Friday, January 9, 2009

2008 New York Jets Grades: AKA the Longest Post Ever

Sure, anybody can give you grades as soon as the season ends. And, hell, pretty much everybody else did give them within a day or two of the end of the season.

But after watching sports my entire life, I know that time provides perspective, and let’s face it, while I try to be as unbiased and objective as possible, like all Jets fans, I was pretty angry the way this season ended.

Besides, by giving you the grades now, it provides a much-needed break from the coaching search, which has lasted over a week and still isn’t particularly close to being done. Honestly, while I’ve been updating a lot lately, let’s face it, everything is just speculation.

I don’t know who the frontrunner to win the job is. Gun to my head, I would say Rex Ryan, but the man hasn’t even interviewed yet. I don’t even think the Jets know who the leader is right now, making it impossible for us to speculate who it might be.

Plus, we don’t know what system the coach will bring, what type of offense and defense he would want to run, and what coaches he will keep and which ones he will bring in. We all have our opinions, but no one knows for sure.

All I can know is what I see on the field every Sunday.

There were a lot of positives and a lot of negatives. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. But let’s delve a little deeper, going position by position, grading each unit’s performance for the 2009 season.

Quarterbacks: C-

Nobody knew what type of year Brett Favre was going to have for Gang Green this year. Could he learn the system? Develop a rapport with the players? Was he in game shape? And was he going to be the player of 2007 that led the Green Bay Packers to the NFC Championship game or the version of some of the previous years where he was an interception machine.

For the first half of the season, many of those questions remained unanswered. Against some weaker opponents, the offense looked unstoppable. Against Arizona he tied Joe Namath’s team record for touchdowns in a game with six, and he led the Jets offense to be among the highest scoring in the NFL.

Still, there was always the feeling that it was a work in progress. Favre said so himself at many points, and he still threw too many dumb interceptions.

Even when the team was 6-3, many doubted the Jets as a team, in large part due to the cupcake schedule they had played and their loss to the Oakland Raiders. Fans were satisfied, but they wanted more, both from the quarterback and the team as a whole.
And with road games against New England and Tennessee, the Jets could not have scripted a better test. To put it bluntly, Favre was brought in to beat the Patriots.

And he delivered. Favre played arguably his best game of the season against the Patriots, finishing 26-33 for 258 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.

Now that the Jets had proved they should be taken seriously in the AFC East, they had a chance against the best team in the NFL: the undefeated Titans. Again Favre delivered, completing 25 of his 32 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

If you had asked me that night what Favre’s grade would be, I would have probably told you an A-. In the two biggest games of the season, he met all expectations.
All that was left for him was to play well and win against several inferior teams and he would have been a conquering hero.

But a 9:2 interception-touchdown ratio in those last five games marred any good feelings about Favre. His play was simply abysmal down the stretch. It wouldn’t be fair to put 100% of the blame on him, but he definitely deserves the lion’s share for the offense’s struggles.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I still felt the deal was worth making, and he proved that in the Tennessee and New England games. Unfortunately, two very good games don’t make up for five awful games and many other mediocre ones. It was a fun ride while it lasted, but it left a bitter taste in the end.

Kellen Clemens and Brett Ratliff never played meaningful action during the season, so they had no impact on the grade.

Runningbacks: A-

Remember when many fans were clamoring for Darren McFadden?
Thomas Jones left a lot to be desired after running for 1119 yards and just one touchdown in his first season in New York. It was a lost season for the team as a whole and Jones in particular.

2008 was a completely different story.

He led the AFC with 1312 yards and set a Jet record with 13 rushing touchdowns. It was a down year overall for runningbacks, but that doesn’t take away with the great season Jones had. From weeks six to 15, he scored 12 touchdowns.

His season was a perfect example of what happens to a runningback when the offensive line goes from sieve-like to solid. He was able to find cutback lanes, break some more tackles, and score in the red zone, averaging 4.5 yards-per-carry in the process.

But whenever the Jets needed a big play, they turned to the little guy, Leon Washington. The third-year pro had three touchdown runs of 47 yards or more, averaging a jaw-dropping 5.9 yards-per-carry.

The biggest problem with Washington was his usage, not his play. Despite being a home-run threat every time he touched the ball, he only carried the ball 76 times, just five more than last season. As well as Thomas Jones played this season, Washington needed more touches. He did have 47 receptions, giving him 803 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns.

With Jones about to hit 31 years of age by the start of next season, Washington’s role will need to expand under the next regime or TJ could hit a wall, and the offense won’t have every opportunity to succeed. Hopefully whoever the new coach is can call plays at closer to a 2:1 ratio in touches between Jones and Washington,

It would be foolish not to mention the contributions of Tony Richardson. The veteran fullback was a reliable blocking back, just as he’s been his entire career. He even got into the action running the ball against Seattle pretty well. At 37 years old Richardson doesn’t have many years left, but if Lorenzo Neal can still play, why can’t Tony?

Wide Receivers: C+

2007 proved to be a breakout year for Jerricho Cotchery. He backed up an 82 catch, 961 yard performance with an 1130 yard performance given the same amount of receptions. Laveranues Coles had an injury plagued 2007, despite putting up over 800 yards. Both players seemed primed to have good years yet again.

Then Brett Favre came in, and expectations rose even higher.

Was Coles the next Donald Driver? Cotchery, the next Robert Brooks? People wondered which receiver would develop a rapport with Favre quickest and were apt to making such comparisons.

However, it was not meant to be. Part of it was Favre’s fault. But some of the blame for the Jets’ offensive failures has to go to the receivers and their inability to get open in many situations.

Outside of the Arizona bloodbath, how many times do you remember any of the receivers gaining a lot of separation away from their defenders? Not too often.

Coles also suffered through a bad case of the drops at many times this year. In the biggest play of the season, a 4th down play deep in their own territory in week 16 against Seattle, Favre launched a bomb to Coles into double coverage. As poorly as Brett had played throughout that game, this pass was right on target, but Coles could not bring it in.

Cotchery was bothered by a shoulder injury for much of the year that may have played a bigger factor than many realized. He made the catch of the season against New England, with a Tyree-esque helmet catch, but when the Jets needed him, he often struggled to separate from the defense.

The other part of the reason for the low grade was the inability of a third receiver to consistently step up. Chansi Stuckey had numerous chances to succeed, and he actually scored in the first three games of the season, but he was held without a catch in five games.

The speedy David Clowney turned heads in training camp and preseason, but an injury killed his chances of helping the team. He was then a victim of the numbers game as Eric Mangini didn’t want to take special teams standout Wallace Wright, Brad Smith, or Stuckey off the active roster. His only catch of the year was a 26-yard fingertip grab against Buffalo, though he sorely beat a defender against Seattle the next week, only to see the ball so sorely underthrown that he had no chance to get it.

Smith was a disappointment in his third season. He had four catches for 29 yards and another 59 yards rushing against Oakland, but fell down on a play where he could have broken free to win the game. Other than in that game, he was a non-factor on offense.

This is a unit that is worth monitoring in the offseason. Coles is probably back, but he has a high salary cap number, and the Jets sorely need a playmaker. Clowney may be the guy, but he has proven next to nothing.

Tight Ends: C+

Before the season, it appeared as if the Jets were going to stress the importance of the tight end position. They had drafted the athletic Dustin Keller in the first round and signed veteran Bubba Franks, and they already had Chris Baker on the roster, whom the team retained despite complaining about his contract in the offseason.

After taking a few games to get used to the offense and to the NFL, Keller seemed ready to establish himself as the best young tight end in the game. His best game of the season was a 107-yard performance against St. Louis with a touchdown.

But drops became a major issue with the first-round pick, something that had to be surprising. He was considered by many to be the most polished pass-catcher in the draft, even though his blocking needed a lot of work. Mangini felt confident enough in his blocking ability to let him in some key situations, but he was mostly asked to catch the football. And when that’s your primary job, drops are inexcusable. Still, he was only a rookie, so he has plenty of time to work on that.

The sure-handed Baker got few chances to help the team in the passing game, though his blocking remained pretty solid. There’s a good chance 2008 was his last season as a Jet, and he’ll be missed as a solid player who rarely hurt the team, but he was hardly a playmaker.

Franks was a non-factor from the start, and he, too, dropped most of his scarce chances to help the team. He won’t be back.

The future of this position is Keller, and his rookie season was promising. But he needs to improve his hands if he’s going to take the next step as a receiver. He’s got all the talent in the world to do that, but he needs to show it.

Offensive Line: A-

What a difference a year makes!

Well, more like what a difference Alan Faneca and Damien Woody can make. Or maybe anyone instead of turnstiles Adrien Clarke and Anthony Clement.

Faneca provided leadership to this offensive line and he made the Pro Bowl in his first year in green and white. Still, he didn’t meet all expectations. Surprisingly enough, he might have been the weakest link on the line this past season, despite his pedigree.

Woody may have turned out to be the better of the two free agent signings, which would have been shocking to write six months ago. He provided stability to the right tackle spot, and the Jets ran to his side of the line quite effectively on stretch plays.

Brandon Moore may be the best run-blocker on the Jets at right guard. It’s no surprise that they were better rushing to the right than to the left with Woody and Moore. The former undrafted free agent deserves more recognition and respect.

The center position is filled for years to come. Nick Mangold made his first Pro Bowl in his third season, and he absolutely deserved it. The former first-round pick is an anchor in the middle.

Finally, D’Brickashaw Ferguson took another step into becoming one of the elite pass-blockers in the NFL. However, his run-blocking is still suspect at best, and until he bulks up and improves upon that, he will not live up to his lofty hype as a former top five pick. It’s been steady improvement for three years, but it’s still the same story with him in terms of run-blocking.

Robert Turner and Wayne Hunter also saw time, but neither made a huge impact. Turner was best-known as “Number 75 has reported eligible,” while Hunter got blown up in week two against the Patriots during the infamous three runs up the middle with no touchdown at the goal line.

The unit should come back in its entirety in 2009, which would help it take the next step forward. Continuity is vital for offensive lines, and Faneca and Woody should be more comfortable with their line mates. There must be some concern with Faneca, however, who declined a little in his last year with Pittsburgh and didn’t stop that trend with Gang Green.

Defensive Line: B

The production of the entire defense was correlated with one man: Kris Jenkins. The nose tackle may have been the most valuable player in all of football for the first 11 games, as he continuously forced double teams and still made plays through it, pushing the pocket.

He almost singlehandedly transformed the run defense from one of the worst in the league to an elite unit. For 11 games, Jets fans thanked their lucky stars that the 349-pound behemoth was in the middle, wondering what life would be like if he wasn’t there.

And then, without warning, a herniated disc combined with some other wear and tear turned him from a monster to a mere mortal, and the run defense went south with it. He’s had injury and weight problems in the past, so it’s no sure thing that he’ll bounce back, but even if he can be 90% of what he was early in the season, it’s still much better than what the Jets have had there in the past (cough, DeWayne Robertson).

He was bookended by Shaun Ellis and Kenyon Coleman. Ellis quietly had a solid season, racking up eight sacks from the 3-4 end position, not usually a big pass-rushing spot. His season was marred from a marijuana bust and from throwing a snowball at a Seattle fan, but his play on the field was decent enough to offset that.

Coleman, on the other hand, regressed a little bit. His tackle numbers went down from 83 to 55, and he offered nothing in terms of getting to the pass rusher. He is the definition of a JAG, and the Jets should look to replace him, or at least give him some competition.

C.J. Mosley and Mike DeVito were the primary backups at end. Both were solid, and Mosley had a pretty big sack against New England, but both would get exposed as full-time starters.

The Jets gave Sione Pouha an extension, figuring the massive Mormon could be a good backup nose tackle, but his play regressed a lot this season, and there was a noticeable drop-off in the run defense when he was in the game.

Mike Tannenbaum needs to address the defensive line in the offseason because he needs to bring some more talent into the fold. If Jenkins were to miss time, the entire defense would be in trouble.

Linebackers: C

In a typical 3-4 defense, the pass rush is supposed to come from the outside linebackers. The Jets knew that they needed to improve that immensely in the offseason, so they brought in Calvin Pace from the Arizona Cardinals and drafted Vernon Gholston.

Needless to say, it didn’t work out.

The previous line may be a little unfair to Pace. The free agent was the Jets’ best linebacker, forcing five fumbles and tallying seven sacks. He played as well as he was expected to. Still, he is not a pure pass rusher, and he was exposed when put into coverage.

Gholston, on the other hand, may have been the least productive highly drafted rookie in some time. He was a ghost, rarely to be seen on defense. He was even deactivated for one game! It’s too early to call him a bust, but he has a long way to go to contribute.

The other outside linebacker was Bryan Thomas. After admitting he slacked off a bit the previous season, he jumped out to a fast start, with 4.5 sacks in his first five games. But he was never really heard from again after that, despite starting all 16 games, and the Jets should look to replace him in the offseason.

After exceeding all expectations as a rookie, David Harris’s play fell off drastically. He got hurt midway through the campaign, and he didn’t make a single big play in his 11 starts. He needs to step it up in 2009 before he’s the next Jet linebacker to start his career strong and then fade away. Let’s chalk it up to a sophomore slump, but next year, he has no excuses.

Eric Barton led the team in tackles by a wide margin, posting 119 tackles. But like Harris, he made very few impact plays, He’s a free agent this offseason, and there’s a good chance he’ll be gone. He’s a solid player, but he is certainly replaceable.

David Bowens was the primary backup linebacker, replacing Harris for the five games he missed. He had a big game against Arizona, but he’s strictly a backup. He gets exposed with too much playing time.

Marques Murrell, Jason Trusnik, and Cody Spencer were the other backup linebackers. None of them made any difference.

There will definitely be some new blood at linebacker in 2009, but with so much money invested at outside linebacker already, the Jets may need to get creative. Either that, or Gholston needs to step up his play quickly. The team says they still have faith in him. We’ll see.

Defensive Backs: C

As bad as the pass defense was at times this season, the secondary does not deserve as much blame as it has received. Without any semblance of a pass rush, any cornerback can look bad.

Even those among the best in the NFL, which Darrelle Revis has proven himself to be. He intercepted five passes, and was routinely put on the opposition’s best receiver. He was beaten at times, but that’s more a product of the time quarterbacks had to throw rather than a knock on Revis.

Filling the cornerback spot opposite him proved difficult. Dwight Lowery had an extended opportunity, and while he certainly showed promise, he is neither good enough nor fast enough to stick with receivers for an extended period of time.

As a result, Ty Law was signed midway through the season, and for a guy coming from his couch to the NFL, he didn’t do a bad job. He’s not the elite cornerback he was several years ago, but he shored up the position a little bit down the stretch.

Hank Poteat and Drew Coleman provided the rest of the depth. Poteat did a decent job as a backup corner, but Coleman was beaten like a drum. Former Green Bay Packer Ahmad Carroll was strictly a special teamer.

The second “star” of the Jets secondary was supposed to be Kerry Rhodes. He signed a big extension after back-to-back strong years, but he made very few impact plays. He’s normally a good blitzer and a ballhawk, but rarely did he show either of those two skills this past season. A disappointing year for Rhodes, but he has the talent to bounce back.

Abram Elam and Eric Smith rotated at safety. Elam was a pleasant surprise when he played. While he’s not the most disciplined player, there’s no denying that he can make plays. He returned an interception 92 yards for a touchdown at Buffalo, and then he caused the strip-sack that seemed to have saved the Jets season when the Bills came to the Meadowlands.

All Smith did was nearly decapitate Anquan Boldin. He missed an extended period of time due to injury, but when he played, he was normally invisible.

James Ihebdigo is best known as the player who committed the phantom hold that brought back Leon Washington’s kick return touchdown against San Francisco.

There definitely needs to be some more competition at both cornerback and safety. Elam and Lowery have ability and would look much better with a pass rush, but depth needs to be acquired, especially at corner.

Specialists: C+

In week one it was Mike Nugent and Ben Graham.
By week five both were gone, Nugent to an injury and Graham to the waiver wire, and Jay Feely and Reggie Hodges took their jobs.

Feely was 24-28 kicking field goals, and after an auspicious start against New England, he was almost automatic down the stretch. He was one of the few players you can say got better as the season went along.

Hodges averaged just 42.8 yards-per-punt in place of an ineffective Graham. The Jets will likely look to replace him in the offseason and find a better solution at a position that has often plagued them through the years.

Return Units: B+

By returners I really just mean Leon Washington and his blocking units. Washington averaged 25.6 yards-per-kick return, scoring one touchdown, and 10.4 yards on punts.
The Jets might look to replace him at punt returner in the offseason. He’s done a fine job there, but the position can be upgraded, and the team may have bigger plans for him on offense anyway.

Coaching Staff: D+

Eric Mangini’s coaching fell off a long way from his rookie season. His aggressive demeanor turned much more calculated and risk-averse, as proven by kicking a field goal at fourth and one from the two at Seattle and by punting rather than let Feely attempt a long field goal in that same game.

His lack of emotion may have reflected itself on the team, who seemed lifeless down the stretch despite the major playoff implications that those games had. Was firing him the right decision? Maybe, maybe not, but he definitely deserved to be on the hot seat for the 1-4 finish.

Brian Schottenheimer is currently a head coaching candidate, but outside of Arizona and St. Louis, the offense lacked rhythm, imagination, and consistency. The scripted first drives were often successful, but in-game adjustments proved problematic.

Bob Sutton may have just been a figurehead for Mangini, but he deserves a lot of blame for the vanilla blitz packages he sent at opposing teams. The Jets got no pressure on opposing quarterbacks, yet rarely was he able to create a scheme that enabled his players to break loose into the backfield.

And that D+ grade is why the Jets currently are looking for a new head coach.

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