Vinny Testaverde's transformation from a tentative and
unreliable player to a confident Cool Hand Luke of a quarterback
was made complete on New Year's Eve. He had passed every
on-field test in his five months with the New York Jets, leading
the Big Apple's stepchild franchise to its first division title
since the AFL-NFL merger and a bye in the first round of the
playoffs. On Dec. 31, in a meeting room at the team's practice
facility on the Hofstra campus, Testaverde was about to earn
another set of high marks. "Vinny has something he'd like to say
to you guys," Jets coach Bill Parcells told his players, and
then Testaverde stepped to the podium.
"You all know about the dangers of drinking and driving,"
Testaverde said, "and I want to talk to you about not making a
mistake on New Year's Eve. I've got a videotape here to show you
about a guy who made one mistake--just one small mistake. This
guy had money. He had power. He had fame. And he made a mistake
he'll have to live with for the rest of his life. Roll the tape."
The room went dark. On the video screen was a life-sized image
of Parcells, holding a bag of tortilla chips and warbling in a
commercial you must have seen dozens of times by now: "Groovin'
...on a Sunday afternoon...."
From the side of the room, before the place exploded in
laughter, Testaverde heard Parcells say, "You son of a bitch!"
Even Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor never tweaked the commandant
that deftly, particularly at playoff time. But that's a sign of
just how comfortable--and courageous--Testaverde has become
under Parcells. With great assistance from running back Curtis
Martin and wideout Keyshawn Johnson, who combined for 331 yards
and four touchdowns, V-V-V-Vinny and the Jets rewarded some of
the most loyal fans on the planet on Sunday with a 34-24 AFC
divisional playoff victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars at
Now comes the real challenge. The Jets started the week as
10-point underdogs to the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos in
the AFC Championship Game, but remember this: In the 1990
playoffs, Parcells's New York Giants were long shots against the
San Francisco 49ers in the NFC title game and against the
Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXV. The Giants beat the Niners by
two and the Bills by one. "We're not even thinking of the Super
Bowl," said Martin, who handled the ball on 42 of the Jets' 77
plays from scrimmage. "We'll approach it like Denver's our Super
Odd as it may sound, the Jets have a chance to win in Denver
because they have a mature and consistent Testaverde on their
side. The same Testaverde who, in 1988 with the Tampa Bay Bucs,
threw 35 interceptions, the second-most in an NFL season? The
same Testaverde who, in his 62 starts over the five years
previous to this one, led the Cleveland Browns and the Baltimore
Ravens to a combined 25-36-1 record?
Not exactly. Testaverde, now 35, is a changed man. It's
detectable not only in the passing prowess he displayed while
becoming the AFC's highest-rated quarterback this season, but
also in the self-confidence you can see when--unlike the old
Testaverde--he looks you straight in the eye across the table.
His father, Al, credits Vinny's turnaround to a season under
Parcells. "He respects Bill and looks at him like he's looking
at God," says Al. "He gets confidence from having so much faith
in what the Jets are doing."
"One thing I'm confident of now," Vinny says, "is that I know I
can play this game as well as anyone. I don't worry about
anything except what's happening to me right now. I'm not sure
who said it, but I'm sort of living by this motto: Preoccupation
with the past or the future is the mental enemy of competitive
excellence in the present."
The emergence of a new Vinny--"What's not to like?" Parcells
says of his quarterback--is best illustrated by two plays during
the regular season.
Vinny the leader. During a 10-10 game at Kansas City on Nov. 1,
the Chiefs' corners were clinging to Johnson in tight coverage.
The play the Jets were running called for him, lined up in the
left slot, to run a short slant over the middle in front of the
defensive back--"across the defender's face," in Jets
terminology. "I made a mistake," Johnson recalls. "I was so
frustrated with their coverage that I went behind the guy and
figured Vinny would see me and hit me. But he wasn't expecting
that, and he threw an interception. When I got to the sideline,
he lit into me. 'Damn it, Key! What the hell are you doing! You
can't be making mistakes like that in a game like this!' He was
Adds Testaverde, "What I was saying was this: It's not about me
or that it looked like I threw a dumb interception. It's about
the team and the fact that in a tight game, that could have cost
us a win." The Jets won 20-17.
Vinny the clutch player. With four minutes to play in a game the
Jets led 17-14 on Oct. 19 at Foxboro, New York faced
second-and-seven at the Patriots' 43. The logical strategy would
have been to feed the ball to Martin, hopefully pick up two
first downs and get out of town with a win. "But Coach had faith
in Vinny and went for the jugular," says wideout Dedric Ward.
Parcells wanted a bomb down the right sideline to Ward, who had
drawn man-to-man coverage from cornerback Chris Canty. When he
got to the line, Testaverde gave Ward a look. "A twinkle, sort
of," Ward says. "I can't describe it, but when I get it, I know
I better run a great route." Testaverde took a five-step drop
and rainbowed a 43-yard pass. "Perfect," says Ward. "Only I
could have caught it." The Jets won 24-14.
Since taking the starting job from Glenn Foley in that New
England game, Testaverde has thrown 24 touchdown passes and only
seven interceptions in 386 attempts, and the Jets are 11-1.
Still, in the media and from around the league come endless
reminders about his dismal past. In November, Ravens owner Art
Modell told a reporter to be cautious of Testaverde's gaudy
numbers. "I would hold judgment until the end of the season,"
Fast-forward to the Jets' first drive against the Jaguars. Shaky
coming off the bye and two weeks of good old-fashioned Big Apple
hype? Not Testaverde. He hit Martin on a backside screen for 17
yards on the first play, then found Johnson on a seven-yard out
pattern. After three runs by Martin carried New York to the
Jacksonville 35, Testaverde fired a 14-yard strike to running
back Dave Meggett. The next play called for Johnson to run a
slant to the post, not across the safety's face, but behind him.
That late-week adjustment was made because the Jets
believed--correctly, as it turned out--that Jaguars strong
safety Donovin Darius would follow the only other receiver sent
out on the play, tight end Kyle Brady, who ran a nine-yard
route. "I ran that post all the time at USC," said Johnson. "I
dreamed of running that post here. The safety cheated up, and
Vinny put it right on me, like he's done all year."
That touchdown catch was the first of several big plays by
Johnson, who had nine receptions for 121 yards and ran twice for
28 yards and a score. In a fitting end, Johnson, inserted on
defense because of his great hands and leaping ability,
intercepted Mark Brunell's Hail Mary with nine seconds left.
So the Jets move on, following the Italian from Long Island. Al
and Josie Testaverde's five grown kids all live on the island.
Every Tuesday night Vinny, his wife, Mitzi, and the couple's two
kids, seven-year-old Alicia and two-year-old Vincent Jr., feast
on Josie's veal parmigiana and other specialties. Life has come
full circle, and just in time for Al, who has had a heart attack
and has been advised by doctors not to watch his son's games.
He's views the tapes only after he knows the score and Vinny's
numbers. Those rules will change on the last Sunday of January,
Al hopes. He says he'll go to the Super Bowl if the Jets are in
"One wrong tick and it's over," Al says. "But I won't miss that
game. If they have to bury me, bury me at the Super Bowl."
The Jets are tantalizingly close to their first Super Bowl since
Joe Namath engineered the biggest upset in pro football history
30 years ago. On Sunday there was something eerily familiar
about the quarterback leaving the field as dusk settled on the
Meadowlands. Dressed in the same style of uniform that Namath
wore (Parcells reverted to the old design this season),
Testaverde jogged through the media and security masses, head
bowed, right index finger high in the air. It's just a
coincidence that the Super Bowl is in Miami this year, as it was
in 1969, isn't it?
COLOR PHOTO: COVER PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS COVER Jet Propelled Keyshawn Johnson: New York's wondrous wideout Four powerhouses set their sights on the Super Bowl [Keyshawn Johnson catching pass in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAMIAN STROHMEYER Vintage Testaverde threw for 284 yards and a touchdown in the Jets' first playoff win since 1986. [Vinny Testaverde throwing pass over linemen]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Jet fuel Martin, who carried 36 times, ran for the tough yards as New York controlled the ball for more than 39 minutes.[Curtis Martin with football in between defenders]