NASHVILLE , Tenn. — It was half an hour after the final gun, 30 minutes since the Jets had walked off the field losers, again, ninth time in 12 games, this time by the extra-excruciating score of 26-22, this time after racing out to a 16-0 lead, this time waiting until there were 36 seconds left in the game before officially folding into the tuck position.
The visiting locker room at Nissan Stadium was strewn with the detritus of a bloody, sweaty day under the Tennessee haze: pads here, jerseys there, a few spent bottles of water and Gatorade, athletic tape everywhere.
At his stall near one corner of the room, Jets cornerback Trumaine Johnson sat on his stool, facing the locker, shirt off, head in his hands, quietly shaking his head. “BLESSED 1” stretched in ink across his back. He didn’t say a word.
Thirty-five minutes now. Players were starting to emerge from the showers, and they all had the same message.
“We beat ourselves,” receiver Quincy Enunwa said.
“Same story, penalties, poor execution,” cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “It’s all on us.”
“We handed that game to them,” safety Jamal Adams said.
Forty minutes, and Johnson was still unable to leave his locker, his ankles were still taped, his green game pants were still on, he was still rocking his head side to side, up and down. Teammates whispered in his ear, he nodded. Then his head was back in his hands.
“Look in the mirror,” Todd Bowles had said a little earlier, in the interview room, the same message he’d delivered his team after this latest anvil had dropped out of the sky and onto his players’ heads. “Just look in the mirror. We won’t be a good football team until we’re a smart football team.”
The Jets had led the game for 53 minutes and 59 seconds. It’s hard to actually lose a game when you lead it that long. It’s less hard when every one of your offensive drives ends outside the end zone, when you allow killing drives at the end of both halves, when you begin to collect penalties like they’re stamps, rare coins or baseball cards.
And when you’re a lousy, losing football team?
It’s almost easy.
“It’s tough doing your job 95 percent of the game, and the last 5 percent you shoot yourself in the foot,” linebacker Darron Lee said.
Finally after 45 minutes of virtual catatonia, Trumaine Johnson dragged himself up off his stool, grabbed a towel, trudged to the shower. His own schizophrenic game had mirrored his team’s. Signed in the offseason to great fanfare and $34 million in guaranteed money, he’d been hurt a lot, ineffective when healthy, but it looked like he’d finally shaken off the lethargy.
A minute and a half after Jason Myers had given the Jets a 3-0 lead, Johnson made it 10-0 when he picked off Marcus Mariota and returned it for a touchdown. It was exactly the kind of monster play the Jets had envisioned Johnson specializing in. Just the kind of play Johnson expects from himself even when he isn’t playing at his best.
“I never lose confidence in myself,” he said, still later, in a quiet voice landscaped by the miseries he’d just endured. “It never wavers.”
Confidence is one thing. Competence is another. And for as long as it seemed this would be a redeeming afternoon for Johnson, he was one of the main culprits in sabotaging it. On what turned out to be Tennessee’s winning drive, he was called for a facemask penalty — 15 yards on top of what was already a 25-yard run by Mariota.
What happened from there was beyond inevitable.
“It’s crunch time,” he said solemnly. “I can’t do that. I put that on me.”
He shook his head. Almost involuntarily came a muttered mantra: “I hate losing … I hate losing … I hate losing …”
It’s easy to forget, on the outside, that on a team there is no such thing as playing out the string, or tanking, or jockeying for draft position. Inside the walls, no matter the record, they believe, against all odds. Because they want to, maybe. Also because we have to.
“I know what the record is,” Trumaine Johnson said.
Then the cameras clicked off, the notebooks were folded up, and he took a long, slow walk to the bus to begin one more long, slow trip home in an endless season of despair.
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