CHAMPAIGN—For most of his career, Wayne Chrebet has been the little engine that could, an undersized, underrated wide receiver repeatedly burning doubters. Sunday, Chrebet became the high hurdler who shouldn't.
With the game, the season and the New York Jets' playoff hopes at stake, Chrebet made a brilliant play that positioned his team for a comeback, catching a bullet from quarterback Chad Pennington. If only the film had stopped there. If only he hadn't actually jumped into the air trying to vault Bears defensive backs Mike Green and Larry Whigham.
When Cherbet landed, the ball was no longer in his arms, the Jets were no longer in the game and their season seemed unlikely to go longer than the end of December. They may not be mathematically toast for the playoffs, but they are virtual toast. After losing to the Bears 20-13 at Memorial Stadium, the Jets (7-7) need to win both of their remaining games and watch about 10 other teams lose two.
And Chrebet, the 5-foot-10-inch, 188-pounder who plays with as hard-nosed a style as anyone in the NFL, for once was admitting he tried too hard while committing the fumble that was the game's only turnover.
The Jets needed a touchdown to make up for starting the game with no zip and making other errors. Chrebet ran 22 yards to the Bears 14-yard line after the reception, and with 1 minute 19 seconds left, the Jets had plenty of time. But he was guilty of trying to turn an all-star play into a heroic play.
"I was trying to make something happen," Chrebet, an eight-year player whose alma mater, Hofstra, is nicknamed the Flying Dutchmen, something he wasn't Sunday. "That's how I play. It didn't work out. I was just running with the ball full speed. I didn't see an alley, so I jumped. My natural reaction took over. Obviously, it was the wrong one. I get paid to make plays. It cost us a game."
Although it was their most spectacular goof, the Jets also had a 97-yard kickoff return by Chad Morton called back on a penalty, were flagged for a 12-men-on-the-field call and saw defensive tackle Jason Ferguson slapped with a roughing-the-passer penalty.
"It's something I know better," said Ferguson, who said he thought the ball was still in Bears quarterback Chris Chandler's hand. "It was a stupid penalty."
The Jets arrived in Illinois convinced they needed to win out and finish 10-6 to make the playoffs. But they came out flat and were pushed around by the Bears (4-10), a team with no tangible reward in sight.
"It's a very disappointed locker room," said Jets coach Herman Edwards, who refused to blame his team's apparent deflated emotion on a midweek fight between players in practice. "Chicago just kept playing its game.
"Wayne was just trying to make a play. He thought he could jump over a guy. If he jumps and lands on his feet and scores, then no one says he's trying to do too much. They deserved to win. No excuses."
The situation was all too familiar for Ray Mickens. The veteran cornerback said the Jets, who have been in the playoffs twice since 1991, always seem to be facing win-at-all-costs end-of-season games.
"You kind of get sick of it after a while," Mickens said. "It's real frustrating. We can't get a win. It hurts emotionally to lose a game like this."
The Jets, led by running back Curtis Martin's 127 yards, were sure they were going to tie the game and win in overtime.
"No matter what the situation, no matter what the circumstances, I expect to lead the team to victory," Pennington said. "It's just disheartening for me. We don't control our own destiny now. Our goal is to be 9-7."
And hope that it matters.