell, a former Jets coordinator, gave a positive recommendation.
"Rex has the right type of demeanor," Cottrell told Wooden. "There's not going to be any problem. Just don't B.S. him."
Twenty-four hours after returning from Indianapolis, Tannenbaum finalized the trade from his home in central New Jersey, notifying Ryan and owner Woody Johnson in a late-night e-mail. On March 5, the first day of free agency, the deal was announced. The Jets were prohibited from signing any unrestricted free agents, but they stole the headlines anyway -- a harbinger.
Ryan had his basketball player, a 6-2 cornerback with freakish athletic ability. The team would add another corner, Kyle Wilson, in the first round of the draft.
• • •
Also on March 5, the Jets made an unpopular move, releasing leading rusher Thomas Jones in a salary-related dump. They lined up three potential replacements: Larry Johnson, Willie Parker and Tomlinson, each of whom had been released. That meant the "Final Eight" rules didn't apply; they were fair game to the Jets, who discovered Tomlinson was meeting with the Minnesota Vikings.
"We had to put on a full-court press," Tannenbaum said. "We thought Minnesota was closing in fast."
The team persuaded Tomlinson to visit the facility in Florham Park, but his recruiting trip involved more than a red-carpet tour.
Knowing Tomlinson's wife, LaTorsha, was in the middle of an at-risk pregnancy, the Jets introduced him to team doctor Ken Montgomery. Five years earlier, LaTorsha had suffered a miscarriage at sixth months. Montgomery assured Tomlinson that his wife would receive world-class care at the Atlantic Health hospital in Morristown, N.J.
Tomlinson also received a tour of New Meadowlands Stadium. Because construction still was ongoing, he was required to wear a hard hat. The Jets gave him a custom-made hat -- green, with his famous No. 21. At the end of the tour, Tomlinson asked whether he could keep it.
"I thought that was a really good sign," Tannenbaum said.
On the way to dinner at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., Tannenbaum received a call from his boss, Johnson, who wanted to speak with the Canton-bound recruit. Tannenbaum handed the phone to Tomlinson.
"His face lit up," Tannenbaum said. "At the end of the conversation, he said, 'Wow, the owner of the New York Jets called me.' I think that really impressed him."
The dinner party included Tannenbaum and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, and their wives, along with quarterback Mark Sanchez and running backs coach Anthony Lynn. The next day, Tomlinson flew back to San Diego and make his decision to sign with the Jets -- two years, $5.2 million.
In July, LaTorsha gave birth to the couple's first child, a healthy boy.
• • •
April 10 was a relatively quiet Saturday around the Jets' offices -- until Tannenbaum received a call from the Pittsburgh Steelers, who were looking to trade Holmes. The Steelers wanted to do it quickly.
Tannenbaum wanted feedback from Ryan, so he called downstairs to the coach's assistant, Laura Young. She said Ryan was in his office, being interviewed by a reporter. Tannenbaum told her to buzz Ryan's line and ask him to flash a thumbs-up or thumbs-down through the glass window.
Ryan delivered his response in person. He sprinted upstairs, barged into Tannenbaum's office and exclaimed, "Hell, yes!"
Tannenbaum asked whether he needed to watch some film of Holmes.
"F---, no," Ryan said. "That f---er cost me a ring."
Ryan was alluding to a 65-yard touchdown against his former team, the Baltimore Ravens, in the 2008 AFC title game.
No doubt, Holmes was a talent, but there were off-the-field issues, including a looming four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.
Tannenbaum and Johnson met for an hour to discuss the pros and cons -- a "robust debate," the GM called it. They solicited advice from team psychologist Sara Hickmann and player development director Dave Szott, trying to figure out whether they could create a structured environment for Holmes.
"Ultimately, we decided the uncertainty was outweighed by talent," Tannenbaum said.
At 7 p.m. Sunday, he finalized the deal for a song, a fifth-round pick. He e-mailed Johnson and Ryan with the news.
"Wow," Tannenbaum thought to himself, "I can't believe I just got Santonio Holmes."
• • •
The Jets experienced their usual Midnight Madness a month late -- and in the middle of the day.
On April 2, when kicker Jay Feely bolted for the Arizona Cardinals, the Jets finally were allowed to sign an unrestricted free agent. They tried to create a sense of urgency, making like it was March 5. The office staff buzzed with activity.
Get Taylor's agent on the phone. Get Taylor on a flight to New Jersey. Get an itinerary planned.
When Taylor arrived, he visited Trump National (he's an avid golfer) and toured the new stadium, where the scoreboard flashed "Jason Taylor 99" and showed a montage of action photos. As he stood next to Taylor, it suddenly occurred to Tannenbaum that one of the most despised opponents in team history could become a Jet -- "a surreal feeling," he said.
"I hated him," said Tannenbaum, recalling Taylor's days as a Miami Dolphin. "But while hating him, I admired him."
After the stadium, Taylor, Tannenbaum and Ryan took a helicopter tour of Manhattan. The Empire State Building. Central Park. Yankee Stadium. Truth be told, the trip went long and, with three full-size men in the passenger seat, it became a bit cozy. Finally, they landed for dinner at Il Postino in Manhattan.
Displaying his trademark bravado, Ryan told Taylor the Jets were going to have the league's No. 1 defense again -- with or without him. But they wanted another pass-rusher, someone to help protect fourth-quarter leads, and Ryan felt Taylor was perfect.
On April 21, Taylor jumped to the dark side, becoming a Jet.
• • •
Nearly eight months after the bus conversation from the AFC title game to the Indianapolis airport ("I want basketball players"), the Jets open the season against Baltimore.
In the moments before kickoff, Tannenbaum will be thinking of all the people who made this possible, including the not-so-obvious people.
The team doctor. The team psychologist. The video department. The people who made the hard hat.
"A total team effort," Tannenbaum said. "I'm proud of the whole organization."
Now all they have to do is win. A lot.