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Five New York Jets Questions with Football Outsiders

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Football Outsiders has become a must-see site for any hardcore football fan. It's wide range of new statistical analysis takes fans further inside the game than we ever could have dreamed years ago. They are out with a new book, the 2009 Football Outsiders Almanac, an incredible preview of everything you'd want to know about football this coming season. Sean McCormick, the author who did the chapter on the Jets took five questions from GGN.

1. You guys say the numbers suggested the Jets' 8-3 start was something of a mirage. Yet of those eight wins there was a thumping of the NFC Champion Cardinals, another on the home field of the AFC's top seed, and road victories over a pair of division rivals who both posted 11 win seasons. There were also convincing victories over the Rams and Bills. Only two of those wins looked underwhelming at first glance. Obviously you guys were on to something based on the way the season ended. What in particular stuck out that wasn't obvious to the casual observer?

I'm not sure people realized how weak the level of competition was for AFC East teams last year.  Miami went 11-5 and won the division, but according to our numbers, there were three 8-8 teams, one 9-7 team and one 6-10 team that played better football over the course of the season.  People remember the Arizona Cardinals as the team who pushed the Steelers to the limit in the Super Bowl, but in the regular season they only scored one more point than they allowed despite playing in the NFC West, the worst division in football.  The wins over Buffalo looked good because the Bills raced off to a 5-1 start, but that hot start was itself mostly a schedule-induced mirage.  People might look at the Jets schedule and point out that they actually lost when playing bottom dwellers like Seattle and San Francisco while beating good teams like Miami and Buffalo, but those "good teams" only looked good because they inflated their records by fattening up on cupcake opponents.  The other tell was that when you looked at the Jets DVOA game-by-game, there was a lot of variance.  The Jets either played very well, as they did against St. Louis, Tennessee and Arizona, or they played very poorly, as they did against Oakland, Kansas City and San Diego.  There wasn't a lot of middle ground. 

2. You guys seem to be pessimistic about the Jets' chances this season. One of the main reasons is depth. At what position do you think the Jets can least afford an injury?
The depth at tight end and wide receiver is almost non-existent, and it's hard to see how the Jets could recover from losing either Dustin Keller or Jerricho Cotchery for any substantial length of time.  That said, the area I would be most concerned about is the offensive line.  The Jets starting five went all sixteen games together, and they were one of the most dominant units in the league.  If the Jets are serious about starting Mark Sanchez, they want to give him as much protection as possible, and they want to maintain their ground game to take the pressure off.  Injuries to the offensive line and you could see a repeat of 2007, when Kellen Clemens was beaten into the ground (quite literally, as Richard Seymour ended his season by planting Clemens into the Gilette Stadium turf) and never seemed to recover. 

3. What do you think is most likely five years from now for Mark Sanchez? Will he be a franchise quarterback, a capable but unspectacular quarterback, or a total bust?

According to our research, the two most important factors in determining the NFL success of top quarterback prospects are career games started and completion percentage.  Sanchez's completion percentage is excellent, but he only started 16 games in college, which is fewer than any quarterback taken in the first or second round in the last twelve seasons.  Of the guys with fewer than 25 career starts, you get a list that includes Akili Smith, Jim Druckenmiller, Ryan Leaf, Michael Vick, Alex Smith and Aaron Rodgers.  The only guy who seems poised to establish himself as a passer is Rodgers, who sat for multiple seasons before taking over in Green Bay.  That said, the low start number doesn't mean that Sanchez is doomed to fail, but simply that he is a higher risk than guys with a longer track record.  Sanchez is like a phenom pitcher who went through the league once; we haven't seen how other teams would adjust to him, and how he would respond to those adjustments.  That said, only starting 16 games at USC, which churns out first round quarterbacks every few seasons, is an entirely different deal than starting 16 games at Virginia Tech or Kentucky.  Just from watching Sanchez play, there's a lot to like about him.  He has terrific footwork in the pocket, he throws well on the move, he reads the field well for someone with so little experience and he just seems to have a feel for how to play the position.  NFL Network's Mike Mayock said that if he had to put his job on the line, Sanchez is the quarterback he would want from this class, and I'm inclined to agree. 
4. An interesting point you made dealt with the success of defensive coaches taking over teams with personnel they were familiar with. The Jets did import a number of Ryan's former players and seem to have playmakers at similar positions the Ravens did. I don't think anybody's expecting Ryan to have the same success in New York that he did in Baltimore, but do you think the Jets have the players to run a similar defense to the Ravens successfully?

I'm not sure I agree with you; I think a lot of Jets fans look at the Pro Bowl selections from last year and think that Ryan is going to come in and have the defense playing at a top five level, especially considering the offseason additions of Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard.  Anyway, I think the Jets personnel should fit pretty well into Ryan's scheme.  They have terrific size and athleticism in the front seven, they have a shutdown corner in Darrelle Revis, and they seem to have improved their depth and playmaking in the secondary with the additions of Jim Leonhard, Lito Sheppard and Donald Stickland and the maturation of Dwight Lowery.  The question is whether they can avoid injuries along the defensive line, particularly at nose tackle, where Kris Jenkins is both injury-prone and irreplacable (which is never a good combination).     

5. Does a blitz happy system fit the Jets better than the system Eric Mangini ran?

People think of Eric Mangini and instantly assume that the Jets spent all year rushing three and dropping eight into coverage, and to a certain extent, that's true--the Jets rushed three on 24.1% of their defensive snaps, most in the league by a healthy margin.  But Mangini rushed five more often than he rushed three.  He didn't rush six or seven all that often, but that was a change from 2007, when he was much more aggressive, more aggressive in fact than Rex Ryan.  In 2007, the Jets blitzed six or more on 13.7% of their snaps.  Ryan only blitzed six or more roughly 8.5% of the time in each of the past two seasons.  The difference is that in 2007 the Jets had to send the house to stop the run, while in 2008 they were able to rely on Kris Jenkins to clog up the middle and allow the outside linebackers to overplay the outside and shut down stretch and off tackle plays.  So the idea that Mangini and Bob Sutton were adverse to blitzing is, I think, misguided.  The problem is that the Jets didn't blitz very effectively.  Whether that was primarily a function of personnel or of scheme remains to be seen, though I tend to think it was a little more of the latter.  Sutton's blitzes didn't seem to have much imagination to them.  Ryan, in contrast, will make a point of overloading one side, often while threatening to blitz from the other side with pre-snap motion.  Will it fit the Jets better?  I think that depends on how well the secondary holds up.  The Patriots really exposed the Jets' Achilles Heel in their second game when they forced the Jets into nickel and dime packages and threw the ball wherever Darrelle Revis wasn't.  The Jets tried to upgrade the quality of their second, third and fourth corners, but we'll have to wait until the season starts before we know if they've succeeded.  If the Jets are as vulnerbale in coverage as they were last year, the blitzes won't really matter, because teams will simply spread the field and take advantage of the matchups.  

Thanks to Sean, and be sure to buy this book. I can not encourage you to read it enough.