By Kristian R. Dyer
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — One was a question mark off the field who had struggled to regain his Pro Bowl form from four seasons ago. Another was an enigmatic star whose list of on-field honors was matched only by his growing rap sheet and penchant for off-the-field misdemeanors. Both Braylon Edwards and Santonio Holmes were rolls of the dice by the Jets over the past year, wide receivers with as much potential as any players in the league, but both suffered from self-inflicted-wound syndrome.
And both were question marks heading into this season.
When the Jets acquired Edwards from the Browns before the trade deadline in 2009, they got a player who had more punches thrown in bar-room fights than clutch plays. In Cleveland, Edwards had earned a reputation as a talented wide receiver who dropped plenty of passes.
He struggled last season with the Jets to get in sync with then-rookie QB Mark Sanchez. Then, after a promising preseason and two solid games to start the season, including a touchdown catch in the Week Two win over the Patriots, Edwards' season appeared to careen off course with a DUI arrest at 3 a.m. ET in lower Manhattan. Edwards was well over the legal limit when he was pulled over by uniformed members of the N.Y.P.D. with two teammates also in the vehicle.
Holmes, too, was a gamble by the Jets, although there was never any doubt about his playmaking ability on the field. The Super Bowl XLIII MVP, Holmes was traded to the Jets last spring after his best receiving year of his career, one in which he topped 1,200 yards. It wasn't a matter of talent or production for Holmes, who was emerging as a star of the Steelers' offense. Instead, he was forced out of Pittsburgh after arrests and lawsuits made him an unwanted commodity.
Now, on Sunday at Heinz Field, the Jets will rely on their two leading receivers to carry them to their first Super Bowl appearance in 42 years, and both Edwards and Holmes are at peace with themselves for the first time in a long time.
"I feel like I was trying to prove myself so much, and I don't think it was warranted, it was me feeling the need to. I was trying to do everything by the book, with the (one) exception, and be quiet and humble and do everything by the book and just happy to be here and be a 'rah-rah' guy," Edwards said. "That is a part of me, but at the same time, I want to get back to having fun and being comfortable and having (a swagger) and feel like I'm a part of the Jets' organization rather than somebody trying to fight my way in. Now I feel that way and that's why I'm playing the way I'm playing and speaking the way I'm speaking."
Edwards, even with the specter of the DUI arrest in September constantly overshadowing his season, still managed to become a go-to player for the Jets. Last week in the Jets' grudge match in New England, it was Edwards who shrugged off two Patriots players to rumble into the endzone for a touchdown just 33 seconds before halftime. The score gave the Jets a 14-3 lead going into the locker room and capped off an emphatic first half for New York.
"He's gone from a guy that I saw that used to kind of work and get through practice to a guy now that's pushed himself to different levels," offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said. "He's been outstanding for probably the last six or seven weeks in practice. And when I say that, he's a guy that's wanting extra reps, he's fighting for different opportunities, he's finishing things."
For Edwards, Sunday represents the chance to exorcise some demons of the past. He often has been bashed as a player who fails in big situations, who hasn't come up when his team needed him the most. Holmes, on the other hand, earned the nickname "Tone Time" for his late-game heroics this season.
Might as well call him "clutch."
It was Holmes who rattled off a 52-yard catch-and-run in overtime of a Week Nine win at Detroit to set up a game-winning field goal by Nick Folk and then the next Sunday went 37 yards again in overtime for the game-winning touchdown in Cleveland. On Sunday, Holmes returns to Pittsburgh for the AFC championship game. Because he played at Heinz Field in Week 15 during the Jets' 22-17 win, registering a quiet-but-efficient six catches for 40 yards, Holmes said his focus and emotions are centered on the game and not the "Holmes coming."
The former Steelers star said that the flood of emotions from a month ago has come and gone and won't be a distraction this time around. In Week 15, Holmes was chosen to be a captain and march out to midfield of his old home, this time wearing green and white. Now, Holmes said his lone goal is to make the Jets AFC champions and nothing else.
"This time it means everything, everything for myself, for this team, for this organization. We're trying to get to the Super Bowl. I don't care about the Steelers right now. Those guys are in my team's way, which is the New York Jets. We have one goal, which is to beat those guys," Holmes said. "If we win the Super Bowl, then everything is personal. That's a slap back in those guys' face for trading me."
The Super Bowl has been the goal since last January, as all of the Jets' offseason moves pointed toward this game.
Last year as the sixth seed, the Jets won five of their last six games in the regular season to somehow sneak into the playoffs. Behind an efficient if somewhat ugly offense and a stingy defense, the Jets remarkably defied the odds to make the AFC championship game. They lost a halftime lead because of a dominant second-half performance by Colts QB Peyton Manning and saw their Cinderella postseason strike midnight.
The past offseason was spent with that game in mind. The Jets added a third-down running back in LaDainian Tomlinson to help sustain drives and keep the offense on the field. Antonio Cromartie was picked up in a trade to lock down the cornerback position opposite Darrelle Revis. Veteran OLB Jason Taylor was brought in to apply pressure on passing downs. And Holmes was added for such a moment as this.
"The reasons we brought 'Tone' here is for these kind of games. Big-time players make big-time plays in the brightest spotlight, and here it is right here," Ryan said. "The AFC championship time, this is 'Tone' time."
Kristian R. Dyer can be reached at KristianRDyer@yahoo.com and followed for Jets & NFL news at twitter.com/KristianRDyer.