Friday, August 22, 2008

The loss (and possible return?) of Mike Westhoff

Brett Favre is here, and he'll revamp the offense. Vernon Gholston, Calvin Pace, and Kris Jenkins will certainly aid the defense. But what about special teams?

While the Jets have been inconsistent on the field for the past several years, there has always been one constant: the special teams would be there. Not necessarily the kicking and punting, as the Jets have had their troubles there, too, but with Mike Westhoff at the helm, they've always been able to cover and return kicks and punts.

No matter who has been back there returning kicks, the Jets have always ranked near the top in kickoff return yardage. The players have changed often, but there always manages to be talent back there, whether it's Chad Morton or Leon Washington.

Let's take a look at how the Jets have fared under Westhoff.

2001: In an injury-riddled special teams year, Craig Yeast, Chad Morton, Laveranues Coles, and others combined for 21.5 yards per kick return while Morton, Yeast, Santana Moss, and Aaron Glenn combined for 9.5 yards per punt return.

2002: Chad Morton earns a huge offseason deal with Washington after scoring scoring two touchdowns opening day en route to a Pro Bowl season returning kicks and punts. He averaged 26 yards per kick return and Santana Moss returned two punts for touchdowns, averaging 16.5 yards per return.

2003: Both Michael Bates and Jonathan Carter average over 27 yards per kick return, with Carter scoring a touchdown. Moss averaged 11.1 yards per return on punts.

2004: Carter, LaMont Jordan, and Jerricho Cotchery handle kick return duties, with Cotchery scoring a touchdown. They combine for a 22.6 yard average, while Moss and Justin McCareins combine for just 7.6 yards per return.

2005: The Jets recognized the 2004 special teams personnel problems, addressing them in the offseason with Justin Miller, Mike Nugent, and Derrick Blaylock. Miller averaged 26.3 yards per return with a touchdown. Cotchery, Miller, and McCareins struggled to a 6.4 yard average on punts.

2006: Miller improved upon his 2005 campaign, averaging 28.3 yards per return with two touchdowns en route to the Pro Bowl. Tim Dwight and Leon Washington split the punt return duties, averagin 8.4 yards per return.

2007: A knee injury sidelined Miller early in 2007, leaving Leon Washington to handle both kick and punt return duties. He responded by averaging 27.5 yards per kick and 9.2 yards per punt with three touchdowns.

His kickoff coverage units have also been stellar. Since he joined the Jets, they've scored twelve touchdowns and only given up five.

However, after the 2007 season, the venerable special teams coach called it quits at the age of 60. Kevin O'Dea was hired as his replacement after two seasons as an assistant special teams coach in Chicago, a team known for its special teams prowess.

He had also been the special teams coach in Arizona from 2004-05. His units weren't particularly effective, but he did help lead kicker Neil Rackers to his best season as a professional in 2005.

This was a coaching change that went largely under the radar, but many diehard Jets fans were concerned how this would affect the team. Apparently, the front office still has concerns with O'Dea and with losing Westhoff.

According to former NFL executive Michael Lombardi's blog, the Jets are in serious discussions with their former coach, hoping to re-hire Westhoff. Lombardi writes that the Jets are "very unhappy" with what O'Dea has done so far.

If true, it's a bad omen for O'Dea, but bringing back Westhoff could only help. Most of the special teams players that will make the final roster are already familiar with Westhoff's work, and those who aren't will receive a crash course in what he wants.

This story was first broken yesterday, and there's no follow-up on it yet from any other outlet besides Lombardi. Obviously, the coaching staff will say nothing. If this story fades away in the days and weeks ahead, it'll be understandable, and maybe Lombardi's source isn't particularly strong. But bringing Westhoff back would be a boon as he is still one of the best in the business.

It's up to Westhoff. The Jets probably didn't want him to leave last year, so they'd be happy with him returning. Otherwise, the special teams could be an issue at times. The players are very similar to last year's, so the pressure is on O'Dea to keep the bar high.

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