Joe Kowalewski is one intense, interesting dude. I talked with the young tight end at the end of his second Jets season, his first as an active player, before the season finale against Kansas City. Much of what he said could be applied not just to the Chiefs game but the season past and the off-season ahead.
In effect, you could see him as the embodiment of the Green & White's current state of affairs.
"It's been tough, personally, a lot of ups and downs," Kowalewski said. "It was great to be a part of this team this year, to be on the roster. There were just so many highs this year. That win versus Pittsburgh was awesome. My first touchdown? I'll never forget it. I got to start a couple of games, which is great. If you told me I would've started some games, I would've done anything.
"Then you've got the flip side."
"Joe-Ko" wasn't referring to the close losses or the unfulfilled expectations of this season past. He wasn't pointing to the disappointment that many — including head coach Eric Mangini and general manager Mike Tannenbaum — have expressed about the 2007 Jets. He was talking only about himself.
"I really don't feel like I accomplished my goals. I didn't get enough done to help the team," he said. "I just feel like I can be a lot better than I was this year. I'm kind of disappointed ... not kind of — I was disappointed in myself this year. It was a learning experience for me. I wish I could've done more, made more plays, got more done, but I didn't. That's been disappointing for me, it really has, to tell you the truth."
At this point I was tempted to remind him that he's come quite a long way in his short time in the NFL. He was not only an undrafted free agent when he signed with the Jets in 2006 but he started out as an unsigned tryout player out of Syracuse. And he was contributing — the 1-yard TD against Washington, the starting nod at FB and more than 30 offensive snaps in the upset of Pittsburgh, another start at New England, lots of action at Tennessee. He was learning his craft.
But Kowalewski didn't need to hear that from any well-wishers. He's already given a lot of thought to his personal self-improvement plan.
"I definitely know what I've got to do this off-season," he said. "I've got to bulk up a little bit. I've got to take my body so serious. This long season will wear you down. I'm realizing the training you've got to put in and how you've got to keep your body to get through it. It's long — brutal. This off-season is going to be big, and hopefully I can come in here next year with more confidence."
Kowalewski's idea is not just to be active, play on specials, contribute five catches for 18 yards (his totals this season).
"I want to dominate, you know?" he said. "I really want to push the guys around me, push the other tight ends, and be respected around the league and on this team, be the guy that gets the ball. And if you're expecting to do that, you've got to be an everyday guy in practice and you've really got to show up on Sundays. It's all about Sundays."
And Kowalewski has a good role model to follow in Chris Baker.
"The guy catches everything you throw to him — one-handed catches, touchdown catches," Kowalewski said. "He gets it done every day, and now look at the passes he's getting because he does it and you can count on him. This is his sixth year. That's what you have to do. You have to earn the coaches' trust every day. That's what he did.
"I'm just a nobody in this league, so I've got to just keep working, keep earning trust. Basically, people's jobs and everything are depending on you to win. If you can't prove you're a guy that can get it done, what's the use for you?"
Wow. That was quite a season-ending assessment. Harsh reality mixed in with positive thinking.
Can Kowalewski do it next season or some day? Hone his body, dominate his position, gain his coaches' trust? Help his Jets become the playoff team he believed they weren't far from being in this 4-12 season?
I don't know. The NFL has been the ultimate reward for many stout young men. It has also chewed up and spit out others who thought they were just as earnest and dedicated. As special teams coach Mike Westhoff said recently, "This is a tough game. This game isn't for everybody."
But for some, it's just the ticket. Kowalewski sounds as if he has what it takes to continue his career and contribute to a winning Jets program. Part of the fun and is him discovering if that's true — and us finding out along with him.