There is a general sense of surrender in Jets fans right now that, while certainly justified by the team's performances in several games this year, probably borders on that 'same old jets fan' mentality that never quite seems to leave many fans behind and that I just can't stand. There is no arguing that our team is flawed, but as far as I'm concerned, just how flawed they are is up for serious debate. In this post I am going to take an overall glance at the issues our offense, defense and special teams are having and offer a glance at the reasons to believe in improvement and a look at the rest of the season's schedule, which will hopefully instill a bit of hope in those whose souls have not been completely crushed. (All five of us.)
The offensive issues of the New York Jets are plentiful, but a bit overblown. Mark Sanchez's issues are not overblown, but he has had a few good stretches in games. It's really more of the same from him, teasing the talent and ultimately failing to maintain it. Our offensive line has shown marked improvement from last year, but still struggles at time. Our running backs are starting to run harder, but are still a subpar corps, and our receiving corps is untested and unproven. Stephen Hill is going to be a good NFL receiver someday, but he's going to take a while to get his hands where they need to be. Chaz Schilens (a guy I am actually very high on) has speed, a vertical game and hands, but struggles to make catches with tight defense on him. It's something I believe he will get better at. This is the first time he's gotten an extended chance in the NFL and he is still learning to use his body. I believe he can be an above average complementary player in the NFL, in the mold of a Laurent Robinson or Devery Henderson. Clyde Gates was brought in for his speed and potential, and it remains to be seen if the Miami game was a fluke for him or what we can expect going forward. Having Keller back is going to make Sanchez better going forward, but the bottom line is that Sanchez still has to get more accurate. All of his other problems will be lessened in scope if he can do that one thing.
The problems on defense can be summarized with two thoughts. First, despite Rex Ryan's creative blitz schemes, we are not getting to the quarterback nearly enough. This problem is starting to fix itself with the maturation of Mohammed Wilkerson and the development of Quinton Coples, but it will still probably take just one more of the motley collection of has-been and never-was linebackers to start contributing a little more in the qb pressure area before we really notice any improvement. I think the best we can hope for at this point is for Aaron Maybin to start showing up, or for Demario Davis to keep getting chances.
The second issue on defense is growing pains. Across the board, we have new guys starting to play more, and some not so new guys being asked to do new things. The last four games have thrown few defenders into the fire as quickly and harshly as Kyle Wilson, and Wilson has been a very mixed bag. He's been good at times, but his inability to turn and look for the ball and his propensity to bite short on hesitation routes has really hurt him. I am not writing him off as a bust because he is statistically a decent player, but he will need to significantly improve those two areas of his game if he ever wants to be anything more than a nickel corner. I like the youth movement going forward. This is how NFL players are made.
Aside from that, Cromartie has been every bit the star Rex Ryan believed he could be, and the Bell/Landry safety combo has been as advertised. They are still occasionally a liability in coverage, but as one year stopgaps go they are far better than what we had last year. Yeremiah Bell is very quietly every bit the player Jim Leonhard was, and Laron Landry has made a lot of nice plays when he actually remembers to wrap up the defender instead of just going for a killshot. Our run defense suffered at the start of the year due to constant shifts at the d-line positions due to injury but it is starting to settle in. Since Arian Foster gashed us for over 150yds (as he is wont to do to many defenses), we have seen the defense get much better at containing the run.
I won't dwell on special teams too long. Westy's crew has seen a lot of turnover this year. They've made some nice plays and helped us stay in/win a couple of games, but there has been some uncharacteristically poor tackling and protection. A number of people on GGN have made the point that he is working with an ever-changing cast and a pretty important roleplayer who has never played special teams before… so you pretty much get what you paid for there. If there's any aspect of this team we have always been able to put our faith in, it has been Westhoff's group. I trust that he will figure it out. He doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would want to go out with a whimper.
I know that people have a long list of disappointments with this franchise, ranging from coach to owner to GM and everyone from there to waterboy. Being one of the few people around here who still believes in the framework of this team, my disappointments have mostly been the lack of ability to capitalize on good opportunities, and the faulty loyalty the coach has shown a couple of position players. The players I am referring to are mostly Shonn Greene, Bryan Thomas, Calvin Pace and Bart Scott. Most would include Sanchez on that list. I am probably the only person who does not. I want Rex to remain loyal to Sanchez for the rest of the season. Give Sanchez every chance, and worry about preparing to move on if he does not start putting it all together after the season. I still cannot help but draw comparisons to Eli in his fourth year even though they are a very different pair of players, because I remember so many Giants fans issuing very similar complaints that we have with Sanchez now. Not accurate enough, not mentally tough enough. Practically word for word, really. Maybe it's hopeless homerism, or maybe I'll get to post an "I told you so" post someday soon. I suspect it may be the first, but there's a flicker of hope in me every time I see Sanchez actually run a solid drive that makes me believe it could be the latter. I see him as a guy who is getting pretty close to hitting rock bottom. That's when a player either rebounds or sinks completely. I know most people believe he's already sunk. I do not.
The GM conversation would take a post of its own if I went into detail. I will try to make it short by just saying that while you can legitimately criticize the depth of our team and wonder about some of the moves Tanny has made, you also have to give him credit for constructing a team that we have expectations for, and for aggressively pursuing the guys the organization wants. His unorthodox strategy of top-loading a team with people he sees as upper-tier talent has been a mixed bag of disappointing finishes and AFC championship game appearances. He is not as bad as people make him out to be. He's just unorthodox. When you're unorthodox, you're a genius if it works and a fool if it doesn't. Maybe he's a little of both.
As an aside, I was really disappointed with the release of Jonathan Grimes. Watching him in his limited snaps and checking out some highlight tape on him really had me believing he could compete for the starting job next year. Or honestly, even this year if he had been given a few touches. He's a tough, strong runner with good vision. I get the sense that the Jets evaluate their running backs primarily on how well they pass block, which is honestly not what you want to see. That's a valuable essential skill that can be taught, but not what you want to assign a starting job based on unless all other things are equal. It seems like the offensive coaches don't really even worry about putting the best player on the field. We thought it was all Schotty, (and this is in no way about to turn into a defense of him. He is as awful as advertised.) but maybe it's also Rex, because it does not seem like much has changed in that department.
Looking forward, I am still trying to maintain positivity. Outside of Houston there are no sure things in this year's AFC, and even they have been exposed as vulnerable at points. New York is just another flawed team in a collection of flawed teams competing for five playoff spots. With none of the wildcard contending teams being more than two games ahead of the Jets and with many of our main opponents for those spots facing brutal second half schedules, it is very realistic to think that the final playoff spots in the AFC will go to teams that are 9-7 and that we can sneak in with a strong finish. A 6-2 finish for the Jets is not that hard to conceive if they get on some sort of roll. The remaining schedule offers ample opportunity for this team to turn things around.
What I see as the biggest test of the second half comes immediately after our bye as we go to what is probably the most hostile environment for opposing quarterbacks in the NFL, Seattle's CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks are not a very scary team, but they have what has to be considered one of the greatest homefield advantages in sports right now. So far this year, they have only gotten one win on the road and are undefeated at home, with impressive wins over the Cowboys, Packers (technically) and Patriots. That stadium rattles quarterbacks, and our quarterback is easily rattled. If Sanchez can maintain his composure and not turn the ball over, Seattle is a very beatable team. Their front seven is decent but more workmanlike than spectacular, and their secondary is full of big athletes but just a touch overrated. On offense they really just have Marshawn Lynch. You control him and you win the game. That isn't to knock Russell Wilson, who has in a very short time already proven that he has what it takes to start in the NFL, but he is still a rookie and is as mistake prone as any of them. If NY can avoid any major blunders on offense, a low score - eke out type win is in reach.
From there we go to St. Louis, where Brian Schottenheimer has not shot himself in the foot yet but is bound to very soon, probably while trying to call some of his patented 'amazing' plays against the Jets. Their defense is the opposite of Seattle's, being pretty talented up front but very vulnerable on the back end. You can run the ball on them pretty well though, in spurts. They are a middle of the pack defense. Offensively they have a pretty good young running back by the name of Daryl Richardson who will warrant watching, and Steven Jackson is still a decent player despite his decline. Their main receiving threat is Danny Amendola, who is currently out but will probably be back by the time we play them. He has excellent chemistry with Sam Bradford. He is a slot receiver in the Wes Welker mold and despite being a guy many people have never heard of, may actually be nearly as good as Welker. Bradford is pretty inconsistent, and as easily rattled as our own QB. We would need to play a pretty bad game to lose to this team, which I am of course not putting past us at this point, but remember, this is a sunshiney positive spin post. J
After that we go home to face New England on short rest. No need to go into why this is tough, but a well-played game here could give us an outside shot at not just a wildcard berth, but the division too. If their secondary stays as bad as it currently is, we'd still need a perfect game to win it, but it is not nearly as impossible a task as it would have seemed in years past.
Following New England, we are at home against the Arizona Cardinals with our team on extended rest. Arizona is a wildly inconsistent team with a few really good players and a lot of not so good players. Antonio Cromartie gets what is probably his toughest test of the Revis-free season in Larry Fitzgerald, but Arizona is quarterback-free most weeks so that helps too. At this point AZ has no reliable running backs, one really good receiver and two okay ones, and maybe three defensive standouts. If NY is getting on a roll at this point, it could be a game very similar in outcome to the Colts game.
Next up we are at Jacksonville. They are 1-6 right now, dead last in the league on offense and very close to the bottom of the league on defense, and they may still be missing their only offensive player of note in Maurice Jones Drew when we play. They have a decent RB in Rashad Jennings and a promising young receiver in Cecil Shorts, but they are not a good football team. Probably the most winnable game on the schedule.
After that, Tennessee. Their stats are comparable to Jacksonville's and their defense is actually statistically worse, which really surprised me. They have unspectacular defenders who are usually fundamentally sound but it seems they have tended to give up demoralizing scoring drives at the worst possible times this year. Their offensive flow depends heavily on Chris Johnson, and he has disappeared on them more often than not. There's no telling who their qb will be at that point, but neither Jake Locker or Matt Hasslebeck is very worrisome. Another very winnable game.
The second to last game of the season will be against the San Diego Chargers. It is very likely that San Diego will be one of the other teams competing for a wild card spot. This game is very hard to predict. On the one hand, San Diego is notorious for their late season runs. On the other hand, Phillip Rivers can be extremely inconsistent, the Chargers do miss Vincent Jackson a lot, and Rex Ryan has absolutely owned Rivers in matchups against Rex's defenses. The outcome of this game will very likely be determined by which team is hotter by week 16. Challenging, but winnable.
The season closes at Buffalo. Buffalo is a bad team. They are also our personal buttmonkeys. If we are playing well late, they don't stand a chance. If we are playing poorly late, we'll probably still beat them. If they collectively sell their souls in an attempt to buy a victory against us, we'll probably still beat them in overtime. If we forfeit, the game may end in a tie.
While I am aware that we have problems, the second half schedule offers some pretty real hope for competitiveness, and the last ten years of NFL playoff games are packed with proof that sometimes the hotter team beats what is arguably the better team. I know that a large part of the fan base is more concerned with draft picks at this point, but to be honest that's kind of ridiculous to me. The season is a long way from over, and I'm not ready to concede anything. You guys shouldn't be either. Outside of a very few teams that are fortunate enough to have dynasty-like stretches, nothing is promised in the NFL and you never know if that one fluke year with a hot finish where you probably don't deserve to win it all is the one that will give you your first, and maybe last, championship in decades. That's just the reality of team sports. Windows open unexpectedly and close the same way. The Super Bowl is still the goal, and for a team that has played below its skill level a lot, there's no real reason they can't have a good stretch of playing at or above it.