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Right Answer, Wrong Question

A look at the Jets model for success.


Mark Sanchez is under siege. Since last year's disastrous 3 game losing streak to knock the Jets out of the playoff race, and continuing into this year's less than inspiring 3-5 start, Sanchez has seemingly regressed, and he has increasingly lost the confidence of the fanbase, if not the team. One question that has been getting asked with increasing frequency and urgency is, can we win it all with Sanchez at QB? It seems to me that a moment's reflection will produce the answer that of course we can. We came close in 2009 and 2010, and in 2010, at least, it was not just the Defense carrying Mark on its back. In fact, had the Defense shown up for the Steelers game in 2010 it is very likely the Jets would have been in the Super Bowl, a single victory away from the title. So, I believe the answer is yes, of course we can win a Super Bowl with Sanchez at the helm. Unfortunately, I also believe that this is the wrong question to ask.

Teams like the 2002 Bucs, the 2000 Ravens and the 1985 Bears are routinely brought up to prove the point that you can indeed win a Super Bowl with a mediocre QB, so long as you have a dominant defense. And indeed, guys like Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson and Jim McMahon are hardly legendary QBs, and Sanchez probably fits in with this group, somewhere between Johnson and Dilfer. If the Jets can muster a legendary defense like those teams, the Jets can most likely win it all with Sanchez at the helm. So the argument goes. But I do not think this analysis goes far enough. What is left unsaid is that each of those teams with legendary defenses never again made a Super Bowl appearance. In fact, only the Ravens ever even appeared in another conference championship game. This despite all of those teams maintaining superior defenses for 5 years or more; the Ravens and Bucs had superior defenses for more than a decade. Yet none of those legendary defenses managed a single return trip to the Super Bowl, let alone another Super Bowl championship.

Thus, while it is probably correct to say that the Jets can win a Super Bowl with Sanchez at QB, that question seems to me slightly off. The better questions might be how can the Jets set themselves up to be an annual Super Bowl contender? How can the Jets become a yearly favorite for the AFC East title? How can the Jets build a team that annually achieves one or more home playoff games, the best and easiest, if not the only path to the Super Bowl? To begin to answer those questions, it might be instructive to take a look at our doppleganger, the Baltimore Ravens.

There is little question that the Jets have been made in the Ravens' image. Rex Ryan came from the Ravens' organization, brought over players and defensive schemes from Baltimore, and fashioned a Top 5 Defense and a run first offense like the Ravens. Like the Ravens, the Jets have a Defense built around an all time great defensive star (although the Ravens have 2 in Lewis and Reed), and like the Ravens, the Jetse have a QB who can't seem to reach much beyond average, and is rarely capable of taking the team on his back and single handedly carrying it to victory (although Flacco is clearly better than Sanchez to date).

Now, let's look at what the Ravens have accomplished during their years of defensive dominance. The Ravens first rose to defensive prominence in 1999, the first year of Brian Billick's tenure as head coach and Ray Lewis' first of 7 All Pro years. In 1999 the Ravens had the the NFL's #2 Defense, and for the next 13 years that Defense would remain elite, finishing in the top 6 in 11 of those 13 years and only finishing out of the top 10 once, in 2002 when Lewis missed all but 5 games due to injury. During that remarkable stretch of great defensive play, the Ravens had consistently mediocre QB play, starting such luminaries at the position as Tony Banks, Elvis Grbac, Jeff Blake, Kyle Boller, and Joe Flacco. As a result, despite dominant Defenses, the Ravens finished with more than 10 wins in only 5 of those 13 seasons, and finished .500 or worse in 4 of those seasons. They missed the playoffs 5 times, made it to the Conference Championship game 3 times, and only made it to the Super Bowl once, in 2000, when they won it all. They could only be deemed legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 4 of those years. It adds up to a nice record to be sure, but hardly dominant.

The Tampa Bay Bucs tell a similar tale. From 1997 through 2008, a stretch of 12 years, the Bucs had a dominant Defense, finishing in the top 3 in 6 of those 12 years, top 6 in 9 of the 12 years, and top 10 in all but 1 year. Like the Ravens, the Bucs failed to obtain a top QB, starting Trent Dilfer, Shaun King, Brad Johnson, Brian Griese, Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski and Jeff Garcia over that stretch. The result was very similar to the Ravens. Despite dominant Defenses, the Bucs finished with more than 10 wins in only 3 of those 12 seasons, and finished .500 or worse in 4 of those seasons. Like the Ravens, they missed the playoffs 5 times. They made it to the Conference Championship game only 2 times, and only made it to the Super Bowl once, in 2002, when they won it all. They could only be deemed legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 3 of those years. Again, it adds up to a nice record, but hardly dominant.

Those are the teams the Jets are built like. Those are the kind of results the Jets can expect if they keep getting Mark Sanchez's current level of play. Maybe the Jets get to a Super Bowl, and if they get there maybe they even win it. But it is unlikely the Jets get there more than once, and they probably won't be better than a 10-6 type team most of the time. For those of us who've been around since Parcells turned the program around, those kind of results don't sound too much different than what we've been achieving in every year since 1998 that our starting QB did not go down with an injury. If that's good enough for you, so be it. For me, I want more. I want a team that is nearly every year a favorite for the division title. A team that wins 11, 12, 13 games every year. I want a team with multiple Super Bowl appearances. In short, I want a Golden Era of Jets football, when the fanbase gets used to sustained excellence, and other teams' fans hate the Jets not because we have a brash coach, but because we consistently kick their cans down the road, out of the parking lot, and all the way back to whatever godforsaken place they came from. So, what kind of teams have achieved that level of excellence?

In short, it boils down to great QB play. The alternate model for sustained NFL excellence consists of a good enough defense and a great QB. The poster children for that model are the Pats and the Colts.

The Pats record is painfully, excruciatingly familiar. Since Brady took the reins in 2001, in 10 seasons under Brady the Pats (excluding 2008 when he was hurt) NEVER finished at or below .500. In 11 of those 12 seasons they made the playoffs. In 8 seasons they won 12 or more games. They went to 6 Conference Championship games and 5 Super Bowls, and won it all twice. They accomplished all this despite never having a top 3 Defense, and only having a top 10 Defense 5 of those 10 years. THAT is what dominance looks like.

The Colts tell a similar tale. In the 12 years Peyton Manning led the Colts (excluding his painful rookie year), the Colts finished at or below .500 only once. In 11 of those 12 seasons they made the playoffs. In 6 seasons they won 12 or more games. They went to 3 Conference Championship games and 2 Super Bowls, and won it all once. While not achieving the ultimate prize as often as the Pats, they were legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 8 of those 12 years. They accomplished all this despite having a top 3 Defense only once, and only having a top 15 Defense 6 of those 12 years. The main difference between their success and the Pats was they rarely managed to have more than a middling Defense, and that hurt them against elite competition. Nonetheless, they were nearly always in the hunt, and more often than not, they were dominant.

The message here is clear. If you want sporadic dominance and occasional greatness, with perhaps a shot or two at a title, you can do it by building a dominant Defense and filling in with a mediocre QB like Sanchez. If, on the other hand, you aspire to true dominance, year after glorious year, you do it by starting with a great QB and filling in with a good enough Defense. Ah, yes, you say, but finding a great QB is easier said than done. Brady and Manning are the 2 best in the game. Finding guys like that is ridiculously hard. Well, true enough. However, I would pose this question: which is more difficult, building a top 3 Defense consisting of 11 players, where 1 or more must be all time greats, and in order to sustain a decade or more of success you need to turn over virtually the entire squad on the fly over that stretch, all while maintaining a consistent level of excellence? Or finding just 1 guy who is top 3 at his position? I would submit that while it is certainly devilishly difficult to find that all time great QB, it is exponentially more difficult to sustain an all time great 11 player defensive unit throughout constant turnover.

If you think that's not so, try and identify Defenses that have sustained a decade or more of dominance. I can give you the list of teams that have done it over the last 40 years. It consists of 4 teams: the Ravens, Bucs, Steelers and Rams. We've already looked at the Ravens and Bucs. The Steelers are truly remarkable, basically maintaining dominant Defenses for all but 9 of those 40 years. Yet despite a virtually continuous record of defensive excellence for 40 years, the only Super Bowl victories they ever achieved were with the only 2 elite QBs ever to play for the Steelers, Bradshaw and Roethlisberger. Again, without the elite QB, even the mighty Steelers Defense fell short year after year. Finally, there's the Rams, who maintained an elite Defense from 1972-1981. Despite 10 years of defensive greatness, those Rams teams never had an elite QB, and it showed. They played in only one Super Bowl, which they lost to the Bradshaw led Steelers.

Over the last 40 years, only 4 teams have been able to sustain defensive dominance for a decade or more, and of those 4 teams, only 2 Super Bowls were won in those 40 years without an elite QB. How many elite QBs were produced over the same period? To name just some of them, let's start with these: Brady, P. Manning, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, E. Manning, Brees, Favre, Elway, Montana, Young, Aikman, Bradshaw, Stabler. That's 13, and there are of course more, but if you managed to pick any one of these guys you got one or more Super Bowl titles and (projecting out for some of the younger guys) a decade or more of football dominance. Collectively those guys account for well over half of all the Super Bowl titles won over the last 40 years. So which is more difficult to find, an elite QB to lead a decade of dominance, or an elite Defense to do the same? And which is more likely to lead you to a true Golden Age of absolute dominance? I think the answers are obvious.

The point, Smackdad, get to the damn point! OK, here it is. The next time somebody tells you that the Jets can win it all with Sanchez (or any other similarly mediocre player) at QB, and points to the Ravens or the Bucs as an example of teams that have done it, your response should not be to argue the point, or go back and forth about whether or not this is now a QB's league. Rather, your response should be to concede the point, but with this proviso: you're asking the wrong question. The question should not be is it possible? Of course it is. Rather, the better question is, how best to go about achieving year in, year out in your face no apologies dominance? And the answer to that question is, not with Sanchez at QB, and not with a defense first philosophy. The answer to that question, and the key to finally, after decades in the wilderness, achieving a true Jets hegemony, is, find a top 3 QB. Make that your first and virtually only priority. Do whatever it takes. Trade up. Trade fan favorites. Find a great QB coach. Get the best QB scouts. And find a Top 3 QB.

Can we win it all with Sanchez? Sure we can. But that's doing it the hard way. It's the right answer to the wrong question.