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Building a NY Jets Golden Age, Part 2

The second in a trilogy exploring a general approach to achieving Jets hegemony.

Jeff Zelevansky

In Part 1 of this series we explored the current Jets approach (Defense first, last and practically everything in between) to building a football dynasty. We talked about what we could reasonably expect from a Ravens type organization. I concluded that, while this approach has its merits, and may even result in an eventual Super Bowl win, it is in my view the hard way to go about building a dynasty.

If you are just hoping to have one or two shots at the brass ring, you can get away with mortgaging the future and destroying your cap space by making a strategic trade or two at just the right time to add to an already good defense. You can trade away draft picks and dole out ridiculous contracts, and, barring serious injuries to key players, you can probably build a ferocious defense capable of contending for a title for a few years. This is the approach the Eagles recently took, and, while it has not succeeded, it probably can succeed if executed properly. However, this approach means building a house of cards which will inevitably collapse under the weight of salary cap issues and the loss of draft picks. Defenses built this way are not built to last. They may get you your shot, but they will not build you a dynasty.

The way to build a defensive dynasty is the way the Steelers and Ravens have done it for years - patient use of the draft, with a strong emphasis on the defense. This requires years to build up your defense, along with deft talent evaluation and development. If you are very good at this game, and have a little bit of luck to land 1 or 2 HOFers in the process, a long term defensive dynasty can be built which can keep you in the hunt most years. This appears to be the approach the Jets are taking, as they have over the last 3 years completely replaced their entire defensive line, sans Pouha, as well as their entire defensive backfield, sans Revis. What remains is the linebackers, which will likely complete their overhaul, sans David Harris, over the next 2 years. If the current front office stays intact, the Jets will then have a big, young, fast, and with any luck talented defense at virtually every position, with at least some potential to evolve into the kind of defensive dynasty we have seen from the Ravens and Steelers.

The problem with the Ravens approach is that there are too many moving parts. You have to maintain an elite defense consisting of 11 starters and another 2 to 4 players who may not start but still play key roles, such as the slot corner or a designated pass rusher. You have to find at least 1, and usually 2 or more HOF type defensive talents, all playing at or close to their peak at the same time. Given salary cap restrictions, the inevitable draft mistakes every organization makes, the violence of the game, the significant risk of injury, and the shortness of an NFL player's prime, if you intend to build your dynasty this way you must be prepared to replace key players on virtually an annual basis. You have to be right, again and again and again, with respect to your top draft choices. You also are vulnerable to key injuries from any number of defensive positions. If any of your top defensive players goes down like Revis did this year or like Lewis or Polamalu have in years past, you can expect to suffer an immediate and drastic reversal of fortunes, and likely a lost year.

The inherent difficulties of building and maintaining a dynasty defense explain why there are only 4 examples in the last 40 years of teams building dynasty defenses that lasted for a decade or more. Contrast this with dynasties built on elite QBs. As shown in Part 1 of this series, if you project forward a bit on a few of the younger guys, there have been at least 13 of these over the last 40 years, including Brady, P. Manning, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, E. Manning, Brees, Favre, Elway, Montana, Young, Aikman, Bradshaw, and Stabler. Teams built with a QB first philosophy have won the overwhelming majority of Super Bowls. In addition, despite the huge level of difficulty in finding that one great QB that can lead you to 10+ years of football dominance, it has happened at least 13 times over the last 40 years, or on average once every 3 years. In contrast, the great defensive dynasties have happened only 4 times in that stretch, or once every 10 years. Thus, despite the acknowledged enormous odds against the Jets finding a HOF QB, it has been demonstrably at least 3 times easier than building and maintaining a dynasty defense. An amazing 35 of 46 Super Bowl winners were led by HOF QBs (projecting Brees, Roethlisberger, both Mannings and Brady as future HOFers). Teams with superb defenses AND HOF QBs like the '70s Steelers and Cowboys never won another Super Bowl after the QB left, UNTIL they acquired another HOF QB.

Why is it so much easier to build a dynasty based on a HOF QB than one based on a great defense? Let me count the ways. First and foremost, you only have to be right once. One correct draft pick instantly transforms you into a contender, and with any luck that one correct pick will keep you a contender for a dozen years or more. Contrast that with the Ravens way, which requires you to be right again and again and again, not only to build up the 13-15 defensive spots but also to replace players as they get injured or old. Being right only once is so much easier than being right repeatedly. It is the easy way (relatively speaking) to get the job done.

The salary cap also plays into this. No matter how much you pay your QB, he is only one player and will thus have a somewhat limited effect on your cap. Contrast this with a dynasty defense, which requires multiple stars that need to get paid, and overall accounts for half or more of your salary cap. A dominant defense will constantly struggle to find ways to keep its best players, and will be forced to severely sacrifice on the other side of the ball to do so.

Then there is the injury issue. A dominant defense might have 2 or 3 guys, each of which if they go down for the season, the season is basically lost. A QB driven team needs to keep only 1 guy healthy, the QB. Yes, other players count, but the QB is the only guy who can single-handedly ruin your season. It's alot easier to keep one guy healthy than 2 or 3, thus QB driven dynasties are more stable, as shown by the results of teams like the Pats and Colts, who went whole decades without finishing below .500. It is also easier to keep a QB healthy than a dominant defensive player, as that defensive player will be involved in many more violent collisions during the course of the year than the QB. There is also the subtle difference of how QBs respond to injuries vs. defensive stars. Even in the rare instance of a season ending QB injury, the QB virtually always comes back as good as ever. As long as it's not a serious arm injury, the QB should be fine. Contrast that with defensive players and knee injuries or broken bones. In those cases there is never any assurance the defensive player, who relies much more heavily on elite athleticism than a QB, will regain his former greatness. Many times they do, but the chance of a defensive player never returning or never regaining his old form is much, much higher than a QB. Lastly, there is the issue of QB play in the case of defense driven dynasties. In a QB first situation, if the defense is wracked with injuries, often times the greatness of the QB can still be enough to make the playoffs and give the team a fighting chance at a ring. The same is not true of a defense driven team. A team with a dominant defense and a so-so QB will nearly always have a terrible backup QB, so if the QB goes down, even though he wasn't elite to begin with, the team is still lost. Think about who the Ravens have at backup QB. If their QB goes down, they're done, even though they are not really a QB driven team. Thus the defense driven team is a riskier and more unstable bet, because they can be ruined by QB injuries just as surely as the QB driven team can, while the reverse is not true.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that the above paragraphs have convinced you that the best way to build a Jets Golden Age is to focus nearly entirely on obtaining a HOF QB. What then? That is, how do we then go about finding the right QB, and how do we make sure we can get him when we find him?

I'll tackle the first question here, and save the second for my third post in this series. First, how do we find the right guy? Let's start with what NOT to do. Some occasionally suggest we should just pull the equivalent of "Suck for Luck." This is merely a personal opinion, but for me, that is simply unacceptable. In my view, you do not ever, under any circumstances, regardless of whom might be available, ever, ever, ever, ever intentionally suck. If the Jets ever pulled that, that might be the only thing that could ever end my time as a Jets fan. If we ever just capitulated, rolled over and died, I do not think I could root for such a team until the front office went through a regime change. Such a plan would truly sicken me. I realize others feel differently, but for me, as Herm Edwards said, you play to win the game, period. Every game, every play, until your last dying breath. I do not root for quitters.

Assuming Suck for Luck is off the table, what then? One approach is to immediately focus on obtaining the best available QB in the 2013 draft. I believe this would be a mistake. I have seen the top 2 QB prospects for 2013 on multiple occasions, and I am not overly impressed. I could certainly be wrong, but the point here is not whether or not Smith or Barkley is a future elite QB. I readily concede it's possible I'm wrong about them. But what really matters here is what the Jets braintrust thinks. Do they really think that one or both of them is likely to be elite, or are they just going for the best available guy, because he fills a need? This question is vital. Getting a shot at that one elite QB is going to cost us, heavily. If we need to trade up it will cost us multiple high draft picks. It will also cost us in terms of opportunity cost, as a better option down the road a year or two may be foreclosed once we make our pick. A third cost is simply time. Once we choose, we are likely to take a minimum of 3 or more years before we decide the new QB is not the answer, if that is in fact the case. Thus the Jets lose 3 or more years of treading water to the wrong choice at QB. The price in terms of picks, opportunity cost and lost years is so high that we must be as sure as we can ever be that the guy we pick is the right guy, not just the best available guy. If he is not, better to wait until next year, or the year after, whenever it happens that the right guy comes along. Until then continue building your defense or your O-Line or your skill players, and wait for the right moment to strike. No matter how careful you are, you can still easily pick the wrong guy, but it is vital you do anything you can to increase the odds in your favor. Patience and waiting until the right guy comes along before you pounce does just that.

Now we come to the most difficult issue the Jets may face in finding the right QB, and that is, how do they find the assets necessary for the Jets to be in position to take the right QB once he is identified? The Jets are probably not going to be in the top 5 of the 2103 draft or any draft in the near future. The team may not be good, but it is also not horrendous. Consequently, the Jets will likely need to move some major assets in term of players and/or picks in order to be in a position to trade up when the right guy comes along. Where are those assets going to come from? To put it bluntly, there looks like only one legitimate source for those assets in the near term, and that is Darelle Revis. In the next post in this series we will look at whether or not trading Revis makes sense, and if not, how we might obtain the necessary chips in an alternate manner. Look for the Trading Revis post, coming soon to GGN.