The Jets beat the Patriots last Sunday. You remember — Wes Welker sat, Tom Brady stunk (but may or may not have had an excuse), Mark Sanchez was great and Rex handed Belichick his lunch. All adds up to 28-21.
We're briefed? OK. This is where our story starts.
Bart Scott and ESPN's Sal Paolantonio had the exact opposite of a Frost/Nixon moment on the sideline of Gillette Stadium seconds after the game ended. Before Paolantonio could ask a question, Scott was already in the full WWE bad guy mode, the kind of manufactured act that ESPN eats up and will probably land Scott a job one day as one of 326 guys pretending to laugh at a terrible joke on some pregame show.
"To all the nonbelievers, to all the nonbelievers, especially you Tom Jackson, way to have our back Keyshawn [Johnson]," Scott screamed to Paolantonio, before finishing the interview and heading to the locker room.
Forgetting for a moment that analysts aren't supposed to "have the backs" of players (even though we know some do; that's part of the problem we finds ourselves in), let's instead focus on Scott calling out Tom Jackson, who picked the Patriots to win 30-10 before the game on Sunday. A player using the "no respect" card isn't exactly Copernicus placing the Sun at the center of the solar system in 1543. This has been done, oh, 250,000 times before or so, including plenty of times by your New England Patriots. And I've got no problem with that — if you need that to motivate you to win a playoff game, go with God.
But here's where it gets tricky. Tom Jackson has been an analyst at ESPN since 1987. It's not a stretch to suggest that he's picked thousands of games on the air, and he's likely been wrong on around half of them. And let's also give Jackson and the ESPN pregame show some due — there is no question that they are still have some swing. The players — many if not most of who grew up on Jackson and Chris Berman — are watching and ready to rip if they feel even the littlest bit slighted, as players always do.
And Jackson knows that — he was a player (and a really good one), of course. So that's why he laughed off the Scott comments in an appearance on ESPN's Mike and Mike Show on the following day, right? Or maybe he uttered those three little words: I was wrong.
"[Sunday] I played a bit of a psychological game with the Jets," Jackson said. "It's something that I need to explain. I thought that more important to the Jets than hearing another score of '24-21, they have a chance to win,' was that it was important that they have in their mind, 'You got beat 45-3. A large segment of the population believes that can happen to you again. [The Jets] are all watching. I wanted to further fuel and cement them in that bunker mentality of us against the world."
I'm not going to make this a huge rant against ESPN. Between the music video montages and athlete ball-washing and endless self-promotion, I can't make it through six minutes of SportsCenter without vomiting everything I've eaten for the last two weeks, true, but this has nothing to do with that. That's another column. But this Jackson stuff is even worse, actually.
Think about it: Tom Jackson — in the one job in sports where bias should play absolutely no factor — basically admitted that he was actively trying to help the Jets beat the Patriots. And I'm not sure that's the worst part. Why does Tom Jackson want to play psychological games with the Jets? How is that anywhere near his job description? And how about the ego of this guy? If I were a member of the Jets I'd be "sitting in rush hour traffic with a hangover" pissed at Jackson for trying to take some credit for the win.
(Quasi-aside: I don't have a problem with Mike and Mike — vanilla, sure, but ultimately harmless — but they flat-out sucked in this interview. If you are a radio host worth a nickel you have to be all over Jackson after he makes those comments. But these two gave him The Worldwide Pass the whole way. Just rolled over. Nothing. I wish I could be surprised, but at the end of the day ESPN is all about protecting ESPN. And that's the fastest way to get to zero credibility. Well, that and giving Stuart Scott a paycheck every two weeks for the last 15 years.)
This would almost be forgivable if there wasn't an already established feud between Belichick and Jackson, which stemmed from Jackson saying on air in 2003 that the Patriots — following the release of Lawyer Milloy and a 31-0 season-opening loss to the Bills — "hate their coach." No proof that this was ever true — according to Michael Holley's "Patriot Reign," when Belichick asked him about it, Jackson "admitted he hadn't talked to anyone on the team and had no basis for it" (always good to just toss stuff that damaging out there, facts be damned), which led to Belichick giving the f--- you juice to Jackson after the Super Bowl that same season. So, there is also that.
Jackson wasn't disciplined by ESPN for the "hate" comments. When you consider that it's more than possible that he made the story up, it's pretty incredible that he wasn't at least given a slap on the wrist. And it sure looks like he's going to skate this week (nothing as of Thursday afternoon). So the only conclusion to arrive at is this: ESPN is not only fine with its on-air talent rooting for one team to win, but OK with the talent trying to help a team beat another team.
If I'm the guy in charge of ESPN, I suspend Jackson for the rest of the playoffs (I think we can live with one less guy on the pregame show), or at least as long as the Jets are alive. And then I make this clear to him: You pick the team that you think is going to win the game. That's it. Hard to believe, but no one needs Tom Jackson for motivation. Just be an analyst. (Jackson tried to save a little face Wednesday, telling USA Today that "in an effort to make an excuse for the comments [made by Scott], I made comments I shouldn’t have.” Too late and no one is buying, Tommy.) And if I smell a whiff of bias in anything he ever says on the air again, he'd be gone before the next series of commercials were done.
The viewing public can survive without Tom Jackson, as hard as that may seem to Tom Jackson. For reasons that are his fault, and no one else's, Jackson has been reduced to a punch line, not an analyst.
And that's the truth, not a psychological game.