(Eds: Updates with detail, quotes. With AP Photos.)By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.AP Sports Writer
Mike Tannenbaum’s phone wakes him up in the middle of most nights.
It starts with a ding or a buzz, and he’ll often stay awake for a while as his mind races.
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As the New York Jets’ general manager, there’s always plenty to think about – especially when the pressure’s on to put together the team that finally returns the franchise to the Super Bowl.
”There’s the next issue, the next deadline, the next agent, the next budget, the next injury, the next something,” Tannenbaum said in a recent sit-down with The Associated Press. ”With the BlackBerrys, it’s right there, so I’m up at some point in the middle of the night. I get mostly interrupted sleep.”
Jets fans can certainly relate. They’re among the biggest die-hards in sports, particularly those who have been waiting – many impatiently – since 1969, when Broadway Joe delivered on his famous guarantee.
They’ve got loads of questions about their team just two games into the preseason: Is Mark Sanchez going to be the franchise quarterback the Jets (No. 17 in the AP Pro32) hoped? Can Tim Tebow co-exist with Sanchez and give the offense a boost? Will Wayne Hunter really be the starting right tackle on opening day? Can the defense be dominant? Is Tannenbaum going to do something to help the depth of the roster?
It’s that last question that is being asked increasingly more often. Whether it’s on Twitter, sports radio shows or message boards, fans are making it clear that they’re holding Tannenbaum responsible if things go bad this season.
”Look, nobody puts more pressure on themselves than me,” the 43-year-old Tannenbaum said. ”I have the best job in America and wouldn’t trade it for anything. I really just worry about things that I can control. I’m trying to put us in the best possible position to have a good year.”
That’s why Tannenbaum invited former NFL GMs Bill Polian, Phil Savage and Charlie Casserly to spend time with him and his staff in the offseason to offer tips on how to keep the franchise moving forward. Always known for his aggressive approach, Tannenbaum is far from finished with shaping the roster, anticipating Labor Day weekend to be ”a mini-draft for us” as teams make their final player cuts.
”Looking at last year, we didn’t get the job done, and that starts with me,” Tannenbaum said. ”I think, specifically, the depth wasn’t good enough and the chemistry wasn’t good enough. We tried to address both those things.”
One of his boldest moves this offseason began taking shape while he sat in an airport with coach Rex Ryan in March. The two were sipping on Ben & Jerry’s vanilla milkshakes and preparing to go to North Carolina’s pro day – where they’d see their eventual first-round pick Quinton Coples – when the wheels starting spinning in Tannenbaum’s mind. It was becoming apparent that Peyton Manning was going to Denver and Tebow would be available.
”I turned to Rex and said, `What do you think?”’ Tannenbaum recalled.
”I thought, `Wow!”’ Ryan said. ”I was kind of shocked about it. I didn’t know what it was going to take for us to get him, but I knew that with Mike, we would definitely find out.”
The two spoke to owner Woody Johnson and new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, who ran the wildcat offense with Miami and knew Tebow from the Senior Bowl a few years earlier. Tebow to the Jets? Even though they still had Sanchez, and just signed him to an extension?
”We were the only four people on the planet who knew about it,” Tannenbaum said. ”We felt unanimously that this man could help us win football games. That’s why we got him. When the price and the risk are reasonable, you have to be opportunistic in this business.”
The move has been a hot topic for months, hailed by some and ridiculed by others who have labeled it as a mere publicity stunt.
”When you make a trade like that, I understand the noteworthiness of it, and the speculation, but our plan hasn’t wavered,” Tannenbaum said. ”Not all of the cards are going to be turned over in June, July and August. They’re going to be turned over during the regular season, and I feel better about that trade every day.”
In many ways, Tannenbaum has earned the right to expect Jets fans’ trust. The team, which went to consecutive AFC title games in 2009 and 2010, always seems to be in the mix for the biggest available names – from Tebow to Brett Favre to Plaxico Burress to Braylon Edwards to LaDainian Tomlinson to name a few. He has also been a whiz at navigating the NFL’s complicated salary cap.
There have also been some big-time touchdowns in the draft, with Sanchez, Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold, David Harris, D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Dustin Keller all keystone pieces of the franchise.
But there have been some major missteps, too, with taking Vernon Gholston No. 6 overall in 2008 the most glaring. There are also huge question marks on this year’s team, including the shaky right tackle position, the injuries at wide receiver and the overall depth. That, plus the Jets’ 0-2 start in the preseason, has some fans downright nervous.
”Jets fans should feel fortunate to have Mike Tannenbaum as their GM,” Ryan said. ”First of all, Mike’s about as competitive as it gets. He has pulled off some great deals in the past and he’s all about trying to improve this team and win.
”He’s looking at every angle, and that’s the kind of person you want to have working with you and the kind of person, as a fan, you want running your team. For him to be criticized, it almost doesn’t make any sense. I mean, they should criticize me or whatever before they criticize Mike.”
But the general manager, in particular, is going to hear about it when the perception is that the team’s roster is not good enough.
Tannenbaum laughs, however, at the notion that he isn’t doing enough to put together a team that can win. Winning, after all, is the only thing he cares about. He’s obsessed with it, and that keeps him going around the clock.
”I’m probably the most competitive guy in the building,” Tannenbaum said, with a smile. ”No, I know that I’m more competitive than anyone else here.”
That includes Ryan, Sanchez, Tebow and everyone else in green and white, whether it’s on the basketball court, where his pickup team is 4-0, or late at night when he ponders his next move.
”If we get improved quarterback play with our defense, I think we have a chance to have a really, really special season and accomplish a lot of goals,” Tannenbaum said. ”Obviously, we have to go out there and prove it. It starts with Rex and I, and we’re really excited about this team doing what we think it can accomplish.”
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