Rick Mirer played his way onto the cover of Sports Illustrated as a Notre Dame sophomore after leading the Irish to a 28-24 comeback victory over Michigan in his first start. The dazzling college career that followed justified his billing as one of the nation's best high school football players. And in the 1993 NFL draft he was chosen second overall by the Seattle Seahawks.

Six years later, Mirer sits in front of his locker at the New York Jets' practice facility. His jaw is clenched; his pale blue eyes are fixed in a distant gaze. Tape recorders, TV cameras and microphones jab at him from all directions, as reporters bark questions and photographers demand his profile.

Mirer looks uncomfortable enough to crawl out of his skin if it would get him away from this media throng. Besides, it is time to get on with the Herculean task of taking over for New York's beloved starting quarterback, Vinny Testaverde. Testaverde suffered a ruptured Achilles' tendon in a season-opening loss to the New England Patriots, whose quarterback is Drew Bledsoe--the player taken ahead of Mirer in the 1993 draft, the one who has become a star.

Mirer joined the Jets only four weeks ago. Now, he's staring at what likely is his last chance to rewrite a disappointing NFL resume that affirms he is neither Testaverde, nor the player he was supposed to become.

After a promising start in Seattle (he was voted 1993 AFC rookie of the year and had better statistics than Bledsoe did), Mirer slumped badly and was dealt to the Chicago Bears, for whom he started just three games. The Green Bay Packers acquired him as a free agent, but he never got off the bench as backup to sturdy Brett Favre. The Packers then traded him to the Jets on Aug. 20 for an undisclosed future draft pick.

At 29, Mirer is embarking on his seventh NFL season with his fourth team in the last four years. His record reflects the turmoil. In 64 NFL games, he has thrown 41 touchdowns and 64 interceptions. His hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in a regular season game since 1996.

"This opportunity is a great one," Mirer said of his starting role with the Jets. "At this moment, it's just kind of hard for me. But it's getting easier. Every minute counts. Every little bit matters right now, and it's getting more and more comfortable."

Playing Not to Lose

Today at Giants Stadium, Mirer leads a winless, injury-depleted team against the resurgent Washington Redskins (1-1). The Jets (0-2) could be missing as many as five starters. Among them are wide receiver Wayne Chrebet (broken foot) and nose tackle Jason Ferguson (sprained ankle), the linchpin of the Jets' 3-4 defense.

The Redskins are riding high, having scored an NFL-best 85 points in their first two games. Quarterback Brad Johnson's 125.9 rating leads the NFL. Through five quarters of play, Mirer's rating is 30.8.

In four weeks' time, Mirer has barely learned his 52 teammates' names, much less the nuances of their route-running. To get Mirer through Sunday's game, Coach Bill Parcells likely will use a conservative game plan, which he tried last Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. In Mirer's first start since 1997, the Jets lost, 17-3. While Mirer did nothing spectacular, he didn't lose the game, either. He completed 13 of 28 passes for 121 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions.

Asked to handicap Mirer's chance of succeeding with the Jets, former New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, now an analyst with CBS Sports, said Mirer's main goal should be to not lose games.

"That's a hard thing to say for a quarterback," Simms added. "But your quarterback has got to know how to manage the football game. . . . What I mean by that is: Know when to take chances and know when to play conservative."

Former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, who saw Mirer eclipse many of his Notre Dame records, said there are good reasons Mirer has struggled in the NFL. Unlike Bledsoe, who was groomed in a pass-oriented system at Washington State, Mirer came out of a Notre Dame offense that stressed the run. He never had the chance, Theismann said, to develop the array of passes critical to success in the NFL. Moreover, he was hurt by a coaching change in Seattle and has yet to work with an NFL coach for more than two years.

With the Jets, Mirer should have several advantages, Theismann said.

"I think he understands how to throw the football as a professional quarterback, finally," Theismann said. "He has a talent base around him, where he doesn't have to do everything. And the last thing, he has [former Redskins offensive coordinator] Dan Henning as his quarterbacks coach. Dan is a terrific teacher of the position."

Parcells has yet to declare Mirer his long-term starter. Parcells's other choices are punter Tom Tupa and Ray Lucas.

Parcells said he does not plan to sign a veteran quarterback, such as Jeff Hostetler, who took over for the injured Simms in 1990 and led Parcells's Giants to their second Super Bowl title.

After last week's loss to Buffalo, Parcells said Mirer made good decisions during the game. "I didn't see any impulse throws," he said. "Generally speaking, I thought he did what he could do."

Parcells focused his ire on the rest of the Jets for a rash of penalties, dropped passes and the defensive lapses that enabled quarterback Doug Flutie to scramble for 67 yards, including a 24-yard touchdown. "When you drop the ball and have offensive penalties inhibiting your ability to move it, no one's going to look very good," Parcells said.

Dashing Super Dreams

The Jets' 0-2 start is the latest setback for the team's long-suffering fans. Last season, they reveled in a 12-4 record, an AFC East Division championship and in watching their team come within 14 points of what would have been its first Super Bowl since January 1969, when Joe Namath strutted off with a 16-7 victory over the Baltimore Colts in one of the biggest upsets in NFL history.

The 1998 season not only rekindled that glory, but resurrected the locally revered Testaverde, whose home town, Elmont, N.Y., is near the Jets' training facility.

Amid speculation he may retire after this season, Parcells spent the offseason collecting free agents to round out his team, including tight end Eric Green, linebacker Roman Phifer and free safety Steve Atwater. This season, it seemed, everything would come together.

But almost instantly, the Jets have plummeted from Super Bowl contender to last in the AFC East.

In addition, the team is for sale following long-time owner Leon Hess's death in May, at age 85. So far, 26 potential buyers have received a confidential prospectus about the team, including Charles F. Dolan, chairman of Cablevision; Phoenix real estate developer Sam Grossman, among the Redskins' former suitors; and Las Vegas billionaire Kirk Kerkorian.

In addition, a grassroots bid has sprouted among Jets fans. According to John Crotty, co-founder of BuytheJets.com, the group has commitments from 8,000 people for $17.5 million. NFL rules, however, limit ownership groups to 25 members, with the publicly-held Packers the sole exception.

But for even the most devout Jets fans, the prospect of an 0-3 start is a lot to bear. "If anyone can figure out how to right it," Crotty said, "it would be Coach Parcells."

A Dose of Tough Love

Parcells is not one to console when times are bad. According to a report in the New York Times, he lit into his players after the loss to Buffalo, saying: "Some of you should just retire. You're a disgrace!"

The essence of Parcells's creed is distilled in a sign posted in the Jets' locker room: "Blame Nobody. Expect Nothing. Do Something." Parcells's brand of tough love, rooted in the conviction that fear brings out the best, has produced a 141-100-1 career record marked by two Super Bowl championships, three Super Bowl appearances and four heart procedures.

How Mirer reacts to Parcells remains to be seen, and Theismann sees this as one of the critical tests ahead. Parcells is "tough as he can be on people," Theismann said. "You don't know whether it's a plus or a minus. If you don't handle it well, it's a definite minus. If you handle it, it's a big plus."

Mirer said he has grown since his days in Seattle and is now a more complete player.

"I've been through a lot," he said. "You learn from all your experiences. And I've been through some tough ones. I appreciate the good days now more than I probably ever did before. You can take for granted when you go out and win, and things go well that day. I've had it work out for me like that a lot. The last couple seasons now when I've been playing, it hasn't always been that way."

For now, he seems to have his teammates' support.

"He had a tough time in Seattle," said center Kevin Mawae, a former Seahawk. "I'm sure it did affect his confidence. But he's had some time to sit back and see things develop in front of him, both in Chicago and in Green Bay. I don't think he's going to put too much pressure on himself, and we're not, either. We're just going to ask him to go out there and do the things that he does well, and we're going to try to tailor our offense to that."

Added wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson: "The Vinny thing is over with now. We talked about that for a week and a half now. It's a dead issue. . . . We have Rick Mirer as our leader and as our quarterback, and we're just going to try to rally around him and get something done in a positive manner."

But ultimately, only winning will muffle the comparisons to Testaverde. And only winning will prove, after four disappointing seasons, that the promise of Mirer's youth lives on in the man.

Grounded Jets

1999 statistics for the N.Y. Jets quarterbacks and two former Jets quarterbacks under Bill Parcells, who were let go by the team in the past two seasons:

JETS QBs

Quarterback Att. Cmp. Pct. TD INT Rating

Rick Mirer 51 22 43.1 0 3 30.8

Tom Tupa 10 6 60.0 2 0 143.8

Vinny Testaverde 15 10 66.7 1 1 78.7

FORMER JETS QBs

Quarterback Team Att. Cmp. Pct. TD INT Rating

Neil O'Donnell Titans 40 31 77.5 1 0 107.3

Glenn Foley Seahawks 30 18 60.0 2 0 113.6