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January 20, 2005 Edition > Section:  Sports

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A More Aggressive Approach

BY SEAN LAHMAN
January 20, 2005

In what could be considered a preemptive strike, embattled offensive coordinator Paul Hackett saved the Jets the trouble of an awkward press conference by resigning yesterday after four years of moderate success under head coach Herman Edwards.

This was not surprising. What was surprising was the announcement mere hours later that former Titans offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger would take over the job. It seems Hackett was just barely able to elude the big green steamroller gaining on him in East Rutherford.

Hackett's conservative play-calling was criticized from the outset, and his position became less tenable as the Jets constantly struggled to score points in big games this season. The final straw was a poor showing in last week's 20-17 overtime loss to Pittsburgh, a game in which just one offensive touchdown would have been enough for a victory.

Hackett plays the role of scapegoat for the heartbreaking end to an otherwise solid season, but the offensive coordinator was not the sole reason for this team's inability to reach the AFC Championship Game. Chad Pennington's shoulder injury certainly played a role, as did the knee injury that sidelined Pro Bowl defensive end John Abraham for the last six weeks of the season.

Edwards also deserves his fair share of blame for some poor coaching decisions and awful clock management in several key games. And let's face it, the Jets were never as good as the Steelers or the Patriots. In the end it was simply the league's meritocracy that blocked Gang Green's path to the Super Bowl.

The big question - or at least the first of several big questions - is whether the offense can improve with Heimerdinger at the helm. Did the limitations of the Jets personnel force Hackett into the maddeningly passive style of play, or did the style of play impose excessive constraints on Pennington and his teammates?

To answer that question, one need only look at Hackett's history, because he has run the same offense with four different starting quarterbacks - two in New York and two in Kansas City. His strategy has always been based on a power running game and accentuated by quick, short passes underneath the coverage.

The predictability of this approach and Hackett's refusal to make adjustments have always made it too easy for opponents to implement a suitable defense. With both the Jets and the Chiefs, the results were similar: Hackett's offenses racked up yards on the ground, strung together enough wins to get into the postseason, and fell flat once they got there.

As a quarterback, Pennington certainly has his limitations. He doesn't have a strong arm and makes poor throws at inopportune times. It is possible, however, to run a potent offense with that kind of quarterback - just look at the Rams with Marc Bulger or the Broncos with Jake Plummer. They finished fifth and sixth, respectively, in team passing yards. The Jets finished 22nd, and nobody will argue that those two quarterbacks are significantly better than Pennington. But it's impossible to amass a lot of passing yards when you're constantly throwing 3-yard screens to your receivers.

Can Pennington be an elite quarterback? The jury's still out, and the possibility of off-season shoulder surgery only makes the question harder to resolve. What's clear is that he was never going to improve under Hackett.

Heimerdinger, who has spent the last five seasons in Tennessee, has been forced to adjust to the changing fortunes of the Titans' offensive squad - something Hackett always seemed to struggle with in New York. When running back Eddie George and tight end Frank Wycheck were in their primes, Heimerdinger's playbook was based on inside running and short passing.

As those two players faded, he opened up the offense with more vertical passing and three-receiver sets. It was under Heimerdinger's tutelage that Titans' quarterback Steve McNair emerged as an elite player, in no small part because the offense was tailored to his strengths.

This season, despite the loss of Mc-Nair and insertion of the non-descript Billy Volek, the passing game remained explosive. Wide receivers Derrick Mason and Drew Bennett each topped 80 catches and 1,100 receiving yards, while running backs Chris Brown and Antowain Smith combined for nearly 1,600 yards on the ground.

Heimerdinger and Hackett are polar opposites. While Hackett prefers a low-risk style of play, Heimerdinger has earned a reputation as an aggressive strategist. Hackett's playbook was full of draw plays and short passes, preferring to take what defenses were willing to give him.

Heimerdinger's playbook for the Jets will feature a whole new chapter called "attack." He'll run plays with three receivers to spread the field and make it more difficult for defenses to key on the running game. He'll run plays from a two-tight end formation to force defenses off balance and make it difficult to double-cover the outside receivers.

Under Heimerdinger, the Jets will likely throw the ball deep early in the game to soften the defense, utilizing Santana Moss's ability to get separation from defenders in man coverage. The Jets will also make better use of Justin McCareins, who first blossomed under Heimerdinger's watch in Tennessee two years ago.

Under Hackett, McCareins was deployed as a possession receiver who used his size to catch balls over the middle and on quick slant patterns. Expect McCareins to start catching more balls outside of the numbers, taking advantage of soft zones or bracket coverage (when one defender covers inside and another outside). Heimerdinger should also allot larger roles in the offense for up-and-coming receivers Jerricho Cotchery and Jonathon Carter.

If he can stay healthy, Pennington could blossom in this sort of system. And with a more balanced offensive approach, Curtis Martin should be a more efficient back. An aggressive passing game will make it harder for defenses to focus on stuffing the run. Martin could still be among the league leaders in rushing yards without having to carry the ball a dangerously high number of times, an important consideration if the 31-year-old starts to show his age.

The Jets proved this year that a new coordinator could make a huge difference right away. Donnie Henderson assumed control of a slow, plodding defense and transformed it into one of the NFL's best units. If the Jets can accomplish the same thing with their offense next year, they will finally join the NFL's elite.

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