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COMMENTARY: 2017 may be ‘year to forget’ in football

Shades of 1996! For over 50 years, through good times and mostly bad, I’ve rooted for three football teams: the Giants, the Jets and Rutgers.

Diehard fans of the Giants or Jets might chastise me with the cri de coeur, “What kind of fan roots for both of them?!” It’s easy, I confess, because I’m totally a fair-weather fan, and it applies to all the major professional sports. If one team is rolling, I pay full attention. If it stinks, see ya next year.

Giants and Jets? Yes, both.

Yankees-Mets? Yes. Knicks-Nets? Yes. Rangers-Devils? Yes again.

But back to football. And how does Rutgers fit in? And what’s so special about 1996?

An eternally loyal son of Rutgers, I've cheered for the Scarlet Knights since long before my freshman year of 1965 when I joined the Daily Targum staff. I went to at least one game in each of Rutgers’ undefeated seasons: 1961, when I was 13, and 1976.

Twenty years after that milestone, the team was a disaster in the first year of Terry Shea’s unhappy stint as coach. The Scarlet Knights finished 2-9 and were outscored overall 380-143. Their only victim in seven Big East conference games was Temple.

They fared better than the Jets, however. Under the leadership of Rich Kotite, Gang Green emerged victorious just once in 16 games. Only the Arizona Cardinals game saved them from oblivion.

With such low bars to hurdle, the Giants were the clear standouts in my pathetic pantheon, boasting a final record of 6-10 under Dan Reeves.

Add them all up and you have a composite 1996 record of 9-34, winning percentage .209.

That misery took place 21 years ago, so you may be wondering what makes it relevant today? Answer: The number 10. Double digits.

Most football fans would agree that 10 wins is the mark of a good NFL team – likely bound for the playoffs. For a college squad it’s a stamp of excellence – definitely a bowl game in the picture. But three teams falling short of 10 combined wins in 43 games? That’s an epic exercise in futility.

As the NFL teams reach the quarter-pole, the numbers are falling into place for a 2017 season that rivals 1996 in its misfortune for the Scarlet, the Green and not so Big Blue.

The Jets have shown the most signs of life by beating Miami and Jacksonville. Their first two losses left Giants’ fans grasping at the desperate memory of the 2007 team that won Super Bowl XLI after starting 0-2, but their losses to the Eagles on a 61-yard field goal and to the Buccaneers on an overtime field goal have put their seasons on life support.

Meanwhile, Rutgers today may be as overmatched in the Big "Teen" (14 teams in the Big Ten) as it was in the Big East in the mid-1990s. Last year’s Rutgers team never scored first in any of its games, and its 2-10 record included no conference victories.

This year’s Scarlet Knights (1-3) looked much improved in a loss to Washington, stumbled in a tossup game against Eastern Michigan, picked on a patsy when Morgan State visited, looked competitive at Nebraska, then got flattened by Ohio State. Two or three Big Teen games appear winnable, but RU may be underdogs in all six that remain.

So let’s get back to that 1996 record of 9-34. Rutgers now plays 12 games instead of 11. Is it optimistic to forecast a 3-9 final slate or are they more likely to repeat last year’s 2-10?

Have the Jets' two victories actually made them playoff contenders?

So that would leave it up to the Giants to live up to their preseason status as a favorite in the NFC East. But if the first four games indicate a trend, not an aberration, they'll have an uphill climb to match the Jets' victory total. Double digits may be an unreachable goal for the three local teams, and 2017 is likely to join 1996 as a year for this fan to forget.

David Lieberfarb was a Targum staffer from 1965-1969.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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