TJB Hall of Fame: Wayne Chrebet

As I contemplated weighing in with a piece on Wayne Chrebet, I wanted to achieve a few things.  I wanted what I wrote to come from the heart, not just rehash the career highlights that everybody else would have summarised in their customary tribute pieces after his retirement was officially announced.  I did not want my tribute to be lost in a sea of tributes, all saying the same thing, all justifiably lauding the great man’s achievements, yet all somehow falling just short of getting across how special he was.  I did not want to base it all on research about statistics or dwell on his injuries.

This was the thought process that led to Wayne inspiring the creation of, and becoming the inaugural enshrinee into the Jets Blog Hall of Fame.  What better way to honor the man who may go down as the most popular Jet of all time, certainly of his generation?  Over the coming weeks, months and years, myself and Bassett will induct Jets greats into our Hall of Fame.  The only entry criteria is that we both think they deserve it, but in order to get in, you have to be pretty special.  We will be asking for your nominations in future, but for now, neither of us can think of a better person to start with than Wayne.

My first memory of Wayne was as the most exciting player on the struggling 1995 Jets team, which seemed to have had the life sucked out of it on draft day when they selected Kyle Brady in the first round.  Wayne, number 80, was the dynamic, little guy weaving between slower defenders like Spud Webb in his prime, diving full length for spectacular catches with all the grace of an Ossie Smith or taking a pasting and living to fight on like a young Hulk Hogan.

NFL coverage in the UK at that time was so slack, that it was deep into the season before I even knew how to pronounce the name “Chrebet”.  It’s difficult to fantasize about your hero winning the superbowl without being able to imagine the audio soundtrack in your head.  However, this little guy was just about the only thing worth watching on my favorite team at that time.  I didn’t even know if he was really any good, or if he just stood out because we were so bad.

The following year, the Jets added Keyshawn Johnson with the first pick, but Chrebet continued to emerge, so much so that the Jets would neglect to throw Keyshawn “the damn ball”.  As Johnson went down with an injury, the Jets went on a terrible losing streak as Adrian Murrell and Chrebet tried to keep the Jets offense alive almost on their own.  With Keyshawn out, Wayne caught 12 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown against the Jags in week seven, but the Jets lost again.  However, Chrebet was now starting to get the production to match his obvious talents.

With their differing styles, Johnson and Chrebet would compliment each other perfectly – in football terms – but the only compliments Johnson would ever pay Chrebet would be far from deliberate, as he would continually draw attention to Wayne’s considerable talents but only because he was continually opining that Chrebet wasn’t as talented as he was.   Dubbing Wayne “the flashlight” (to Keyshawn’s “Supernova”) was intended as an insult, but instead somehow summarized what Wayne was about “small, reliable, useful, able to light up a room, a face, a football field.

As Johnson began to find his niche in the NFL, the Jets started to win, but Chrebet was as much a crucial part of that as anyone.  Johnson was statistically the number one receiver, but both played key roles as the Jets jumped out to an 8-4 start in 1997, only to flame out and miss the playoffs.  The following year, each would have a 1,000 yard season and the Jets would win 11 of 12 games on their way to the AFC Championship Game, punctuated by arguably the best game of Johnson’s career in the divisional playoff round.  However, despite an early ten point lead, the Jets would fall short of making it to the big dance.

In 1999. Johnson’s numbers went up and Wayne’s dropped (mainly because he would miss five games).  This did not translate to a winning season, as any Jets preseason optimism was completely halted by Vinny Testeverde’s week one injury.  A strong finish did not translate to a playoff berth and did nothing to appease Johnson, who was to be traded out of town, leaving Wayne as the number one receiver once again.  With Curtis Martin now on board and Vinny back in the saddle, the Jets offense was to become more of a ball control offense, so Wayne would not be expected to put up numbers quite as high as those from earlier on in his career.  Despite no longer having Johnson around to draw away the defensive attention, Chrebet thrived in this role.

The Jets got off to a hot 6-1 start in the 2000 season, highlighted by a week four come-from-behind victory over Keyshawn’s Bucs where Chrebet caught the game winning touchdown pass on an option pass from Martin in the last minute and Johnson backed up all his pre-game talk with one catch.  For one yard.  Chrebet left the field holding one finger aloft and although it remains unclear whether this symbolized “we’re number one”, “I’m number one”, “one catch” or “one yard”, any or all of those would have been appropriate – and on that day, undeniable.  Chrebet had, fittingly, won the four-year-long war of words by letting his game speak for itself.

Two weeks prior to that. Wayne had served notice that he was capable of delivering in the clutch as his two late touchdowns – the second, sliding on his knees at the back of the end zone – would lift the Jets to an improbable 20-19 win over the Patriots.

In week seven, he would again deliver in the clutch.  Chrebet’s diving touchdown reception against the Dolphins capped off an incredible 23-0 run and tied the score as the Jets performed the “Monday Night Miracle”.  While the Dolphins would retake the lead only for the Jets to tie it again and go on to win in overtime, it was Chrebet’s catch that was the moment that instantaneously lifted my mood from being furious at the way the game had gone up to that point to being intensely fired up and actually believing the Jets were going to pull off the impossible.

As fans of the Jets, it was difficult not to fear the worst at all times.  However, in Chrebet you had something so dependable it gave you belief.  Third down was no longer the down before an inevitable punt or field goal.  Now, third down – or any other pressure filled moment – was time for Wayne to work his magic.  The belief spread to his team-mates too and the Jets were developing a more confident swagger than in the past.

While the Jets season would again end in disappointment, Chrebet had now become the finished article.  His route running was perfect, his ability to find a seam, get open and be on the same page with his quarterback unmatched, especially at the most critical moments.  His hands were as soft as the foam hands you could buy that *did* say “we’re number one”.  His toughness was proven.  His heart was as big as he was small.

As Wayne moved into the latter stages of his career, it was a natural transition for him to turn into the veteran leader that he was becoming.  In 2001, Laveranues Coles, who had first made an impact during that Miraculous Monday Night (or was it Tuesday Morning?) was now becoming the number one receiver.  Unlike Keyshawn Johnson, he would look up to and learn from Chrebet.  The two complimented each other on and off the field with mutual love and respect.  The Jets were more of a team and would be competitive in a tough division for the next few seasons.  By now, everyone knew Chrebet would be the target on third down, but few were able to stop him.  I was able to impress my friends by predicting when and where the ball was going on third down.  His statistics in those situations, not that any statistic could ever demonstrate what Wayne was all about, were consistently among the league’s best.

The plays he made so routinely that they almost were taken for granted are what defined Chrebet and how he should be remembered.  Leaping to catch a bullet over the middle and landing strongly to absorb the impending impact; running a yard past the first down marker and turning to clutch a pass in traffic; being aware of the first down marker and putting his head down so he could stretch his arms safely across the appropriate yard line; breaking a tackle or hustling to make a block downfield; digging his cleats in the turf an inch away from the sideline and ensuring they stayed planted in the ground while he laid out to catch a pass out of bounds; getting open on a slant route and making a bee-line for the endzone; and, yes, those diving catches.

In the final week of the regular season, the Jets needed a win in Oakland to make the playoffs and complete their comeback from a dreadful start.  They would eventually win on John Hall’s unbelievable 53-yard field goal with a minute to go, but the fondest memory I took from that game was Wayne’s stunning one-handed diving catch.

The following week, again in Oakland, Chrebet emulated his performance from the week before with what was perhaps an even better catch.  With Testerverde’s pass downfield seemingly well out of his reach, Wayne somehow got the tips of his fingertips to the ball, and stretched out to tip it again before bringing it into his grasp just as his body, which was falling to the ground one way, but rotating the other way, fell to the turf and was simultaneously hammered by two Raider defensive backs.  It was a thing of beauty, especially in slow motion, like so many of the plays Wayne made over the course of his career.  Again, the Jets would fall short, but optimism at Weeb Ewbank Hall was high.

In 2002, I met another Jets fan in England.  Within thirty seconds, we were discussing our mutual love for Wayne and I had made a friend, probably for life.  Fans of other franchises could never appreciate that this is the type of reaction Chrebet gives rise to.  Another slow start would lead to Chad Pennington’s spectacular debut, and although Coles quickly became his favorite target, he knew how to be successful with this new weapon at his disposal and Wayne continued to be the go-to guy in clutch situations.

On the final day of the season, Giants Stadium erupted as Adam Vinatieri’s field goal in Miami meant that the Jets could make the playoffs with a win over Green Bay.  Moments later, fittingly, it was Chrebet who caught a Pennington pass and took it to the end zone.  His two touchdowns helped the Jets to a 42-17 win.  As the Jets had rallied from 2-5 for an unlikely first divisional title in goodness-knows-how-long, Pennington’s play had them thinking Superbowl.  Alas, it was not to be and Chrebet’s career continued to lack the thing he wanted most of all.

The other thing Wayne’s career lacked was a Pro Bowl appearance, which simply gives Chrebet the notoriety of being one of the greatest Jets, maybe even one of the greatest players in the NFL, not to have made it to Hawaii.  He had years where he was close, but was simply a victim of circumstance.  The wide receivers selected would have all been number one options, but Wayne for much of his career would have been regarded as one of the best number twos in the league, or one of the best in the slot.  If every team had a representative, like in baseball, he’d have been there early on in his career.  If veterans who had never been, like in hockey, were honored later on in their career, he would have gone later on in his career.  If it were a popularity contest, like in basketball, he could have been there at any time in his career.

Nobody is perfect, but when Wayne couldn’t get the job done, he wouldn’t look for excuses.  However, his team-mates were always smart enough to realise that everybody is human.  In 2002, Wayne’s fumble against the Bears looked to have cost the Jets a playoff berth.  Chrebet, with his own lofty standards, was apologetic after the game.  However, after a terrible effort by the Jets, Wayne’s heroic, but ill-fated leap to the first down marker as he attempted to keep a potential game-tying drive alive was not the reason for the defeat and his team-mates universally acknowledged as such.

When he uncharacteristically dropped what appeared to be an easy touchdown catch against the Dolphins in 2004, Curtis Martin ran for a 22 yard score on the next play.  Martin said he was just picking his team-mate up like Chrebet had done for him countless times in the past.  Even when he was unsuccessful, Wayne’s effort and impact on the franchise could never be called into question.  The Jets would ultimately win that game in a blow-out, as if Chrebet’s team-mates all stepped it up for him.  (He had already scored the first touchdown).

The last three years of Wayne’s career would see a drop off in production as the concussions and age started to take their toll.  However, he could still be relied upon to come up with big plays.  Pennington’s wrist would cost the Jets a chance at a playoff berth in 2003 and his shoulder would cost the Jets in 2005 (although Chrebet’s career was over by then).

Even in 2004, when the Jets were one (and another) Doug Brien field goal away from the AFC Championship game, Chrebet’s role in that success was more limited than in previous years.  He missed the last few games of the regular season with another concussion and then, although he returned for the playoffs, with speculation that his career was about to end, he did not contribute significantly to the Jets postseason run.

Eventually, Wayne decided to return for one last season with the Jets in 2005 but would again see his season cut short by another concussion.  As Bassett so eloquently wrote, it would be fitting that his last reception would be a clutch first down to keep another potential game-winning drive alive, but you could immediately tell from the glazed look in his eyes, that this was probably the last action he would see as a Jet.

As he announced his retirement, Wayne said he hoped he could now concentrate on being a good father and his team-mates were all in agreement that there was no doubt that he would be.  He said he will find a way to get past not getting to win a Superbowl, by finding another challenge in the future.  Jets fans the world over would be delighted if that future involved him trying to get a ring as a receivers coach for the Jets.

On the occasion of his official retirement announcement, the quotes about his career and the stature of the people they came from said everything you ever needed to know about how well respected he is within the game.

As fans we would only see glimpses of Chrebet’s character, but from these it was clear that those who really knew Wayne were lucky to have done so.  He clearly had a sense of humour, an inspirational character and most importantly of all, the respect of his peers, which maybe was all he could have asked for when he first pulled on a Jets jersey.

They say you should never meet your heroes, but having seen the guy interviewed, it seems the reports that he is a humble, well-rounded character are accurate and it would be an honor to one day meet Chrebet just to shake his hand.

The collective hearts of Jets fans everywhere will sink the next time they have a third down to convert and we realise he is not an option any more.  We will convert third downs again, but somehow, it will never be the same.

Wayne Supreme, Wayne Wonder, The Flash-light, The Green Lantern, Number 80…Wayne Chrebet.  Thank you – and welcome to the Jets Blog Hall of Fame!