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January 17, 2005 Edition > Section:  Sports

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With Heavy Heart, Jets Look to 2005

BY SEAN LAHMAN
January 17, 2005

Has there been a more heartbreaking loss in Jets history? While it was nice to play well against the Steelers, there's no getting around the fact that Gang Green gave away a game they should have won.

Everyone's first instinct will be to make kicker Doug Brien the goat. Go ahead: He deserves it after missing two make able field goals. But if you're going to skewer a guy for not coming through in the clutch, then you have to put at least as much blame on the entire offense for laying a goose egg. Time after time this season, their inability to score touchdowns squandered consistently outstanding defensive performances, and Saturday's loss was no different.

While it's hard to see this loss as anything but a crushing disappointment, the reality is that the 2004 Jets overachieved to get as far as they did. A shoulder injury kept Chad Pennington sidelined or playing at less than 100% for the entire second half of the season. The Jets backed into the playoffs after losing three of their last four regular-season games, and wouldn't have even won their first-round playoff matchup against San Diego if not for a rookie kicker flubbing a field goal attempt in overtime.

Clearly, the Jets aren't among the four best teams in the league, but there's no denying that this team is much better than it was a year ago. Indeed, the Jets are much closer to being an elite team than they've been in a very long time.

Start with the defense, which ranked seventh overall this year, up from 21st a year ago. Defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson completely rebuilt a linebacking corps that was slow and old, bringing youth and speed to suit his aggressive, attacking style. Henderson also helped Dewayne Robertson recover from a disappointing rookie season to emerge as one of the best defensive tackles in the game.

Robertson, along with fellow tackle Jason Ferguson and rookie linebacker Jonathon Vilma, helped make the Jets remarkably tough up the middle, improving from 28th to 5th in total run defense. The defense's ability to shut down opposing ground attacks made them virtually impenetrable in the red zone, and their front four's superior pass rush allowed them to use their speedy linebackers in pass coverage.

Based on what Henderson has done in his first year, there's reason to believe that the offense can make similar strides next season with a new offensive coordinator. Paul Hackett's conservative play calling frustrated Jets fans all season long. Despite fielding an outstanding offensive line, a solid quarterback, and a Hall of Fame running back having the best year of his career, this team failed to score even 17 points in nine games. How can you twice hold the Steelers to 17 points in regulation and not win either game?

Hackett always seemed to have the wrong call for the situation at hand. He seemed fascinated by the strategy of throwing third-down passes 2 yards short of the first-down marker. He also showed a bizarre preference for running draw plays in passing situations; that will work a couple times a year as a surprise, but usually fails if you employ it five times a game.

Most likely, the Jets' first significant move of the off-season will be to dismiss Hackett. After that, the Gang Green will have to make some important decisions about two key players. Defensive end John Abraham is scheduled to become a free agent, as is running back LaMont Jordan. Both would be highly sought on the open market, and the Jets will likely only be able to keep one by using the "Franchise Player" tag.

In the case of Abraham, there's no denying his talent. He's a three-time Pro Bowler and one of the elite pass rushers in the AFC. But he has made just 15 starts during the last two seasons, and the Jets might hesitate to commit a big chunk of money to a player who spends as much time on the sidelines as in the huddle. Somebody will take that chance, because Abraham has averaged a sack per game over the past two seasons. The Jets might opt to give the job to Bryan Thomas, who played well while Abraham was out, and spend the money on Jordan.

Although Curtis Martin won the rushing title, he'll be 32 years old when training camp comes around again. Jordan isn't just an insurance policy in case Martin breaks down: His explosiveness and power between the tackles make him good enough to start for most other teams. Jordan averaged 5.2 yards per carry - 0.6 yards more than Martin - and ran over tired opponents in the fourth quarter of countless games. The double-headed monster of Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis in Pittsburgh provide an excellent model for how a team can be dominant with two quality running backs sharing the rushing duties.

The Jets don't have any glaring holes in their roster, but they need to upgrade at cornerback and bring in another wide receiver (maybe two if Wayne Chrebet retires). Some of those needs could be addressed in free agency, others through the draft. Plaxico Burress, Mushin Muhammad, and T.J. Houshmandzadeh are all veteran wideouts expected to be on the market. Burress will command top dollar, but Muhammad is a big play receiver who can stretch the field without breaking the bank.

When the pain of the Jets' loss to Pittsburgh subsides in the coming days and weeks, Jets fans will realize that Gang Green made great strides this year. This is a team with a lot of talent - maybe the most the Jets have had in twenty years - and it won't take a major overhaul for them to move to the next level in 2005.

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