Bear with me on this, but I want to talk about 1998.
In 1998, the Jets won the AFC East for the first time since the NFL-AFL merger. Bill Parcells was the head coach. Their record was 12-4 and they lost in the AFC Championship game to the Broncos.
The other is Fireman Ed.
A big deal was made at the time that Fireman Ed was travelling to the game. Rumors circulated that he had signed a contract with NFL Films, that the Jets had flown him out to Denver, and that the FDNY brass had made sure he got the day off to the chagrin of many other firefighter Jets fans working that day.
I don’t know if any of that was actually true. It is just what sticks out in my memory. There he was on TV in Denver. For me that Denver game was when, for better or worse, he became the national face of the Jets fan. Soon after, he would be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame’s Hall of Fans. And so on...
Since that season, the NFL’s brand has exploded in popularity, thanks mainly due to the internet, HD television and the growth of online gambling and fantasy football. The game and its owners have profited tremendously from this, often in an ostentatious fashion (looking at you Jerry Jones!).
Fireman Ed’s story arc has followed a similar trajectory. The rising tide of the NFL’s popularity lifted him from a relatively unknown cult figure to national fame and recognition. He became the corporate face for the fans in the league’s biggest market. If he wasn’t getting paid -- as he's said he wasn't -- he probably should have been.
Meanwhile, the death knell has sounded for the traditional season ticket holder. The cost of attending games has exploded, while the fan experience from home has improved dramatically. More and more people would rather watch Red Zone than pay $200+ to sit in the seats.
But, some still do. Myself included.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the NFL is not immune to the populist anger that has gripped other areas of American society. Jets fans invest themselves, with their time, their emotion, and increasingly their money, in the team and the gameday experience. More and more of them have come away feeling suckered and gipped. And they are justifiably angry about it.
There is no denying Fireman Ed has his place in Jets history. Tell me you’ve been to a game in the last fifteen years and not done the J-E-T-S chant at his direction? Kids, especially, loved it. He also, for obvious reasons, happens to be an exceedingly convenient target (although I've never said anything to him). His face is everywhere, the media cites him all the time, and, perhaps most importantly, he is in the seats. Proximity means a lot to an angry mob. If you can’t yell at Woody, might as well yell at Fireman Ed. You can’t really blame him for saying enough is enough. I don't.
His stepping away may inadvertently be his most historic moment, eclipsing that Denver game. Think about it: Things have gotten so bad that the Jets' most public fan is fatigued by being so closely associated with them anymore. Think about something else, too: The stadium has often been starkly empty this year. The stadium of one of the NFL’s New York franchises has not been filled to capacity. The NFL! The most popular game in the country in the nation’s biggest city!
Blame the price increases, blame PSLs, blame having to pay full price for preseason games. Blame whatever you want - there's a long list of irrationality that the fan base is waking up to. Some people are simply choosing to stay home. And the rest…the diehard, gameday attending Jets fans are angry in a way that they’ve never been before. I’m sure Ed is angry, too. Angry at the team, and angry at the blame put on him.
But what can you do about it? The phenomenon is that when the seats aren’t filled, the guilt trip is thrown on the fans for not supporting the team. This is the same team that charges the highest ticket prices in the NFL, that puts an inferior product on the field, and that, by its owner’s own admission and a mounting pile of evidence, top-down manages in a way to maximize marketing and media attention, and not gameday ticket holder value.
Woody's right. It is an entertainment business. But the irony is that Jets games are not as entertaining as they used to be. Certainly not at these price points.
So, the fan is left with two choices: boo or go home. Boo the players, boo the coaches, or boo the self-designated Jets fan spokesman.
Fireman Ed isn't walking away completely, but he's taking a huge step back. And he isn’t going to be the last unless the Jets dramatically change the way they do things.
There’s another, lesser known chant we’ve heard at every Jets home game this year that may be taking on a brand new meaning: