Friday, May 7, 2010

Jets Changing Course to Try to Pass Pats

The Jets-Patriots rivalry has been one of the fiercest in the NFL ever since Bill Parcells spurned Patriots owner Robert Kraft and joined the Jets. But when Bill Bellichick returned the favor by bailing on the Jets to coach New England, the course of the rivalry changed forever.

Or, perhaps more accurately, the rivalry changed when Mo Lewis knocked out Drew Bledsoe in a fateful 2001 game that altered the course of history in the AFC East. Tom Brady took over, and three Super Bowls and seven division titles later, Brady made the Patriots not just the class of the AFC East but of the entire NFL.

And as the Patriots went through one of the best decades in NFL history, the Jets have wallowed in their shadows. Sure, there were a couple of playoff seasons under Herman Edwards and Eric Mangini, but the Jets were never a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

Until now.

After making their first AFC Championship appearance since the Parcells era, Rex Ryan has Jets fans as giddy as they were before 1999. The Jets seem to be a team on the rise, the team of the future, while New England seems to be getting older and declining.

The biggest reason for this has been the difference in the two teams' draft philosophies recently.

Bellichick is a true Parcells disciple when it comes to drafting. Trade down, accumulate picks, and bring in depth and competition. It worked when Tom Brady was an elite quarterback, and the Patriots deserve a ton of credit for their performance in the last decade. Even though they may have cheated a little bit...

But if you look at New England's recent drafts, it explains a lot about their recent decline: they haven't been adding young impact players. It's too early to tell about last year's draft, but even though Julian Edelman was very productive for a 7th round pick, nobody else stood out.

The 2008 draft brought Jerrod Mayo, but nobody else has made any impact. The 2007 draft is similar, as Brandon Merriweather worked out in round one, but the rest of the draft were swings and misses. 2006 was another one-and-done, except the one was a kicker, Stephen Gostkowski in round 4.

People have criticized the Jets' draft methods, but in the timeframe the Patriots' best additions appear to be Edelman, Mayo, Merriweather, and Gostkowski, the Jets have added D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold, Leon Washington, Darrelle Revis, David Harris, Dustin Keller, Shonn Greene, and Mark Sanchez. While part of that has to do with the Jets typically picking higher, the Jets have simply improved their team by leaps and bounds on draft day.

Now, the Patriots did trade for Randy Moss and Wes Welker in 2007 for draft picks. That coincided with the Patriots' last Super Bowl appearance. This year, the Jets traded for Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie in the draft to try to put them over the top.

It also goes to show the difference between the philosophies of each team, especially now. Between 2006 and 2009, the Patriots drafted 39 players to the Jets' 23. Mike Tannenbaum believes in quality over quantity, and it's worked out very well, as he's traded up to get Sanchez, Greene, Keller, Revis, and Harris in just the past three years alone.

Whether that new talent finally translates into the Jets' first division title since 2002 will be determined in the fall. On paper, Gang Green looks every bit as good as New England. But Tom Brady is still 12-3 against the Jets, and as much as everyone talks about how good the Jets could be this year, they still have to prove it on the field.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Position Overview: Quarterback

With the draft in the books and minicamp underway, it's time to start the evaluation period. Most of the 2010 Jets' roster is set now, though there are always a few players that aren't on the roster now that will make the opening day squad.

So let's take a critical look at the 2010 New York Jets, starting with quarterback.

Starter: Mark Sanchez
2009 regular season stats: 196-364 (53.8%), 2444 yards (6.71 YPA), 12 TDs, 20 INTs, 63.0 QB rating.
2009 postseason stats: 41-68 (60.3%), 539 yards (7.93 YPA), 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 92.7 QB rating.

Looking Back: Your Typical Rookie

For a top 5 NFL draft pick quarterback playing in New York, his play was not scrutinized as much as some figured it would. And if the Colts played their starters in week 16, we might be singing a whole different tune regarding Sanchez. But they didn't, and now Sanchez is the returning quarterback from a team that went to the AFC Championship, and with a plethora of new weapons around him, expectations are much higher.

All in all, Sanchez's rookie year was not very good, like most rookie quarterbacks. His 20 interceptions were 2nd highest in the NFL (tied with fellow rookie Matthew Stafford and six behind Jay Cutler). This is despite the Jets not asking him to do a whole lot offensively, especially down the stretch. Throughout the regular season, he played like a rookie. Between weeks 4 and 15, he threw 8 touchdowns and 18 interceptions and almost singlehandedly torpedoed the Jets out of the playoffs.

But some fortuitous breaks helped put the Jets in the playoffs, and from there, Sanchez showed why the Jets drafted him so highly. In the three biggest games of his NFL career, he played very well. He still wasn't asked to do a whole lot, but when he did throw the ball, he was successful.

2009 was an odd year for the Jets from the moment it started. Rex Ryan instilled high expectations despite a rookie quarterback and virtually no receivers for him to throw to. For Sanchez it was just another year of experience. With just one year starting in college, few expected him to play well as a rookie. And for the most part, he didn't. But he had enough help elsewhere on the team to get him to the playoffs, and once they started, he finally played like the Jets had hoped him to.

Looking Forward: Great Expectations

In 2009 the Jets had high expectations for themselves, but few actually believed the hype. In 2010 not making the playoffs would be unacceptable. But is Sanchez ready to make the next step and play consistently for an entire season?

That is the million dollar question.

Quarterbacks typically take large steps from their rookie to sophomore seasons, and the Jets have brought in a lot of help to make that transition easier for him. Last year, the Jets traded for Braylon Edwards to give Sanchez a legitimate downfield threat. Now, Edwards has a whole offseason to familiarize himself in the offseason and develop a rapport with his quarterback.

And for the second straight year, the Jets will bring in a new receiver in week 5 to bolster their offense. This time, Santonio Holmes, acquired a few weeks ago for a 5th round pick, will make his Jets' debut. Between Holmes, Edwards, and Jerricho Cotchery, nobody can question the Jets' talent at receiver. Holmes and Edwards both have their own issues: Edwards with concentration and Holmes with his off-field focus, but compared to last year's opening day receiver trio (Cotchery, Chansi Stuckey, and David Clowney), the talent level is leagues ahead. Plus, Dustin Keller is one of the best young receiving tight ends in the NFL.

The biggest key will be limiting interceptions. In games where Jets' quarterbacks threw one interception or less, the Jets were 11-2. 2 or more interceptions? 0-6. So clearly that will be the biggest point of emphasis for Sanchez heading into this season.

He has all the tools of an elite quarterback. He's intelligent and accurate with a good enough arm and work ethic to be a star one day. That day doesn't even need to be in 2010. The Jets made the playoffs and went to the AFC Championship game with one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. This year, Sanchez needs to take another step into becoming a great quarterback by cutting down interceptions. If that's the case, then the Jets won't be needing miracles to make the playoffs like they did last season.

The Backups: Lesson Not Learned?

Of course, you can pretty much disregard the entire article if Sanchez were to get hurt. Last year, Sanchez tweaked his knee and was forced to miss a game. By the end of the season, he was wearing braces on both of his knees. In February, he underwent surgery to clean up his left knee. He's expected to return in June minicamps, but it just shows how fragile the Jets season could be.

The 2010 season is being hyped more than any Jets' season since 1999. That year, Vinny Testaverde went down in week one, and the Jets could not recover.

While the Jets have three quarterbacks on their roster not named Sanchez, none appear to be the answer. By all indications, Kellen Clemens won't be a Jet come August. Even if he comes back, there's little reason to have much faith in him. Erik Ainge and Kevin O'Connell are completely unproven as well. So if Sanchez goes down, what happens?

There's always the possibility of Mark Brunell. Rex Ryan and the Jets are making it clear to Brunell that they want him. Brunell likely can't sign until July 22nd, the date where the Jets are free to sign unrestricted free agents. There's no doubt that the 39-year old could be a great mentor to the Jets' young quarterbacks, particuarly Sanchez. He's been around the block a long time and was a member of last season's Super Bowl champions. But the real question is can he still play if the Jets needed him to?

Even if Brunell signs, if Sanchez goes down for any length of time, do you have confidence in him? He started one game last year, in week 17 once the Saints had clinched everything. He went 15-30 for 102 yards, 1 interception, and 0 touchdowns at Carolina in a 23-10 loss. Before that, he hadn't thrown a pass since 2006.

As a mentor and a leader, Brunell is a great fit. As a quarterback? Not so much. That leaves O'Connell, Ainge, and possibly Clemens. Ainge looked good in preseason last year, but remember, some onlookers thought he would be released heading into last preseason. As for Kevin O'Connell, he actually was released last season by New England. Detroit picked him up off waivers before trading him to the Jets for a conditional draft pick.

There's little reason to have any faith in the actual football abilities of any of the current backups. That said, the Jets do have the infrastructure (great defense, running game, offensive line) to survive a few games without relying on their passing game. But as the Jets saw last year with Sanchez, you can only go so far without a passing game.

The Jets aren't the only team in the NFL with a big question mark at backup quarterback. And maybe Ainge, O'Connell, or even Clemens are better than advertised and can come out of nowhere to produce decent numbers a la Matt Cassel. But right now, backup quarterback has a major concern because if something bad were to happen to Sanchez, any of these quarterbacks could be the next Rick Mirer.

With the best defense in the NFL to go with talent everywhere else on offense, the quarterback play will determine how far this team can go. If Sanchez takes a big step forward, the sky is the limit for this team. He could even be the next Ben Roethlisberger (on-field only) and win a Super Bowl in his sophomore season. But there's no reason to think any of the backup quarterback possibilities can play at the NFL level at this stage in their respective careers.