So what do we know about this team as they take a week off after going a remarkable 5-4 for the first a half of the season?
First, Rex Ryan is a candidate for Coach of the Year. I excoriated in him the pre-season for exposing Mark Sanchez to season ending injury in a meaningless contest against the Giants. I didn’t think this team had the players to win six games let alone be above .500 at the break. But Rex Ryan has learned a few things about being a head coach the last couple of years. First, your offensive coordinator matters. Hire someone who knows how to coach up quarterbacks. Enter Marty Mornhinweg and his right hand man QB coach David Lee. Geno Smith would have had no chance under the previous regime. Now he’s had some moderate success that the team can build on.
(More on Smith later)
I believe the most important factor in the Jets surprising success is Rex Ryan has a card to play that few know how to throw down better. It’s the “We are men and people are disrespecting us. That cannot stand” card. Remember this espn ranking? I think that accounts for the win/lose/win/lose seesaw this team has been on. Without monster talent, especially at the skill positions, Ryan can’t really count on playmaking consistency. But you can always count on effort from a Rex Ryan team especially when he takes the no one believes in us route. The wins aren’t always pretty, and a couple have been off fluky last minute penalties (Tampa Bay, New England) , but they are recorded in the win column none the less.
The downside is coaching by exhortation isn’t sustainable. People get emotionally exhausted after a while. That’s how you come out flat and end up with awful losses against the likes of Tennessee and Cincinnati. I think that is the dynamic we see playing out this year.
This is a pattern I’ve noticed for a while with Ryan. One of the best examples is the 2010 AFC Divisional Game played against the mighty New England Patriots in Foxboro. No one, not fans, not media, not anybody gave the Jets a whiff of a chance of pulling off the upset. But the men in the Jets locker room knew what they had. You can easily picture Ryan’s emotional speech the night before that game. We saw versions of it in Hard Knocks. It was a thrilling team win and the Jets earned every bit of it.
The fallout came the next week at Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game. The Jets appeared emotionally exhausted. Effort at that level is so hard to sustain. And in a highly charged playoff game the Jets defense was just worn out leading to a 21 point deficit at the half that the Jets, though the offense battled valiantly, could not overcome.
On a macro level, it is what happened in the 2011 season: Overconfidence born of results that were more based on effort than solid fundamental football leading to flat or sloppy play. That year started with Rex Ryan fully committed to his role as media darling. He ignored the offense, never got a handle on the locker room and by the time he started paying attention things were too far gone to salvage. I’ve said it before, I always thought Ryan and the team thought 2011 was just a walkthrough — a mere formality to another playoff run. But by then, the Jets had a target on their backs. No flying under the radar this time. They forgot the cardinal rules: each year is different and you must respect each opponent. They would do well to remember that for the balance of this season. If they do, we can add that to the list of lessons Ryan has learned.
Which leads us to the quarterback situation. Without marquee offensive talent and, in fairness, dealing with a huge amount of injuries, the Jets win when their team effort is there. They’re not good enough to win without it. That’s when they get into trouble with their rookie QB trying to play hero ball and manufacture points. Which leads to turnovers.
Sound familiar ?
I know many Jets fans think Geno Smith is the savior of the franchise. He does have some very nice athletic ability. But sometimes I think his biggest attribute is heis not named Mark Sanchez. I know there have been some pretty long balls and some nifty scrambles, but I think the coaches dialing back his passing opportunities when it started to become clear that Chris Ivory was on fire and the defense was giving Drew Brees and the Saints fits, is very telling. That’s how you end up throwing 8 for 19, 115 yards. I don’t think they fully trust his decision making yet. I know I don’t.
GM John Idzik is wise to not speculate on the quarterback situation for next year. The next few weeks are essentially an audition for Smith to win the role of undisputed starter next year. In particular, I will be watching for growth in decision making and an ongoing understanding of situational football. Example: there can be no more safeties. None. No more throwing late to the sidelines, or holding the ball too long and taking sacks. He can make a case for himself if we can see that kind of improvement.
But if I were Idzik, I’d draft a QB next year no matter what. First it is shaping up as a QB heavy draft. There is quality enough to last a couple rounds and taking one of these guys is much more low risk than it used to be. Before the new CBA, if you guessed wrong, you could set back the franchise financially and as a whole for several years. The new CBA changed all that with the rookie salary restrictions. There is really no downside. Say Smith steps up and shows real growth? Draft a QB anyway and make Smith stay on his toes throughout the offseason and training camp. That’s Idzik’s “always compete” (borrowed from Pete Carroll!) mantra in action. If Smith keeps getting better, there is still no downside to a young QB. He can work and grow out of the spotlight and perhaps when his time comes whether through injury or poor performance, slide right in. Plus a young QB that gets to hold a clipboard and learn sometimes turns into a valuable trade chip. If Smith shows only minimal growth, you can change direction fairly painlessly. Plus, rookie QBs provide hope. Translation? Ticket sales.
We’ll see how things shake out moving forward. Maybe Smith dramatically improves. Maybe he doesn’t. But even if the team doesn’t make the playoffs, Rex Ryan has still done a helluva job.