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Sheppard a happy fit with Jets

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Lito Sheppard is free. He doesn't wonder anymore, doesn't worry. He knows that there is football, and good football, to be played outside Philadelphia.

Lito Sheppard will play in the AFC Championship today with the New York Jets. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Lito Sheppard will play in the AFC Championship today with the New York Jets. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)Read more

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Lito Sheppard is free. He doesn't wonder anymore, doesn't worry. He knows that there is football, and good football, to be played outside Philadelphia.

And Sheppard feels appreciated.

It can be the harshest lesson for some, that the NFL is more than just the pinnacle of football, that it is, first and foremost, a business, and decisions are made with heads, not hearts. Sheppard learned that the hard way. He saw the ugliest side.

But it's all good. Now.

Sheppard is still playing, not with the Eagles but with the New York Jets, the lone underdog alive in the playoffs. He's a starter again, as he was in those NFC championship games with the Eagles, and today, Sheppard and the Jets' No. 1 defense will try to slow the Indianapolis Colts' prolific offense. All that is at stake is a trip to the Super Bowl.

After four title games in seven seasons in Philadelphia, Sheppard understands what's ahead. Aside from offensive lineman Alan Faneca, a former Steeler, Sheppard has the most playoff experience on the Jets. But Sheppard's path to this AFC championship game, personally and with his new team, was exponentially harder, he said, than it ever was in Philly. That makes this latest opportunity that much sweeter.

"Being that the organization hasn't been this far in so many years, I think it is a little more special," Sheppard said last week. "They're not so spoiled, so to say. Not to say it's a bad thing, but I think the Philadelphians are a little spoiled, and I think that's why they give Donovan [McNabb] so much hell for what he does. They're just spoiled of getting to this point.

"Coaches and players, they'll tell you. Every day you've got to be blessed and take advantage of these opportunities, because you never know when they're going to come back around. There's so many things that affect a team that allows a team to get to this point, you just can't take it for granted."

Sheppard, 28, certainly doesn't. He's happy and healthy, a dad for the fourth time - his son was born this month - and a cherished veteran in the Jets' locker room. He's the one with the Super Bowl stories. He's the one who's been there before.

And for the first time in a long time, Sheppard feels appreciated.

A fresh start

Sheppard's career in Philadelphia essentially ended, for better or worse, when the Eagles signed Asante Samuel to that six-year free-agent deal worth about $57 million in March 2008 and Andy Reid promptly called Samuel the team's starting left cornerback. It just so happened that for the previous five seasons, Sheppard had been the team's starting left cornerback, so naturally, the news didn't sit well with Sheppard.

He wasn't all that happy, anyway. Sheppard had let it be known that he thought he had outperformed the contract extension he had signed in November 2004. After the Samuel signing, Sheppard attended the Eagles' mandatory minicamps but skipped the voluntary ones, and in July 2008, he switched agents and went with Drew Rosenhaus.

That season, Sheppard played in all 16 games, and started three, but he was mostly in the Eagles' nickel packages.

Last February, the Eagles traded Sheppard to New York for a fifth-round draft pick they used to select tight end Cornelius Ingram and a conditional pick in the 2010 draft.

Sheppard said he had been pretty sure he'd get traded in 2008, but "it didn't happen."

"I obviously took the backseat to that, and that was one of the things that caused my agent change," Sheppard said. "I shouldn't have had to go through that, with what I'd accomplished in this league up until that point; it just didn't work out.

"It was tough going through that, considering I know I can play, and I know I can help that team win at the time, regardless of our differences. It showed me a different part of the game. That's one, unless you're going through it, you don't understand it from a fan's perspective. It just allowed me to look at this game different, and to appreciate what's good."

That's what Sheppard's experience in New York has been - good. Or, as Sheppard called it, "a fun ride." He began the season as a starter, opposite all-pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, and because teams threw away from Revis, Sheppard saw a lot of work. He injured a thigh in the Jets' second game of the season against New England and was inactive for five of the next six games, but he returned as a starter against Carolina on Nov. 29 and started the final six games of the regular season.

Playing with "Superman," as Sheppard called Revis, was a challenge, he said, because he didn't want to be the one to give up big plays while Revis was shutting down the opponents' best receiver. In two games against Buffalo, Revis held Terrell Owens to six catches for 44 yards. He also essentially shut down Carolina's Steve Smith, Atlanta's Roddy White, Indianapolis's Reggie Wayne, and Cincinnati's Chad Ochocinco, who failed to get a catch in the season finale, ending his streak of 120 games with a reception.

As a defense, the Jets ranked first in the league in total defense (252.3 yards allowed per game), first in points allowed (14.8), and first in passing defense (153.7 passing yards allowed per game).

"I've been hearing the whole year, 'Oh, you're going to get a million balls, because of Revis on the other side,' " Sheppard said. "I mean, we've got the No. 1 passing defense in this league. I don't think that comes from me giving up balls."

Now, teammates are asking Sheppard about the Super Bowl. He recently told Wallace Wright about the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl between the Eagles and New England, about how surreal it was to experience the cameras flashing and the awesomeness of the moment.

"He's happy," receiver Braylon Edwards said of Sheppard. "Everybody wants to be the guy, especially on a run like this. He's holding it together well. He goes in there and makes plays when he can. He's just happy to be here, happy to have another chance to win a Super Bowl."

Advice for the Birds

Even though he and his wife sold their home in South Jersey and now rent a place in North Jersey, Sheppard still has plenty of friends in the Eagles' locker room. He has heard from several of them since the Eagles lost to Dallas and the Jets beat Cincinnati, then San Diego.

And Sheppard had heard the story about Samuel saying in the locker room after the Eagles lost to Dallas, "Damn, Lito's still playing and we ain't."

"I got a couple of phone calls telling me how lucky I am to be in this situation," Sheppard said. He wouldn't say who called him, but laughed when someone suggested the callers wore Eagles green.

"I can't tell you that, but, yeah, exactly," he said.

Depending on what happens with the collective-bargaining negotiations between the NFL and its players, Sheppard could be a free agent in March. The contract he signed with the Eagles in 2004 is set to expire, and while he would like to return to the Jets, he said, he is confident he will be playing, and starting, somewhere next year.

He also had an idea for the Eagles - or perhaps their fans.

"I'd tell them to trade [McNabb]," Sheppard said. "I think he'll be happier, so then he won't have to be with that cloud over his head about what people feel about him. I mean, a player plays better when he feels appreciated. Until they appreciate him, they won't get what they want out of him.

"It's the expectations. It's either Super Bowl or nothing for them, and it automatically goes from the top to the bottom. . . . They just feel like he is the guy to get them over that hump, and he hasn't to this point. It's more frustration [from the fans] than can he get it done?

"I mean, hey, we'll take him."

Sheppard appreciates the value of a fresh start. He's making the most of his.