January 6, 2006 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version
BY SEAN LAHMAN
January 6, 2006
Pundits are fond of saying that Super Bowls aren't won in January, they're won in April when the best team is assembled. If that's true, then April is also the time when a team's miscalculations send it tumbling toward disaster.
Such a season has just come to an end for the New York Jets, and now the organization is faced with making an assessment of what went wrong. It would be easy to say that the injuries which decimated the offense sent the team into a tail spin, but an honest assessment will reveal a plethora of other problems. The worst thing that could happen would be for the coaching staff and front office to tell themselves that once this team gets healthy, it'll be a playoff contender again. That's the sort of wishful thinking that got the Jets into this mess, and only determined action will get them back into playoff contention.
It remains to be seen, of course, who will be heading up the coaching staff when the 2006 season begins. The Jets are still in talks with the Chiefs for a deal that would ship disgruntled head coach Herman Edwards to Kansas City in exchange for some mid-round draft picks. Edwards is reportedly unhappy with his $2 million salary, and wants a raise or a new team to coach. Though talks with the Chiefs had stalled as of yesterday afternoon, it still seems unlikely that Edwards will be patrolling the sidelines in East Rutherford next season. The loss of Edwards would certainly be a blow, but again, the Jets have issues on the field that seriously need to be addressed, regardless of Edwards's fate.
In preparing for the 2005 season, the Jets brass fell into the trap that catches so many teams that have reached the playoffs a few times: They become complacent, believing they have no weaknesses and that a little bit of tinkering is all they need to take that next step toward the Super Bowl. How else to explain the Jets off-season strategy?
Although free agency cost them key players on the offensive and defensive lines, they entered the draft believing their biggest needs were a kicker and a tight end. Clearly, those positions could have used an upgrade, but when you trade your first-round pick for an experienced tight end and use your second round pick on a kicker, you better make sure they're impact players.
Former Raider Doug Jolley couldn't beat out incumbent Chris Baker for the tight end job in training camp. He had just eight catches in the first half, and other than one big game against the Dolphins after Baker was injured, Jolley failed to make any impact whatever. The real problem wasn't that he didn't contribute more, it was that the Jets gave up a first-round pick for a guy who looks to be no more than a decent backup.
And if you're going to use a second round pick on a kicker, he'd better be a difference maker. Of course, Mike Nugent was rarely asked to make a clutch kick, and his final numbers were respectable - 22 of 28 attempts for a success rate of 78.5%. But those numbers are slightly worse than last season's playoff goat, Doug Brien, who converted 84.4% and 82.8% of his kicks in 2003 and 2004, respectively.
It's not hard to find guys who can consistently make short field goals. Kickers make their money from 40 yards out, and Nugent struggled from that distance. Whereas Brien connected on 11 of 13 from 40 yards or longer in 2004 (85%), Nugent made only seven of 12 attempts from that distance this season - a pedestrian 58%. Kickers with those sorts of numbers are plentiful on the waiver wire.
Second-round picks can yield impact players, like Cincinnati's Odell Thurman or Jacksonville's Khalif Barnes, both of whom played a key role for teams advancing to the playoffs and were selected after the Jets tabbed Nugent.
The trade of wide receiver Santana Moss for Laveranues Coles also looks curious in retrospect. Moss was a more productive receiver than Coles in 2004, and he flourished as a vertical threat in Washington this season, averaging 17.7 yards per catch and finishing second in the NFL with 1,483 receiving yards. Coles, meanwhile, regressed, becoming a possession receiver in an offense that desperately needed a guy who could make plays down the field.
In fairness, the Jets did address two of their biggest concerns before the start of the season. Questions about the durability of Chad Pennington and Curtis Martin - their two most important players - led the team to sign veteran free agents as insurance policies. The fact that Jay Fiedler suffered a season ending injury in the same game as Pennington was a catastrophe that could not have been anticipated. Similarly, Derrick Blaylock's broken foot left them in the lurch when Martin was banged up. You have to plan for injuries in the NFL, but when both your first and second-string skill players get injured, there's little that can be done to avoid disaster.
The collapse of the offense masked the significant problems the Jets faced on the other side of the ball. Gang Green's defense fell from seventh overall in 2004 to 24th. Most of the problems came up front, where the Jets underestimated the impact of letting defensive tackle Jason Ferguson leave as a free agent. Without his strong play in the middle, opponents were able to neutralize the run defense by putting blockers on second-year linebacker Jonathon Vilma.
The Jets' front seven was particularly vulnerable in the red-zone, giving up 19 rushing touchdowns after holding teams to just eight the year before. The pass rush was also noticeably worse. Shaun Ellis recorded just 2.5 sacks after registering 11.0 in 2004 and 12.5 in 2003. That, in turn, put pressure on a vulnerable secondary, and all too often let opposing quarterbacks make big plays through the air.
So what are the challenges facing the Jets as they start planning for 2006? Obviously, they need to make a decision about Edwards. If he wants to go, the Jets should let him. As important, they also face the possibility that their defensive coordinator will leave. Donnie Henderson is already being mentioned as a head coaching candidate in several cities, and with eight vacancies, his odds of getting an offer have never been better. Before the end of the month, the Jets need to either ensure that Edwards and Henderson will return or have their replacements lined up.
Then it's time to start delivering pink slips. The Jets are about $30 million over the projected salary cap for next year, and the first two casualties could be two of their best defenders. Ty Law picked off 10 passes this season to earn himself a Pro Bowl invitation and likely a big windfall in free agency. Defensive end John Abraham is also likely to go. The Jets used their franchise tag on him last year, and probably can't afford to do that again. Veterans like guard Pete Kendall could also be too expensive to retain.
The concern about aging players on the offensive line is best addressed through the draft. Virginia tackle D'Brickshaw Ferguson or Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata look like the early favorites to go to the Jets at with the fourth overall pick.
And like it or not, Pennington's massive contract makes him the starting quarterback next year. Whether the offense will ever thrive with him under center remains to be seen, but for better or worse, he's your man. The Jets have a good core of young defenders to build around, and the addition of some mid-range free agents could make them a top-10 defense again.
The key is to avoid the sort of self-deception that got the Jets into this mess in the first place. Sure, the injuries made things tough, but even if all those players had stayed healthy, the 2005 Jets were not going to be a playoff team. The decisions they make over the next few weeks will determine whether they fare any better in 2006.
January 6, 2006 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version