As his mandatorypostgame press conference at Giants Stadium drew to a merciful conclusion onSunday, a misty-eyed Mark Sanchez stepped down from the podium and slippedthrough a pair of swinging wooden doors into the Jets' locker room, looking forthe nearest place to hide. A 16--13 overtime loss to the Bills—in which hethrew five interceptions—had left the rookie quarterback admittedly"embarrassed" and desperate for cover.
Sanchez barely hadtime to slump into the folding chair in front of his locker and bury his headin his hands before he was intercepted again. This time, however, it was bywide receiver Braylon Edwards, who pulled up another chair, slapped thedejected passer on the thigh and spent the next five minutes delivering ahushed pep talk. "I was going to talk to him tomorrow," Edwards said,"but seeing him [like that], I just had to go over there and say, 'Pickyour head up.'"
The Jets expectedEdwards to give them a lift—and provide the deep threat they had beenlacking—when they acquired him from the Browns on Oct. 7 for wide receiverChansi Stuckey, linebacker Jason Trusnik and a pair of future draft picks. Butso far Edwards, 26, has spent more time picking up spirits than his new team'soffense. Though he had solid numbers in his first two games as a Jet (acombined eight catches for 104 yards and a touchdown), New York (3--3) hasn'tbeen able to parlay that production into wins. The Jets have lost threestraight and head into Sunday's game at Oak-land (2--4) with their self-beliefat a season low.
Edwards, who washeld to no catches for the first time in his career in then winless Cleveland's23--20 overtime loss to the Bengals three days before he was traded, has yet toexperience the euphoria of a victorious locker room this season. In-seasontrades are rare in the NFL because of salary-cap restrictions and the time ittakes to assimilate a player into a new system. Edwards carries even more riskbecause of his baggage, but he can be a game-breaker. At 6'3" and 215pounds he provides the kind of big, explosive target that can change a game andembolden play-calling. "[He] opens up some possibilities that you maybewouldn't [otherwise consider]," says Jets offensive coordinator BrianSchottenheimer, who showed just how much faith he has in Edwards's playmakingability during a 31--27 loss at Miami. With New York trailing 17--13 in thefourth quarter and facing third-and-21 from the Dolphins' 35,Schottenheimer—who would ordinarily have called a more conservative play in anattempt to get better position for a field goal—dialed up a deep pass toEdwards that set up a one-yard touchdown run.
Against Buffalo,however, Edwards suffered from the absences of fellow receivers JerrichoCotchery (out with a left hamstring) and Brad Smith (right quad). Sanchez spentmuch of the game forcing the ball in to Edwards, often with disastrous results.Nine times he targeted Edwards; four of those throws were picked off."There are some things that I probably could've done to help[Sanchez]," said Edwards, who finished with three receptions for 40 yards."All I can tell him is, 'Hey, it's not just you. We're in this thingtogether.'"
Edwards's TonyRobbins act is 180 degrees from the me-first, high-maintenance routine thatgained him infamy in Cleveland. The third pick in the 2005 draft out ofMichigan, he broke franchise records for receiving yards (1,289) and touchdowns(16) in 2007, on the way to his first Pro Bowl appearance. But the next seasonhe led the league in dropped passes, with 16.
He has evincedsimilarly self-defeating behavior off the field. Edwards arrived late to apractice after taking a helicopter to Columbus for his alma mater's annualrivalry game against Ohio State in November 2006, nearly came to blows withquarterback Charlie Frye during a game a week later, and was fined $150 andsentenced to 30 hours of community service after he was found guilty of driving120 mph in November '08. Last March he partied with suspended Browns widereceiver Donte' Stallworth in Miami the night Stallworth drove drunk and killeda pedestrian. (Edwards was not with Stallworth at the time.) And now Clevelandpolice are investigating accusations that Edwards punched promoter EdwardGivens, a friend of NBA star LeBron James's, following an argument outside adowntown Cleveland nightclub after the Browns' loss to Cincinnati.
James condemnedEdwards's behavior as childish, suggested jealousy as being a root cause andcompared the idea of Edwards's striking the 5'7", 135-pound Givens to"hitting one of my kids." Edwards posted a statement on his Twitterpage saying he had no beef with James, but the incident made him such apolarizing figure in Cleveland that the Browns enlisted the FBI to investigatethreats made against the receiver.
Edwards has so farsteered clear of controversy in New York and proved himself to be a galvanizinglocker room presence. The more convincing his efforts, the better his chancesof re-signing with the Jets. (His five-year, $40 million deal expires afterthis season.) Edwards envisions becoming Reggie Wayne to Sanchez's PeytonManning. "[Sanchez is] young, I'm new, we're still learning eachother," Edwards says. "We'll eventually get on the same page, but ittakes time."
If Edwards can'tmake it work in New York, he—not Sanchez—may be the one who is looking forcover.
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Photograph by DAVID BERGMAN
CARRYING HIS WEIGHT Edwards, who is trying to shed his reputation for selfishness, battled Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny (51) on Sunday for a deflected pass that was intended for him—just before it was intercepted.
STEVE MITCHELL/US PRESSWIRE
BUDDY LANGUAGE Says Edwards (left) of the beleaguered Sanchez, "We're in this together."