Fans’ return to MetLife Stadium sets up a special NFL preseason game

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY - AUGUST 08: A general view of MetLife Stadium during the first half of a preseason game between the New York Jets and the New York Giants on August 08, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

It’s all too appropriate that fans return to MetLife Stadium coincides with the resumption of the game dubbed the “Snoopy Bowl”.

Those who venture out to MetLife Stadium on Saturday night will probably forget the final score of the game they paid to see once they get back on Route 3 or the New Jersey Turnpike. But the important part is…they’ll have ventured out to MetLife Stadium.

It’s been 532 days since Giants Stadium’s successor hosted a full-fledged professional football game in front of paying customers. That streak, begun shortly after an XFL contest between the New York Guardians and the Los Angeles Wildcats, finally snaps on Saturday, as the New York Jets and Giants resume their preseason series after a year off (7:30 p.m. ET, WNBC).

The Jets and Giants have staged an annual late summer showdown since 1969, when the former began its Super Bowl defense with a 37-14 triumph at the Yale Bowl. Since the teams began sharing the swamps of the Meadowlands (when the Jets moved in from Shea Stadium in 1984), the game has become a North Jersey tradition, a different kind of fireworks as days slowly get shorter. It’s a night of playful bragging rights, a union of metropolitan football. Upon the naming rights takeover of MetLife, known for featuring the Charlie Brown gang in its advertising, the contest became known as the “Snoopy Bowl”, complete with a beagle-branded winner’s trophy. Fans have kept the name alive in an unofficial capacity despite MetLife severing its ties with the Peanuts franchise.

(Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

For a few precious hours, it’s a metropolitan Super Bowl decided by those more likely destined for the practice squad than for The Big Game itself.

“Since the game doesn’t count, the parking lot always had kind of a party atmosphere,” Kenny Watkins III of Woodland Park, NJ and a season-ticket holder at Giants Stadium said of the game. “People in blue and green are tailgating, having fun, playing music, usually there’s a band set up somewhere. It’s more like a concert atmosphere than a football game.”

By now, no one needs to elaborate as to why the series was interrupted. The COVID-19 health crisis shut down many summer traditions across the tri-state area and the nation as a whole, including the NFL preseason and the plethora of regional matchups that come with it. Few mourned the loss of the exhibition slate…preseason football is often seen as a chore in even the best of times…but regular season games played in empty stadiums took on an eerie feeling, even if they were done in the interest of public health. The Jets and Giants were a couple of the 14 teams that played their entire 2020 home slate in an empty stadium.

But welcome normalcy has finally started to emerge from the pandemic, primarily thanks to vaccination efforts. Caution is still in place due to COVID’s Delta variant but football fans have eagerly made their way back into stadiums as the first official week of preseason action continues. 

In some ways, the true value of Saturday’s game is found not on the field, but rather the stands, which is set to host a de facto family reunition of thousands.

“Saturday is going to be special even though it’s just a preseason game,” Peter Schwartz of Long Island told ESM. “It’s appropriate that both sets of fans get to be at the first game with fans because this area has been through so much over the last 18 months.”

“It’s been awesome to have fans back,” Arizona defender J.J. Watt said during an in-game interview with KPNX during the Cardinals’ preseason opener against Dallas on Friday night. “It’s been awesome to have fans back in the building. After last season, everybody playing in empty stadiums, it’s an incredible feeling to have these fans back, to have the energy, to have the excitement.”

A few necessary adjustments might still have to be made. To reduce touchpoints, for example, MetLife Stadium has transitioned to cash-free transactions at all concession and retail outlets. But it’s well worth it to get back in the New York football groove.

“I think you should just be courteous to those around you, making sure that you’re not doing anything too obnoxious or breaking any of the COVID precautions in place,” Joe Gucciardo of Howard Beach said of the precautions. “I think having the Snoopy Bowl be the first game back is somewhat bittersweet. It’s fun, you can go with a buddy who likes the other tri-State team and jaw at each other all night.”

Both teams have offered sneak previews of their respective returns to fan-filled stadiums as their respective training camp proceedings continued. The Jets first hosted the Green & White Scrimmage last Saturday night while the Giants capped off their Fan Fest with a public practice on Wednesday night.

(Photo by Alan Schaefer/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Intrasquad scrimmages, however, don’t replace the feeling of showcasing your gridiron stuff against another opponent, especially one you’re forced to share the country’s largest media market with. Staten Island native and Jets fan John Maleka is looking forward to seeing his team showcase their young talent in a MetLife Stadium adorned in blue, as Saturday’s tilt is a designated Giants home game. Fellow attendee and Montville resident Dave Strum anticipates a “sea of green and blue”, which he labels a welcome change from his last East Rutherford excursion.

Strum, after all, was at the Jets’ last contest held in front of fans, a 16-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers in December 2019. Alas, many attendees went home unhappy: black and yellow outranked green on that temperate afternoon, which was completely understandable with the Steelers’ playoff implications and the nine-loss Jets’ lack thereof entering what was each

Jets head coach Robert Saleh isn’t so much interested in New York bragging rights, but can’t wait to see his group go up against another…it just so happens it’ll come against Joe Judge’s gang.

“I think every NFL team is ready to see somebody else,” Saleh said this week, per notes from the Jets. “We’re sick of each other, we’re sick of seeing the same defense, we’re sick of seeing the same offense. They’re ready to see a different color and they’re ready to go against different schemes and be challenged in different ways. It’s going to be fun, I’m excited for the group.”

Lately, bragging rights amongst each other in a meaningless summer exhibition have the only thing Jets and Giants fans have had to celebrate. Neither team has made a playoff appearance since the end of the 2016 season. The 10th anniversary celebration of the Giants’ Super Bowl XLVI triumph comes with the bittersweet reminder that the upset win over New England is the metropolitan area’s most recent NFL postseason win.

But the redemptive naivety of the NFL preseason is that everyone goes in undefeated and undeterred. Win the game, and happy times are ahead. Losses can be blamed and excused on the idea that it’s “only preseason”.

While the Giants are holding most of their premier talents out of Saturday’s game, the Jets are set to put on a youthful showcase. Even the most stubborn Gang Green hater can admit that there is legitimate potential behind this team, headlined by the arrival of new franchise quarterback Zach Wilson.

The Jets spent this offseason doing what they could to make sure his NFL transition was as seamless as possible, bringing in receivers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole, who will likely see some time on Saturday. Draft choices Alijah Vera-Tucker and Elijah Moore aren’t expected to partake, but have nonetheless offered optimism. The hire of Saleh has also received universal acclaim.

“There’s a whole new vibe to this team from the front office to the new quarterback and the new ‘toys’ sprinkled throughout the offense and defense,” Meleka said. “It feels like the Jets fans have more to look forward to in this game, especially since Wilson is slated for the first quarter while (Giants quarterback Daniel Jones) is out. More specifically, the new coaching staff and the new schemes on both sides of the ball finally give these Jets players an opportunity to make a name for themselves and begin their journey to solidifying a spot on the 53-man roster.”

“So far, the atmosphere around the Jets has been nothing but excitement for the future of the franchise with Coach Saleh and all their young studs: Moore, Wilson, and (linebacker Hamsah) Nasirildeen,” Strum added. “Jets Nation will definitely be fired up for some preseason action against the local rival team.”

Time will tell if more restrictions lay on the road ahead as the Delta variant remains stubborn. But for the time being, provided that fans remain vigilant and use their best judgment, it’s fine to view Saturday’s game at its surface: a welcome back to a frivolous, if not cherished, Garden State tradition, a landmark in the battle against the hated pandemic.

“It is definitely fitting that football returns to New Jersey in Jets vs. Giants fashion. Although a meaningless game to some, this game, gives me a little bit of hope that the end of the pandemic is in sight and will be a milestone for how far we have come from the beginning of the pandemic until now.” Strum said. “Although I’m a little nervous with the new Delta variant going around, I am definitely excited to feel the atmosphere of thousands of screaming fans cheering on their team, the smell of food cooking on the grill before the game, some J-E-T-S chants with fellow Jets fans in the parking lot.”

True to football form, however, he’s not letting a joint celebration get in the way of a little good, old-fashion metropolitan smack talk.

“I might have to thank some of them for letting Elijah Moore fall to us in the second round.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags