Very few people at the start of the season thought the Jets would be 5-4 at this point. Possibly even fewer thought the Jets could get through their seemingly rough October and early November stretch of Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New England, Cincinnati, and New Orleans at 3-2. How have the Jets been able to do it? There are many reasons. Below are my top five reasons.
1. Improved quarterback play
A quarterback is really important in the NFL. The Jets do not exactly have a passing game that has lit the NFL on fire. The Jets are low to middle of the pack in many major statistical categories. There have been too many interceptions. It has been an inefficient passing attack by NFL standards.
Want to know something else? Even though the passing game is below average by NFL standards, it is less inefficient than it was last year. The Jets are getting more when they throw it. One could argue that Mark Sanchez's play left the Jets with minimal chance to win over half of their games last year. While Geno Smith has had numerous ugly moments, they have at least been a little less frequent.
The biggest change has probably been the big plays the offense has produced. Geno Smith already has 29 completions of 20 yards or more and 6 completions of 40 yards or more. That puts him in the top ten in both categories. For reference, Sanchez had 34 completions of at least 20 yards and 8 of at least 40 yards in all of 2012.
What makes Geno's ability to pick up chunk plays impressive is the suspect receiving corps he has. When healthy, it is not great by NFL standards, but almost every key piece has missed some time. He doesn't have a go to guy. He also doesn't have a guy who he can trust to beat coverage on almost every play. This has forced him to work harder for his big completions. He in general has to identify the matchup he wants, and stick the ball into a tight window.
These big plays are critical since the Jets do not have an offense that can regularly string together 10 plays in a row. The only other option is to pick up big gobs of yardage at once.
How good will Geno become? It is tough to say. The offense hasn't been spectacular, but you wouldn't expect an offense run by a rookie with so few weapons to be so. The lack of weapons make Geno tough to judge. Perhaps more than anything, this is an indication of just how terrible Mark Sanchez was a year ago. The lack of weapons is an excuse for not having a great offense, but clearly it is not an excuse for being unable to do anything competently. Geno is producing big plays regularly as a rookie with essentially the same group. With the kind of defense the Jets have, they don't need a great offense. They simply need a functional one.
It would be easy to give most of the credit to Marty Mornhinweg. To be certain, Mornhinweg does deserve credit. He has shown an ability to adapt and to play to both his strengths and the opponent's weakness in ways his predecessors did not. You can call the most brilliant game, however, and still look like a fool if your players fail to execute. While Tony Sparano failed in almost every way imaginable as a coordinator last year, there still was not much inherent in his play calls that prevented them from working. His quarterback simply did not look like he could execute anything.
If Sanchez was still the starter, I can't help but imagine the Jets would be something like 2-7 or 3-6 right now. People would be calling for Rex Ryan's head, and saying Mornhinweg was just as bad as Schottenheimer or Sparano. There would be talk about how bad the receivers are and how the Jets needed to keep sticking it out with Sanchez because Geno would be ruined if he was thrown into such a mess. While Geno's career trajectory is uncertain, it is a credit to him that we are at least out of that eternal trap for good.
2. Mike Tannenbaum's going away gifts
The decision to fire Mike Tannenbaum was 100% the right call. In seven years, he failed to find a franchise quarterback. At the end of his run, his decision-making was largely looking for quick fixes and gimmicks and stubbornly refusing to admit mistakes until they turn into full-fledged crises. He also got minimal returns from Drafts in the years 2008 through 2010. That is an undertold part of the Jets' demise, but a critical one. As the 2006 and 2007 Draft classes came of age, the Jets made deep postseason runs. As the 2008 through 2010 classes failed to do so, the franchise took huge steps back. Simply put, the Jets rightly lost faith that Tannebaum was the right guy to turn the ship around.
Some players he did find at the end of his run have come of age and filled some roles on the defense that looked like huge question marks heading into this season. Muhammad Wilkerson seemed like he had become an elite player last year, but he has somehow taken his game to an even higher level this year. Demario Davis, Damon Harrison, and Antonio Allen were under the radar guys who have filled key positions that looked like glaring question marks entering the season. Their play has varied from dominant in Harrison to good in Davis to credible in Allen. Those positions are far more stable than Jets fans could have realistically hoped at the start of the year. While these do not do much to vindicate the job Tannenbaum did in getting the Jets to the dire position he left them, they were nice parting gifts.
3. The rookie class stepping up
In the NFL, you never want to be in a position where you absolutely need your rookies to contribute right off the bat because many players who eventually become good are totally lost as rookies. In an ideal world, their contributions should be a bonus.
The Jets have asked their rookies to perform this year, and they have. I was openly wondering how much Sheldon Richardson could provide as a rookie. I wasn't really wrong to wonder that. Interior linemen are usually minimal contributors as rookies. It takes at least a year for the vast majority of players to get comfortable with the strength and athleticism of NFL linemen. It can be overwhelming. Richardson also had technique issues in college.
It wasn't a knock on Richardson to question as much as it is a credit to both he and Karl Dunbar that he has been such a major contributor. He has been a force as a pass rusher and a rock against the run.
We already mentioned Geno Smith. Brian Winters is also in the Smith category. Like the quarterback, his play has been uneven and probably below average by NFL standards. He at least has been an upgrade over somebody who was terrible in Vladimir Ducasse and brought credibility to the position.
4. The return of accountability
After last year when the Jets seemed content to let Sanchez sink the season and ran guys like Bart Scott out there for far too long, there have been consequences for subpar play. The aforementioned Ducasse ended up riding the pine once he proved he was a penalty and blown block machine. Dee Milliner has been benched multiple times for subpar performances.
This has many effects. It improves the performance on the field, but there is a more hidden effect also. It ensures players are working as hard as possible. You believe that you could be next as a player. If that guy could be benched, there is nothing to stop the coach from benching me if I don't do the job. That prevents players from slacking in practice or the film room. It might be easy to not put in that extra set of reps in the weight room if nobody can get benched.
There's a lot of talk about Rex Ryan growing up as a coach. I think a lot of this analysis is superficial and based on him talking less trash, which has little to do with this team's success. I think one area where he really has grown up is his willingness to stick underperformers on the bench. That didn't happen a year ago.
5. Good fortune
It makes me laugh when people dismiss a team's success in the NFL as "luck." The fact is luck is a part of the league. In a 16 game season, it plays an inordinate role. Teams play so many close games that come down to a handful of plays. On many of these plays, an element of luck is involved. There just aren't many Super Bowl champions who weren't aided by a lot of good fortune along the way. There aren't many terrible teams who weren't pretty unlucky. Of course skill is very important, but you need to catch breaks to win in the NFL. Dismissing a team as lucky is laughable because almost every good team gets more good fortune than bad.
This year the Jets are being outscored by an average of a touchdown per game. They have 10 more turnovers on offense than takeaways. They are 5-1 in games decided by one score or less. These things are just not common for a 5-4 team. The Jets just might be having one of those magical years where the ball is bouncing their way every time they need it.