New York Jets fans are set to be welcomed back to MetLife Stadium this fall. Can they expect any primetime games? ESM investigates…
The New York Jets learned of a major offseason acquisition late Monday morning.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced on WFAN’s Moose and Maggie program that MetLife Stadium would welcome fans at a 15 percent capacity rate starting March 1. Social distancing will likely be enacted, but Murphy hinted that the percentage could rise as football season approaches.
Jets fans will doubt relish their first opportunity to spell out the team’s name, especially with new head coach Robert Saleh in tow, as well as some potential new faces through both surplus cap space and draft picks.
In celebration of the spectators’ upcoming return, ESM looks ahead on the eight teams set to visit East Rutherford’s green setting this season and ponders their potential primetime posting…
1. Buffalo Bills
The annual Bills-Jets pair used to be Thursday night fodder, a matchup to fill primetime quota for each team. But with the Bills capturing the hearts of many in the Empire State, a rivalry could be brewing for the Jets to keep their territory. Last season, Buffalo earned their first sweep in the series since 2015…a year best known for the time they ended the Jets’ last realistic shot at the postseason.
2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Just when the Jets thought the Tom Brady problem was over, the arguable GOAT returns to a green MetLife Stadium in 2021. The rivalry between Brady and the Jets, who inadvertently gave life to his NFL journey in 2001, has often resembled that of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, with Brady owning a 30-8 record against Gang Green. The quadrennial meeting between Tampa and New York has produced some thrillers in the past. Wayne Chrebet and Curtis Martin silenced Keyshawn Johnson with some game-winning trickery in 2000, while Nick Folk booted a late 48-yarder to win the last MetLife meeting in 2013 (Geno Smith’s first NFL start).
3. New England Patriots
National networks have, for whatever reason, taken a liking to the Jets-Patriots rivalry. Even with the allure of Brady gone, last season’s get-together at MetLife earned the Monday night treatment for the second straight season. The networks could be willing to revisit this matchup with each team chasing Buffalo and potentially featuring a new quarterback matchup.
4. Jacksonville Jaguars
Last season, such a meeting between New York and Jacksonville could’ve served as the de facto play-in game for the top spot in this spring’s NFL Draft. But a meeting between the top two picks, potentially a Sugar Bowl rematch between Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields, could draw the attention of the league’s national TV partners. Sam Darnold and Baker Mayfield notably did battle on a Thursday night during their rookie year in 2018 (though Mayfield did not start the game).
5. Miami Dolphins
Miami proved last season that it wasn’t quite ready for primetime, though networks tend to flirt with divisional matchups. An extra layer of intrigue could be added if one of these rivals convinces the stubborn Texans to trade Deshaun Watson.
6. Cincinnati Bengals
If Joe Burrow is ready to go, networks could be attracted to 2020’s top overall draft pick engaging in a battle with 2021’s number two, especially if it’s also a quarterback.
7. Tennessee Titans
There could be some attraction to this matchup due to the Titans’ status as defending AFC South champions could draw some viewers, but without much history between these squads, there’s little national appeal.
8. New Orleans Saints
The same problems that befall the Tennesse tilt could apply with this matchup, and the interconference setting certainly doesn’t help matters.
Matt DiBenedetto’s immediate NASCAR future is secure. But such temporary stability could set the tone for the rest of his NASCAR career.
2021 Wood Brothers Racing Driver Chart
Founded by brothers Leonard and the late Glen, Wood Brothers Racing has been a NASCAR Cup Series staple since the 1950s. Though the team has yet to secure an elusive championship, some of auto racing’s most illustrious, most accomplished names have piloted their trademark No. 21 Ford. Winners with the Woods include Cale Yarborough, A.J. Foyt, Donnie Allison, David Pearson, Neil Bonnett, and Dale Jarrett. The team has accrued 99 NASCAR Cup Series victories, the last coming with Ryan Blaney in 2017. Among that tally is five wins at the Daytona 500, with the most recent in that slot being Trevor Bayne’s upset win in the 2011 edition. Only Petty Enterprises and Hendrick Motorsports have won more. Though the team has struggled in modern times, Blaney and current driver Matt DiBenedetto have brought them back into contention. Blaney’s victory, earned at Pocono, was the first Wood win at a non-superspeedway race since 2001 (Elliott Sadler at Bristol) while DiBenedetto was the first non-Blaney driver to earn double-digit top tens finishes (11) since Michael Waltrip in 1996. The team now holds a technical alliance with Team Penske, where Blaney currently drives the No. 12 Ford.
2020 in Review
Taking over the No. 21 from a retiring Paul Menard, DiBenedetto continued his successful climb through the cutthroat world of the Cup Series after placing the No. 95 Toyota at defunct Leavine Family Racing in the top ten seven times during the 2019 campaign. The 11 top tens were a career-best for the driver affectionately referred to as “Matty D”, who posted runner-up finishes in both Las Vegas events, as well as a third at Kentucky. Though a win proved elusive once more, DiBenedetto reached the NASCAR playoffs for the first time in his career, allowing him to come home 13th in the final standings…yet another career-best. DiBenedetto is still seeking his first NASCAR victory, though he did the All-Star Open at Bristol over the summer to gain entry into the exhibition’s main event. He nearly earned that victory at Talladega’s fall event, but Denny Hamlin stole the trophy while DiBenedetto’s runner-up finish was erased due to a controversial penalty (driving below the yellow line) relegating him to 21st.
Though his playoff showing ended rather quickly, DiBenedetto was signed to a one-year extension by the Woods, though he will vacate the ride next season to make room for Penske developmental driver and defending Xfinity Series champion Austin Cindric.
Meet the Driver
Experience: 7th season Career Cup Victories: 0 2020 finish: 13th Best standings finish: 13th (2020)
It’s not surprising that DiBenedetto has gained a strong following during his NASCAR career. Rarely granted opportunities in strong equipment..save for seven races in Joe Gibbs’ Nationwide (now Xfinity) program in 2009-10…DiBenedetto has made the most of his chances in underfunded rides. He was responsible for defunct BK Racing’s best finish (6th at Bristol in 2016) and currently owns the lone top-ten Go Fas Racing’s No. 32 has achieved at a non-superspeedway (8th at Indianapolis in 2017). During the 2019 Bristol summer race, the victorious Hamlin said he was “sorry” for passing DiBenedetto’s No. 95 with 12 laps to go.
DiBenedetto has said the the confidence built over the past few seasons has offset the uncertainty looming after 2021.
“We’re ready as a team,” DiBenedetto said in preparation for Daytona. “The first bit of last year I don’t think we were ready to win because we had a lot to learn, we had a lot to learn about each other, and then it finally clicked like I was talking about and then I felt like we were ready…The best car doesn’t always win, so I think we are ready to put ourselves in position consistently to win and I think that’s how it’s gonna come for us and I feel like this year is definitely our year.”
Adding to DiBenedetto’s confidence is his strong finish to 2020. Had the Talladega runner-up posting remained, his average finish over the last seven races would’ve been 9.1.
The time appears to be now for DiBenedetto. It might be a crushing hit for the No. 21 that one of the Bristol events has been bestowed the unpredictability of dirt, but there’s enough momentum with his team to get things rolling on a more consistent basis. It’s great that DiBenedetto worked his way into the playoffs last year (the second time a WBR vehicle made it), but he may need to both earn that elusive victory and advance a playoff round to maintain the decent equipment he’s working with. Since the No. 21 is being turned over to Cindric next year, this season serves as a de facto 36-race elevator pitch for Matty D.
SHR’s NASCAR dominance went unrewarded at both the Cup and the Xfinity Series levels. They’re seeking revenge and even more wins in 2021.
2021 Stewart-Haas Racing Driver Chart
Busch/Mobil 1/Hunt Brothers Pizza
Chase Briscoe (R)
Haas Automation/Dixie Vodka
Two-time Cup Series champion Tony Stewart united with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas in 2009. Haas, formerly a collaborator with Hendrick Motorsports, had been running a full-time team since 2003 but was struggling to find traction. Stewart joined him in co-ownership and, under the new name of Stewart-Haas Racing, joined the team alongside Ryan Newman. Driving the team’s No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart won his third and final Cup Series championship in 2011. Three seasons after, Kevin Harvick joined the team in the No. 4, formerly occupied by Newman under No. 39 branding. Harvick would win five races and earn his first Cup title that same year.
The team has raced Fords from the 2017 season onward. Stewart vacated the No. 14 the year before, giving way to Clint Bowyer for the last four seasons. Bowyer has since retired and will join Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon in the Fox Sports booth. The team’s No. 10 car, introduced in 2012, was driven for six seasons by Danica Patrick before Aric Almirola’s arrival. Elsewhere, the No. 41 arrived two years later and was driven by Kurt Busch and Daniel Suarez before Cole Custer’s takeover last season.
2020 in Review
The 2007 New England Patriots. The 2015-16 Golden State Warriors. Kevin Harvick’s 2020 endeavors.
These dominant efforts all went for naught, as the more controversial side of the NASCAR playoffs came to light when Harvick, the winner of a series-best nine races last season, wasn’t one of the four championship contenders at the championship race in Phoenix. His last two wins came in playoff events at Darlington and Bristol, but consecutive finishes outside the top-ten in the Round of 8’s latter stages doomed him to elimination.
As a whole, the 2020 season was a bit of a roller-coaster for SHR. Beyond Harvick’s efforts, Almirola was at least consistent, finishing in the top ten in nine consecutive races drummer the summer stretch. No wins followed, however, and he was eliminated after the Round of 12. Bowyer’s swan song was respectable, ending in a playoff berth after a runner-up finish in the spring Bristol race. Custer’s Cup debut was a bit of a disappointment, but he managed to steal a win at Kentucky, along with the playoff spot and Rookie of the Year title that came with it. He was eliminated after the first round.
Meet the Drivers
Experience: 21st season Career Cup Victories: 58 (last: fall Bristol, 2020) 2020 finish: 5th Best standings finish: 2014 Champion
If anything, last season simply made Harvick a stone-cold lock for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Harvick’s Cup Series career began under the most harrowing of circumstances. It was he, after all, who was called upon to take over Dale Earnhardt’s car when The Intimidator tragically passed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. Prior to last season, he finished no worse than third in the final standings in eight of the last ten seasons. His Truck Series squad had also taken home two championships with circuit legend Ron Hornaday Jr. behind the wheel.
But, despite the lack of a championship at the end, 2020 may go down as Harvick’s greatest accomplishment yet. The way he dominated the circuit in a time where on-track preparation and adjustments were at an ultimate premium was extraordinary. The history was likely no consolation to Harvick, however, and that just makes this No. 4 team all the more dangerous in the future.
Last season’s win tally allowed Harvick to enter the top ten in the Cup Series’ all-time wins ledger. Up next on the list? Earnhardt at 76.
Experience: 10th full season Career Cup Victories: 2 (last: fall Talladega, 2018) 2020 finish: 15th Best standings finish: 5th (2018)
After wallowing in racing purgatory over at Richard Petty Motorsports, Almirola has been consistent since being granted stronger equipment at SHR. He has reached the playoffs in each of his three seasons behind the No. 10 and came home fifth in the 2018 standings. But when are expectations allowed to be raised? Almirola felt primed for a breakout at numerous points last season. He had remarkably strong luck in terms of starting position during the random draw portions and led a career-best 305 laps this season. Yet, Almirola remains mired in a 77-race win drought. SHR renewed his contract last season, but Almirola wants to kickstart things to a higher level.
“So far, I’ve been able to have some success (but) I still want more,” Almirola said prior to the playoffs last season. “I still have a burning desire to win more races, lead more laps, and ultimately win a championship…so far, we’ve been successful…I feel like we have the potential. We’ve been all around it, we just haven’t put it all together to win races, but we’ve been so close. We’ve led a lot of laps. We’ve run top five a lot and when you do those things, typically you’ll find yourself in victory lane, so maybe the Good Lord is just making me be patient.”
Experience: 1st season (No prior Cup starts) Career Cup Victories: N/A 2020 finish: N/A Best standings finish: N/A
Much like his new teammate Harvick, Briscoe saw a dominant season go for naught, his own misfortune coming on the Xfinity Series level. Driving SHR’s No. 98 Ford, Briscoe won a circuit-record nine races but failed to take the championship at Phoenix. The most memorable victory came at Darlington in May, when Briscoe held off two-time Cup Series champion Kyle Busch for the win in the Xfinity Series’ return from the coronavirus-induced pause. Briscoe’s victory came shortly after his wife Marissa suffered a miscarriage.
Briscoe will now replace the retired Bowyer in the No. 14 Ford, a dream come true for the 2016 ARCA champion. As an Indiana youth, Briscoe was a die-hard fan of Stewart, taking in his endeavors from the 14 car from afar. Now, it’s Briscoe’s to command on race days.
“The goal and dream was always the 14 car, but I don’t think it was always necessarily believable that it was going to happen the way it all worked out,” Briscoe said in October. “I truly care about that number and the history of that number going from AJ Foyt to Tony and even Clint. There is a lot of pride in that number being a dirt guy and drive that car and drive for Stewart-Haas. It is still unbelievable.”
Experience: 2nd full season Career Cup Victories: 1 (last: Kentucky, 2020) 2020 finish: 16th Best standings finish: 16th (2020)
Custer’s Rookie of the Year award wasn’t received well by some, as many noted that Tyler Reddick was the more consistent first-year man. But Custer was the only victory lane visitor with a yellow stripe on the back of his car, earning him the ROTY award. The shocker in Kentucky, NASCAR’s final visit to the Bluegrass State for the foreseeable future, did come during a short summer surge for Custer. Prior to the win, he posted his first career top five at Indianapolis and followed the triumph up with consecutive top tens after some bad luck in the immediate aftermath. Nonetheless, there’s going to be a bit of a target on this team’s back moving forward to perform on a more consistent basis.
There’s little doubt that Harvick is going to insert himself in the championship picture. The only question is how many races he’ll take along the way. Almirola is also a potential playoff shoo-in but he needs to focus on getting back to victory lane, perhaps multiple times. Briscoe shouldn’t face too many obstacles in winning Rookie of the Year (his only competition, for the time being, is Anthony Alfredo in the underfunded No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford), so he can focus on keeping the No. 14 competitive in the post-Bowyer era. If Custer can’t make it back to the winner’s circle this season, placing the car in the top 20 in points would be a goal to be proud of.
Team Penske accounted for half of the NASCAR Cup Series’ final four title contenders, but they feel they can do better.
2021 Team Penske Driver Chart
Advance Auto Parts/BodyArmour/Menards
Austin Cindric (part-time)
Well regarded for his endeavors at both the NASCAR and open-wheel levels, Roger Penske’s first trek into the former came in 1972. After moderate success with Bobby Allison throughout the 1970s (four wins and a pair of fourth-place finishes), Penske left the sport after the 1980 season but returned 11 years later to enjoy prosperity through the “Blue Deuce”. Back by sponsorship from Miller Lite and the talents of 1989 champion Rusty Wallace, the No. 2 Ford won 36 races between 1991 and 2001. During that time, Penske opened a second car, the No. 12, driven by Jeremy Mayfield (1998-2001) and later Ryan Newman (2002-08). A third car began racing in 2004, becoming the No. 22 seven years later.
Wallace retired after the 2005 season, leaving the No. 2 to fellow Cup champion Kurt Busch. Former Hendrick Motorsports protege Brad Keselowski ventured over to the No. 2 in 2011 and brought home the organization’s first Cup championship the year after. Another transfer, Joey Logano from Joe Gibbs Racing, brought the title back to Penske six years later in the No. 22.
2020 in Review
One of the most-discussed transactions in NASCAR last season was the great crew chief swap at Team Penske, Jeremy Bullins, Todd Gordon, and Paul Wolfe all moving to different pit boxes. All things considered, the gambit paid off, especially in a season where on-track activities were mostly limited to the race itself.
Logano won two of the first four races of the 2020 season at Las Vegas and Phoenix before the coronavirus-induced pause put things on hold. Once things rebooted, it took a while for Logano to regain his form, but Ryan Blaney took the June race at Talladega while Keselowski won at Charlotte, Bristol, and New Hampshire, allowing all three Penske cars entry into the playoffs.
While Blaney was eliminated after the first round, Keselowski won a playoff race at Richmond and finished no worse than sixth in the three-race semifinal. Logano regained his championship and advanced to title contention at Phoenix with a win at Kansas (also winning that venue’s summer event). The No. 22 would lead all but two of the first 119 laps at the finale, but the Penske duo proved to be no match for champion Chase Elliott. Keselowski was the runner-up while Logano came home third.
Meet the Drivers
Experience: 12th full season Career Cup Victories: 34 (last: Richmond, fall 2020) 2020 finish: 2nd Best standings finish: 2012 champion
Keselowski has quietly amassed quite the ledger since the 2016 season. He has won at least three races in each of the five seasons and has been in contention for the championship twice in that span. True to form in terms of showing up when it “matters”, Keselowski noted to the media this week that, after winning the 600-mile event in Charlotte last year, he has victories in each of NASCAR’s supposed “crown jewel” races…with the exception of the season-opening Daytona 500. The others are considered to be at Charlotte, Darlington, Indianapolis, and Talladega.
“I’m one crown jewel away from having them all, which is really cool and special for me,” he said. “It means a lot to me personally, so that’s definitely on the list is trying to get Daytona to come together and not get wrecked, but I think the team is pretty good and really happy with a lot of people I’m working with. Jeremy has got an incredible attitude that is really healthy for our team and it was a really fresh, new challenge for me personally last year. I still have hunger and eagerness to achieve more results and that opportunity is coming up real quick here in the next few weeks, so nothing is taken for granted. Everything has to be earned.”
Keselowski’s fate was one of the most talked-about rumors in NASCAR last season, as many felt he was destined to return to Hendrick Motorsports to take over the No. 48 Chevrolet that Jimmie Johnson was set to leave behind. But Keselowski re-upped with Penske for at least another year and there’s little to suggest that the relationship has deteriorated. Keselowski was particularly enthused by his relationship with Logano, as the two have collaborated in each of the last nine seasons.
“He immediately made me a better driver with a number of weaknesses I had,” Keselowski said of Logano. “I don’t think I was a very good qualifier. The things I was doing on the plate tracks some were good and some were bad, and he taught me a few good habits. He definitely made me up my game on restarts, so overall I think he’s made me better and I would hope that he would feel the same way that I challenged him to be better in other ways. So, I think that’s ultimately what would be your goal, is that you would have two teammates that make each other better.”
Experience: 6th full season Career Cup Victories: 4 (last: summer Talladega, 2020) 2020 finish: 9th Best standings finish: 7th (2019)
It’s hard to complain about Blaney’s Cup Series career. The son of sprint car legend Dave, Blaney’s first win ended Wood Brothers Racing’s 16-year winless drought at non-superspeedway tracks. Last season, his win allowed him to become the first driver to win consecutive races at Talladega since Jeff Gordon swept the 2007 set (also becoming the first Ford representative to pull it off since Buddy Baker in 1975). He led a career-best 668 laps last season, good for seventh in the Cup Series and just ahead of defending champion Kyle Busch. But Blaney struggled throughout the summer, earning only a single top five finish in the 13 races after Talladega. Those struggles followed him into the postseason, and he was a surprise first-round elimination. Blaney did manage to close things on a strong note, earning top tens in all but one of the last seven races (including a runner-up at the penultimate race at Martinsville).
Blaney knows that it’s time to show more, especially if he wants to solidify his status as one of the faces of NASCAR.
“I’m 27. It’s time to get rolling here and winning multiple races throughout the season and try to make it to the (final four),” Blaney said. “That’s something I haven’t done yet, so it’s definitely time to step up and I think we have all the right tools in place to do so, it’s just about applying all of them and really capitalizing on moments. Great athletes and great players, they capitalize on big moments. That’s just what we have to put in our heads and put in our minds.”
Experience: 12th full season Career Cup Victories: 26 (last: fall Kansas, 2020) 2020 finish: 3rd Best standings finish: 2018 Champion
It feels like only yesterday that Logano entered the Cup Series with the nickname “Sliced Bread”. The Middletown, Connecticut native has more or less lived up to the hype behind such a name, winning the 2018 title and finishing no worse than fifth in each of the last three seasons.
Logano is ready to race “anything” as he goes into his 12th season on the full-time circuit. The biggest change in his repertoire has been his on-track confidence, which he spoke about in detail earlier this week. He’s also thankful for the tough times that have gotten him to this point in his career.
“As a younger driver or someone coming in, I went through (tough times) where I got my butt kicked and came in very confident thinking I was gonna be the man and then quickly realized I was not even the boy,” he said. “I was in trouble and being able to kind of overcome that has really helped me a lot now. I’m glad I’ve gone through that. Those are the experiences that I absolutely love that I had because it’s made me into who I am today, but in the moment it’s hard. It’s not fun, but it makes you stronger for sure.”
Austin Cindric (part-time)
Experience: 1st season (No previous Cup Series starts) Career Cup Victories: N/A 2020 finish: N/A Best standings finish: N/A
Penske will field a part-time third car for Cindric, the defending Xfinity Series champion. Cindric will protect his title in Penske’s No. 22 Ford before joining the Penske-affiliated Wood Brothers in 2022.
While Cindric’s full schedule is subject to change, he will definitely attempt to reach the Daytona 500 through the 150-mile qualifying events on February 11, three days before the engines fire for the main event. Cindric won’t be the only talented name fighting for a spot. He’ll be joined by fellow Xfinity finalist Noah Gragson and former Truck Series runner-up Ty Dillon, all while preparing for the 300-mile Xfinity opener on the same weekend.
“I think you always as a race car driver, whether you have a good year, a bad year, or the best year, you have to continue to better yourself whatever that level is because everyone else around you is gonna keep stepping that up,” Cindric said of his 2021 goals. “I have some great opportunities to run some Cup races and get a taste for what it means to race against the best, because ultimately that’s what I want to be one day, is to race against the best and the best of the best.”
Keselowski and Logano will be constant contenders in 2021 and no one would be surprised if they reprised their roles in the final four. The real wild card is going to be Blaney, and if he can take the next step in his development. Winning multiple races, preferably prior to the playoffs, would be a great display of power, and there are high hopes he can do it relatively early. Blaney was the runner-up in last season’s Daytona 500 and placed third at Homestead-Miami, the site of the third event of the year.
It was the least of our worries, but New York sports took a beating in 2020. These dates in 2021 could be steps in the right direction.
2020 has come and (finally) gone…now what?
Defeatist as the naysayers may be, they’re right in the fact that our problems don’t immediately disappear in 2021r. It’s the least of our issues at this point in time…and, frankly, that probably applies on an eternal basis…but the axiom applies for New York’s major sports teams. Any hint of good juju will do in these trying times, but every team knows they have work to do that won’t be accomplished with a mere calendar flip. However, there are plenty of names giving us hope and excitement, and the 2021 ledger has plenty of days as well that could help this area’s athletic programs turn the corner and get back in the right direction.
These seven days could win up changing everything…
(unscheduled events, like the WNBA Draft, Buffalo Bills wild card game, etc. are not included due to lack of date)
January 14: Islanders-Rangers open at MSG
Critics have remarked that, in addition to their current woes, the modern New York sports teams don’t much hope for the future. The New York Rangers seemed to be a welcome counterargument through a rebuilding process that netted them (pun intended) two elite scorers (Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad) and heir to Henrik Lundqvist in Igor Shesterkin. The Rangers had to bid farewell to several friendly faces in the process (including Lundqvist, Mats Zuccarello, and Derek Stepan) but reloaded with a strong prospect pool. Their uncanny ability to move up through the draft ranks thanks to the bounce of the ping-pong ball also saw Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière don blue.
But their biggest rivals through a bit of a wrench into the good feelings with a length playoff run that ended two wins away from their first Stanley Cup final appearance since 1983. Under head coach Barry Trotz, the Islanders have won playoff series in consecutive years for the first time since that magic Cup run in the 1980s. John Tavares has been quickly forgotten, with the new Islander core led by homegrown talents Mathew Barzal, Josh Bailey, and Brock Nelson. Washington Capitals alum Semyon Varlamov has manned the pipes, forming a strong veteran platoon with Thomas Griess.
With the 2021 NHL season set to get underway this month, the battle for New York ice recommences at Madison Square Garden, the latest struggle serving as the season opener for both teams. The last get-together was one for the ages from a Rangers standpoint, as they took the gritty tilt in a 4-3 final, with Zibanejad scoring on a one-timer from Panarin 28 seconds into a 3-on-3 overtime session.
January 18: Islanders Battle for Respect vs. Boston
With the opening faceoff approaching, you’d almost never think that the Islanders were one of the final four teams battling for the Stanley Cup last season. The preseason accolades in the Eastern Conference include the usual suspects (Tampa Bay, Boston, Washington), many have pegged the Islanders as afterthoughts who may miss the playoffs entirely. Their temporary divisional settings, made to minimize travel, are packed with matchups against dangerous competition. That includes a whopping eight matchups with Boston, who joins what was essentially the Metropolitan division this season.
While the Islanders may have to wait a year to take revenge on the defending champion Tampa Bay Lightning, they have a big chance to make an early statement against the Bruins at Nassau Coliseum. Boston took two-of-three meetings last season, with the Islanders’ win coming in shootout fashion last December.
February 18: Nets @ Lakers
Just before 2020 took away sports, the Brooklyn Nets walked into Staples Center and stole a 104-102 decision from a Los Angeles Lakers team that was seven months away from championship glory. Brooklyn did so without Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, and a full-time head coach, having parted ways with Kenny Atkinson three days prior. Spencer Dinwiddie drained the game-winning jumper with 28 seconds remaining.
Brooklyn’s return trip could be a potential NBA Finals preview with both teams firing out of the gate in the early going. It will also mark the first meeting between Durant and LeBron James since Christmas 2018, when James and the Lakers torched Durant’s Golden State Warriors in a 127-101 final. The battle between Durant and James for the Western Conference title came to an end shortly after, as James’ season was never the same after an injury he sustained shortly after.
April 1: The Cohen Era Begins
Mets fans have waited a long time for some long-term, consistent hope for this franchise. They believe that new owner Steve Cohen can finally provide it. In his brief time at the New York helm, Cohen has shown a willingness to splurge on name-brand talent, thus far adding catcher James McCann to their arsenal.
The Mets’ first game under Cohen’s watch comes on April 1 against the Washington Nationals, the defending champions under a full-season setting. Both the Mets and Nationals are looking for redemption after the shortened campaign, the pair uniting for the NL East cellar with matching 26-34 records last season.
April 21: NFL Draft
Both metropolitan football squads will have major decisions to make when the NFL convenes in Cleveland (hopefully in person) for its annual selection proceedings. Following the Sugar Bowl semifinal in New Orleans, the Jets will be situated in the middle of one of the most intriguing quarterback debates in recent memory, as they’ll likely choose between Justin Fields or Trevor Lawrence at the top of the draft board. Of course, this will come after the Jets make a decision on their current throw Sam Darnold…could they be persuaded to take another blocker or a receiving weapon instead?
Meanwhile, the Giants are in a most uncanny position, one that partially depends on how they do on Sunday afternoon against the Dallas Cowboys (1 p.m. ET, Fox). They could either be defending NFC East champions or hitting the clock third on draft day. Do they stick with Daniel Jones, or perhaps take a waiver on BYU’s Zach Wilson? Will general manager Dave Gettleman still be around to oversee it? Either way, the decisions each team makes on this day will affect their respective futures for years to come.
May 4: The Astros (Finally) visit The Bronx
Time will tell just if the handling of the ongoing health crisis will allow fans to return to Yankee Stadium. Even if they’re welcomed back on a limited basis, the top game to attend on everyone’s list would likely be the Houston Astros’ first visit.
Much was made about MLB’s response…or lack thereof…to the Astros’ sign-stealing operation. While the Astros got an earful from opposing fans upon visits to spring training facilities, they were shielded from jeers in the regular season by public health restrictions. Even if only a limited group is allowed into Yankee Stadium by the time May rolls around, one can guarantee that they’ll make their prescience felt when the hated Astros come by. Houston may have taken the past two series matchups with the Yankees, taking the ALCS from them in 2017 and 2019, but most of their wins have come within the confines of Minute Maid Park. In those playoff meetings, the Astros were 2-4 in The Bronx. It also mark a reunion between the Astros and Gerrit Cole, now the Yankees ace after inking a $324 million contract in New York.
July 2: The Subway Series Arrives
Cohen’s purchase and splurging in Queens has raised a question in the Big Apple…is the city becoming a Mets town? The Yankees have been consistent over the past few seasons, currently working on a four-year postseason streak that has seen them advance at least one round in each visit. But that seems to be the major issue: the Yankees appear to be complacent with just that: meaningful games in September and October, rather than championship rings. The Cole signing notwithstanding, numerous free agents have slipped through the Yankees’ grip, and their most consistent hitter in this process, DJ LeMahieu, remains a free agent.
The Mets will have a chance to show how far they’ve come during Cohen’s first Subway Series set, which will be staged on Independence Day weekend at Yankee Stadium. Small as it may seem on a national scale, clinching the Subway Series could do a lot for them from a personal standpoint. Queens hasn’t outright won the annual sets since 2013, though things have ended in a tie four times in that span (including the past three).
The New York Jets have decisions to make at quarterback. A stopgap can provide welcome stability if they move on from Sam Darnold.
Well-meaning parents who purchased their children New York Jets jerseys bearing Trevor Lawrence’s name for the December holidays have some explaining to do.
The Jets’ endeavor for Trevor is more than likely over after Sunday, as a combination of a New York win and the Jacksonville Jaguars’ 14th consecutive defeat sent the top overall pick in this spring’s draft to Duval County. Considering the Jaguars (1-14) opted to play Mike Glennon in place of Gardner Minshew for their 41-17 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Bears, it’s more or less assured that they’re planning to select the Clemson thrower set to partake in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Sugar Bowl on Friday night (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Even if the Jets (2-13) landed the top overall choice…a scenario rendered impossible by their pair of December wins and the strength of schedule tiebreaker…there was going to be debate over whether they should use it on Lawrence or entrust another year to incumbent starter Sam Darnold. With nearly three stanzas completed, the narrative of Darnold’s New York saga is a complicated one. It has been defined by the occasional flash of brilliance too often countered with head-scratching decisions on the field. The story has also been interrupted by calamities that are either an unfortunate part of the game (injuries) or something most go quarterbacks go through their whole career without seeing (mononucleosis). Missing four games with a shoulder ailment hasn’t helped, but Darnold is on pace to set new career lows in most major passing categories, including yards (currently at 1,942) and touchdown passes (8).
Countless amounts of turnover have like played a role in Darnold’s lack of progress. His crucial developmental years have been staged in not only the Todd Bowles-to-Adam Gase staff transition, but the general manager swap from Mike Maccagnan to Joe Douglas. Nothing drives the point of unstable turnover than the fact that no receiver (with the exception of tight end Chris Herndon) from Darnold’s rookie campaign (2018) remains on the current Jets’ roster. The Jets may be ready to make yet another coaching change with Gase’s win percentage (.290) besting only Rich Kotite amongst green head coaches with at least one full year at the helm.
Tempting as it may be to see what Darnold could do with a new coaching staff (provided Gase is indeed dealt his walking papers), a legal separation, one perhaps involving a trade for draft picks, may be the best for all parties involved. The Jets don’t have time to help pen anyone else’s redemption story…they’ve spent a decade trying to write their own…and Darnold deserves a place that isn’t relying on him to be a one-size-fits-all solution.
If 2020 has proven anything, it’s that the Jets are far removed from being “a quarterback away’ from mere relevancy, much less the Super Bowl. This is a team with many needs, and it’s not fair to Darnold, Lawrence, or an unknown, young third party to expect them to be the savior sought since Joe Namath hung up his green and white paraphernalia for the last time. Even if the Jets are poised to miss out on Lawrence, the 2021 draft has provided solid consolation prizes in the form of Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, and Kyle Trask.
But what if the Jets took a year off from the franchise quarterback process?
Such a concept has been on the rise in recent years, the phenomenon informally labeled as using a “stopgap” quarterback. Through this endeavor, a talented quarterback helps the team in question keep rolling while other needs are addressed and developed.
The stopgap, as his name implies, is not meant to be the starter for any extended period of time. Rather, they arise out of necessity or in case of emergency. Oftentimes, the stopgap is called upon to clean up the mess or void a retired or departing franchise quarterback left behind. Modern examples on the 2020 circuit include Phillip Rivers in Indianapolis and Cam Newton in New England. Sometines, the stopgap manages to extend his stay. Modern Tom Brady could arguably be seen as a stopgap in Tampa Bay, as the Buccaneers sought his services to capitalize on a strong team around him in plans to make the most of a window of contentions. The Tennessee Titans perhaps envisioned Ryan Tannehill, fresh off a polarizing stint as Miami’s franchise man, as a temporary solution when they pulled the plug on the Marcus Mariota experiment. Tannehill helped guide the Titans to a pair of surprise playoffs wins and was rewarded with the Comeback Player of the Year Award and a four-extension.
A similar plan could work out for the Jets, a team working on a playoff game drought that’s older than all but two movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The most important thing the Jets need right now is stability. They’re a team venturing off the football rails, where even a mere winning record has proven elusive. This is a squad that needs to get back to a place where a win isn’t the worst thing that can happen to the franchise, as many have declared after the Jets stole wins from playoff contenders in Los Angeles and Cleveland. This isn’t a scenario like the Indianapolis Colts had in 2012, when Andrew Luck turned a two-win squad into a playoff team. The Jets don’t have a plethora of reliable veterans to help the kid, unlike Indianapolis’ haul of Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, and Adam Vinatieri, among others.
There’s a light at the end of the green tunnel in the form of 2021 cap space. The Jets’ offseason bank currently stands at just over $81 million, once again trailing only Jacksonville. This season, particularly a strong December, has yielded some potential building blocks (Mekhi Becton, Denzel Mims, Quinnen Williams, Marcus Maye among them), but the Jets are far from a completed project. They still need blocking and weaponry on offense while the defense needs help in the secondary. The pass rush also needs to be bolstered with matchups against Josh Allen on the horizon for the next decade, and their kicking situation needs clarity. It’s not fair to waste further development on Darnold on a situation like this, nor is this any condition in which to subject a top overall pick. As the Jets try to find their footing, a stopgap man could work wonders. A short-term deal is feasible in this cap space surplus, filling one need while diverting attention to more long-term goals. Draft picks obtained from a potential trade of Darnold can be used to net weaponry that can be overseen by a proven throwing option.
Whereas the draft class may loaded with franchise potential, 2021’s free agency class is laden with stopgap potential. Jacoby Brissett had a strong showing in filling the gap between Luck and Rivers last season and would potentially seek a new chance to return to starting duties. Andy Dalton has kept the Dallas Cowboys in contention for the NFC East title since taking over for the injured Dak Prescott. The Jets may even have a stopgap option on their roster in the form of Joe Flacco. Super Bowl XLVII’s MVP may be facing the twilight of his career, but showed that he did have some gas left in the tank while filling in for an injured Darnold earlier this season.
The Jets’ most recent glory days…or the closest thing resembling them in this dreary decade…have come with stopgap guys under center. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 2015 season appears at or near the top of nearly every single-season passing record in the Jets’ record book. Fitzpatrick (as well as fellow free-agent-to-be Tyrod Taylor, who helped end the Buffalo Bills’ eternal playoff drought before Josh Allen arrived) has nearly made a career out of the concept and currently serves in such a capacity in Miami on a part-time basis as they bide their time with Tua Tagovailoa.
Two years later, Josh McCown kept the Jets competitive in a year some expected them to go winless. The final ledger read 5-11, but McCown’s brief restablization kept them in ball games.
Of course, the Jets have plenty of time to rectify their current surroundings to make them more desireable to an incoming franchise quarterback. If offseason funds are spent wisely (i.e. adding a strong receiving talent like Allen Robinson or JuJu Smith-Schuster), the idea of a stopgap man could seem almost laughable. For all we know, Darnold could emerge to pilot his fourth straight kickoff weekend for the Jets, hopefully one packed to the brim with fans this time around. But the stopgap conversation is one the Jets shouldn’t ignore this offseason.
Whatever the Jets have been trying in the franchise quarterback department, it’s clearly not working. Maybe some change would do them some good…if only temporarily.
The 36-race tally and 500-mile opener at Daytona notwithstanding, the NASCAR Cup Series’ 2021 schedule bears little resemblance to its predecessor.
NASCAR unveiled next year’s slate on Wednesday, featuring three courses making their Cup Series debut and a pair of renowned auto racing landmarks undergoing a special makeover. The five new races are the most added to a Cup Series schedule since 1969.
“(This is a) hugely exciting day for NASCAR, really everyone involved in the industry,” NASCAR Executive Vice President & Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell said after the release. “We said back early in 2019 that we wanted to evolve the schedule. 2020 was going to be a year where we could make some moves within the portfolio of races we had. Really, (in) 2021 and beyond you’re going to see some really bold changes from NASCAR.”
NASCAR has sought to create new innovations in racing as they enter this new decade. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed some changes, but the sport was nonetheless the first major North American sport to return to full-time competition in the midst of the ongoing health crisis. In addition to this new schedule, further innovations await, including a new racecar template, known as the “Next Gen” car, that will debut during the 2022 season.
When it comes to the schedule, O’Donnell hinted that the changes may have only just begun.
“The primary goal for us was to continue to evolve the schedule, to continue to build it, to continue to listen to the fans,” he said. “2021, we believe, is a really bold step in that direction, but we’re not done. There’s 2022 and beyond where we’ll continue to look at making changes that we believe are in the best interest of the sport in key markets and key iconic racetracks as well. We’re going to continue the journey.”
The following tracks/formats will be making their debut next season…
Bristol Dirt (March 28)
Many NASCAR drivers have gotten their start on local dirt tracks. Next spring, NASCAR will cover the iconic asphalt at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first dirt track race at the Cup Series level since a visit to the North Carolina State Fairgrounds in 1970. Previously, the lower-tier Truck Series would make an annual dirt visit to Eldora Speedway, with current Cup competitors Austin Dillon, Bubba Wallace, and Christopher Bell each earning a win in the Eldora Dirt Derby. This year’s race was called off due to the pandemic.
Circuit of the Americas (May 23)
This 3.426-mile road course in Austin, Texas has previously hosted numerous forms of auto racing, including Formula One and IndyCar. Having hosted the former’s United States Grand Prix event since 2012, COTA is the first American venue to be specifically built for F1 racing.
Nashville Superspeedway (June 20)
Originally opening in 2001, financial woes caused Nashville to close ten years later. However, the track will reopen by hosting the 2021 Father’s Day event, its first NASCAR-sanctioned event since its shutdown. Though the Cup Series descends upon the track for the first time, previous winners at the 1.333-mile oval through Xfinity and Truck endeavors include Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano. The Nashville date takes one of two race from Dover International Speedway.
Road America (July 4)
Perhaps nothing could define Independence Day better than a NASCAR race at a track called Road America, located in Plymouth, Wisconsin. This 4.048-mile road course has hosted the Xfinity Series since 2010, its most recent win going to Team Penske’s Austin Cindric in August.
Indianapolis Road Course (August 15)
The Cup Series will make a change to its annual visit to the Brickyard, eschewing the 2.5-mile rectangular oval for the 2.44-mile road course. Earlier this season, the Xfinity Series made the change early, going with a 62-lap event won by Chase Briscoe.
Other changes and notes relate to more familiar locales…
As is tradition, the season will open with the running of the Daytona 500 at Daytona International Speedway (February 14). However, the exhibition race known as the Busch Clash, traditionally held a week before the main event, will now be run on Daytona’s road course, which hosted its first Cup Series race in August (won by Chase Elliott).
After Daytona, the series will remain in the Sunshine State, with the second race shifting to Homestead-Miami Speedway (February 21). Homestead previously hosted the season final for nearly two decades (2002-19) before being moved up to March, though the Dixie Vodka 400 was run in June due to the pause.
Incumbent tracks Chicagoland and Kentucky were left off the schedule. Chicagoland had hosted races since 2001, while Kentucky was the most recent venue to join the Cup Series schedule in 2011.
Darlington Raceway has been scheduled to host multiple events for the first time since 2004. Commonly known as “The Track Too Tough to Tame”, Darlington hosted three events this season, the first two being rescheduled races and the first to be run in the return from the pause. The first race will come on May 15, while the Southern 500 retains its status as the opener to the Cup Series Playoffs (September 5).
Atlanta Motor Speedway likewise returns to two-date status, its two races scheduled to be run on March 21 and July 11. AMS had not hosted two events in a single season since 2010.
Texas Motor Speedway will host its first NASCAR All-Star Race on June 13. The All-Star exhibition shifted to Bristol this season after over three decades at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Texas did lose one of its points races, but retained its playoff date (October 17). The All-Star will also serve as the season finale for Fox Sports’ NASCAR coverage before transitioning to the networks of NBC.
Save for flipping Kansas and Texas’ spots in the Round of 8, no changes were made to the NASCAR Playoff schedule. The season will end at Phoenix Raceway for the second straight season (November 7).
The Cup Series will have two weeks between New Hampshire (July 18) and Watkins Glen (August 8) to account for the rescheduled 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
The 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season continues on Sunday afternoon at Talladega Superspeedway for the YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBC).