New York Jets What If Wednesday: What If the Jets Had Signed Nnamdi Asomugha in 2011?

Jeff Gross

Free agency was much less friendly this time for Nnamdi Asomugha than it was a year and a half ago. In the summer of 2011, Asomugha was a top two cornerback with a chance to become the richest player at his position. This time he was arguably a bottom two cornerback who got no guaranteed money from the San Francisco 49ers. His time in Philadelphia was a disaster. Asomugha will go down as one of the biggest free agent flops in NFL history.

As you probably remember, the Jets tried to land Asomugha, a courtship that lasted three days and provoked 22 related articles on GGN over that stretch. It almost happened. What would things have been like had the Jets given Asomugha the money the Eagles did, and Nnamdi became a Jet?

The easy answer is that Nnamdi would have been a bust, and the Jets would have been stuck with yet another bloated contract. I am not sure, however, this is the correct answer. I think there were more things at play in Philadelphia that led to Nnamdi's demise than simply a player not performing.

There are some great players who have a diverse set of skills. Others can only do one thing, but they do it so well that they are still great. To draw a basketball analogy, Kevin McHale and Hakeem Olajuwon were both great low post scorers. McHale was great because he had a variety of moves he could use to score. Hakeem had one move, but he was so great at using it, he was unstoppable. To draw a baseball analogy, Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera are both Hall of Fame pitchers. Martinez dominated because he had four quality pitches in his prime. Rivera only used one pitch most of his career, but it was unhittable.

When Nnamdi Asomugha was at his best, he dominated doing one thing. He lined up outside on one side of the field, and won a matchup against a receiver in press man coverage almost every single time. He used his size and strength. He used his hands to knock the receiver off his center of gravity, end the running start, and pin him against the sideline. He wasn't like Charles Woodson or Darrelle Revis, moving all over the field with different responsibilities in different types of coverage. He controlled his side doing one thing.

The Eagles used Nnamdi differently. They decided to move him around more. He lined up in the slot. He had to play off coverage. He played a ton of zone in Philadelphia's zone heavy defense. He wasn't able to do the one thing he dominated with. Nnamdi was great in Oakland because he could use his size and strength. Suddenly he was heavily playing roles that required speed, quickness, and instincts.

The Eagles turned into a negative situation quickly. They were a bad team, and Nnamdi was struggling. It seemed like these bad vibes robbed Nnamdi of his confidence. A bad work environment can make things snowball. When you aren't happy, you don't work as hard and aren't as productive. That makes you even less happy and work even less harder. It becomes a cycle. This doesn't mean you have to feel bad for a man making a ton of money, but it is easy to see how this thing fell apart. Even so, you could still see glimpses of the player he was in Oakland when he lined up playing press coverage, including three quarters against the Lions where he held Calvin Johnson in check.

Rex Ryan is a coach who loves playing press man coverage. He built his defense with the Jets around Darrelle Revis' unique ability in this area. Simply put, the Jets' system was tailored to Nnamdi Asomugha. The Eagles' defense was tailored to expose Nnamdi's flaws. There's no doubt there has been some erosion in Nnamdi's skill, but it is not crazy to think any erosion would have been much more subtle with the Jets. It also would be easy to imagine Nnamdi and Revis pushing each other to be the best they could be. They were already friends. They would train together and study together. It could have been a case where they made each other better.

What would the effect have been on the Jets? It would have transformed the defense if Nnamdi was anything close to the player he was in Oakland. Darrelle Revis is a unique cornerback. He is so good that he takes away an outside receiver without needing help, effectively covering half the field by himself. This has allowed the Jets to stick extra defenders to make passing windows on the other side extremely tight.

In 2011 Asomugha was probably the only other cornerback in the game with this kind of capability. He wouldn't have needed extra help from Revis. Revis and Asomugha would have totally locked up the outside. That would have funneled passes to the middle of the field. Only on plays where there are the regular four pass rushers, the Jets would have had five defenders to cover that space instead of the usual three. The passing lanes in the middle of the field would have been ridiculously tight. An opponent would have to execute perfectly to run a successful play. They would have needed multiple perfect plays in a short span to put together a drive. This would have been a huge problem even before you consider the receivers who would have needed to execute were typically the third, fourth, and fifth best receivers on their team and unlikely to thus run routes that well.

The Jets also would have these extra resources in the middle to neutralize teams with strong slot receivers and tight ends, like New England. When you are trotting out the kinds of linebackers and safeties the Jets were at that time, extra resources for the middle of the field were essential. Nnamdi and Revis together also open up the defensive playbook for all kinds of wild and exotic blitz packages. You can get extra aggressive because you know the coverage will hold, and the coverage being so good gives rushers extra time to get to the quarterback, making the pass rush more potent.

It also gives extra flexibility where needed. Against a special slot receiver like Victor Cruz, you can stick Revis there since you have Nnamdi to handle Hakeem Nicks. That might prevent Cruz from doing something crazy, like say a 99 yard touchdown catch. If Davone Bess is going off against Kyle Wilson like he did Week 17 of 2011, you can slide Revis inside since you have Nnamdi to lock up Brandon Marshall. The few plays this impacts can be the difference between making and missing the Playoffs.

Before we get to this, however, we have to figure out how to pay for Nnamdi and the $12 million average salary on that contract. We can easily free up $1.5 million with a contract restructure somewhere that does minimal harm. The bulk of this money should come out of the secondary, though, since that's where we are adding the bill. Antonio Cromartie never gets re-signed if Nnamdi comes. Nnamdi is there to take his starting spot. That covers $8.5 million of the $11 million we need. Where do we find that extra $2.5 million from the secondary? It's simple. That $2.5 million is no longer available to re-sign Eric Smith. That was the likely outcome of signing Nnamdi at the time. In hindsight, we now know Smith was so bad that the simple act of subtracting him from the 2011 Jets could possibly have swung two to three games in New York's favor.

Because the Jets don't have Smith anymore, they feel less confident going into 2011 about their safety depth. That probably means Dwight Lowery does not get traded to Jacksonville. Lowery probably ends up starting. He's the kind of player who needs to play centerfield, though, so Jim Leonhard gets taken out of that role and takes on the run stopping role Smith had. Lowery is better in coverage than Leonhard. Leonhard is better than Smith at pretty much everything. Thus the safety play just got better also.

It seems quite possible the butterfly effect here could have given the 2011 Jets the two wins they needed to make the Playoffs but less than the five they needed to win the division. Maybe the Jets could have won in the first round at a Houston team playing a third string rookie quarterback, but the 2011 Jets were not a championship team even with Nnamdi Asomugha. The horrendous play of the offense down the stretch assured it. Mark Sanchez's play collapsed in the second half of that year. It was so bad that the Jets in December turned to a passing playbook that looked like a high school offense with a simple single read. The Jets did not have the kind of offensive line that allowed them to rely on the run game like they did from 2008 to 2010. They might have been able to sneak out enough wins to make the tournament, but they just did not have an offense to make noise once there.

2012 probably would have played out very similarly to the way it did in reality. Mark Sanchez still would have gotten his extension. It would have been justified by him "getting" the team to the Playoffs in his first three years. Mike Tannenbaum still would have traded for Tim Tebow and ignored how bad Wayne Hunter was. Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes still would have gotten hurt. Nnamdi probably would have ended up doing some sort of Antonio Cromartie 2012 imitation since he has started to slip a bit. Brian Schottenheimer might have held onto his job for another year, but the offense wouldn't have been much more or less effective.

Ultimately the biggest difference is that Mike Tannenbaum probably would still be the general manager of the Jets. If he had three straight Playoff appearances to fall back on, he could explain away one bad year in 2012. He could blame the injuries. The foundation of the team would still be rotten. He would be doing even more to hurt the future of the team looking for quick fixes.

I think the book is still unwritten on whether losing out on Nnamdi was a good thing. It all depends on what the value of making the Playoffs in 2011 would have been. If the job is too big for the new general manager, the Jets could be looking at a long Playoff drought. One last recent memory would have been awfully nice then. If John Idzik ends up fixing what was wrong and builds a solid foundation for the team to contend on, losing out on Nnamdi will have turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to the Jets, just not for the reason everybody thinks.

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