In the wake of the New York Jets’ embarrassing 34-0 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, Rex Ryan wasn’t shy about his team’s performance – “We got our ass kicked”. I could not have said it better myself. Arguably, it was the team’s worst loss since Ryan became the head coach in 2009, right up there with a 45-3 loss in Foxboro in 2010. But unlike that loss, which was more of a testament to the Patriots offensive prowess than an indictment on the Jets, yesterday’s loss put each and every hole of the Jets organizational structure into the spotlight.
No Running Game
Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers backup quarterback, ran for fifty yards out of the wildcat formation yesterday. Those fifty yards are five more yards than what the Jets, as a team, managed to rush for. This is where Rex Ryan has corroded what used to be a strength for the Jets – the offensive line. Ryan was fortunate enough to inherit a line consisting of D’Brickishaw Ferguson, Alan Faneca, Nick Mangold, and Damien Woody, as well as a horse of a running back in Thomas Jones. All of them were brought in by Eric Mangini, who coached the Jets from 2006-08. Jones rushed for over 1400 yards, and was the primary reason why the Jets were able to make their improbable run to the AFC Championship game. But he was released in the off-season because he was due bonus money. Shonn Greene, who had an impressive rookie season as Jones’ right-hand man, split nearly equal time with an aging LaDainian Tomlinson. The Jets were fourth in the league in rushing, despite the fact that the Jets had also parted ways with Alan Faneca before the season began.
Then the Jets cut Damien Woody prior to the 2011 season, after he suffered an injury in the playoffs that kept him out of the last two games. The Jets dropped to 22nd in rushing in 2011. Shonn Greene, now starting on a regular basis, rushed for only 1054 yards, as the Jets put more responsibility on Mark Sanchez. After the Jets offense struggled mightily in the tail end of 2011, Ryan vowed to go back to a ground attack. That has not worked in 2012. Greene suffered a head injury in the Jets week 2 loss in Pittsburgh, and has averaged just 2.5 yards per carry over the past two games. Greene’s back-up, Bilal Powell, is doing only slightly better at 3.8 YPC this season.
Partly, the blame goes to not replacing Tony Richardson, one of the best blocking fullbacks in the history of the sport. But it’s tough to replace a legend. Mostly, the offensive line deserves a lot of the blame, and more so, Rex Ryan deserves blame for not adequately replacing Faneca and Woody. Faneca’s replacement, Matt Slauson, is only in his third year, but was merely a sixth round pick in the 2009 Draft. And again, it’s tough to replace someone as prolific as Faneca. Woody’s replacement was Wayne Hunter, who was the weakest link in the Jets 2011 offensive line. Despite the fact that Hunter showed not even a slight trace of skill at the position, the Jets did not replace him via free agency nor did they draft a tackle in the draft.That’s just horrible team building, and both Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum (the General Manager) need to take the blame for that.
The Devolution of Mark Sanchez
Mark Sanchez has progressively gotten worse as a quarterback. He was never a top tier quarterback, even when the Jets went on their playoff runs, but he was serviceable, could manage games, and was good when the game was on the line. The Jets tried to rely more on him in 2011 (34 attempts per game, compared to 31.6 in 2010) and he saw his interception total shoot back up from a reasonable 13 in 2010 to a slightly alarming 18. Critics called for the Jets to sign a back up quarterback that could pressure Mark Sanchez into improving his work ethic and improve his play. The Jets responded by trading for Tim Tebow. Again, poor organizational structuring. Sanchez has responded by completing less than half of his passes in every game starting with Week 2. And let’s face it, the only reason why he lit Buffalo up in Week One was because he was playing Buffalo.
I still believe that Mark Sanchez can be a serviceable quarterback in the right system. With a good offensive line, and a solid running game, he has shown he can play well enough to get a team to the playoffs. While Mark Sanchez is playing horrifically, even historically bad right now, not enough people are asking why. It’s a byproduct of poor drafting, bad free agent signings, and team chemistry issues.
This all must fall on the architect, Rex Ryan. Last December, I wrote about how the Jets talent evaluation dramatically fell when Rex Ryan took over. Many of the players that Rex Ryan coached to the AFC Championship games were brought in by either Herm Edwards, or (more prominently) Eric Mangini. Ferguson, Mangold, David Harris, Darrelle Revis, Dustin Keller, Thomas Jones, Tony Richardson, Brad Smith, and Jericho Cotchery all were brought in by Mangini. This is why the blame falls more on Rex Ryan than Tannenbaum. GM’s do not just lose an eye for the game. At least, not that quickly. These are decisions made by Ryan, and these decisions regarding the personnel have been considerably worse than those made by Mangini. Rex Ryan has treated the draft as if its meaningless (three of their 2012 picks were cut), brought in players that negatively affected team chemistry (Santonio Holmes, Derrick Mason), brought in players that just can’t play (Joe McKnight, Vladimir Ducasse).
X’s and O’s, Ryan can coach. He turned the Jets defense, which was a liability when Mangini left, into the best defense in the NFL in 2009, and a top ten defense again in 2010. After the Jets missed out on the playoffs in 2008 because they relied too much on Brett Favre’s passing game the final month of the season, Ryan came in and effectively ran the ball down every team’s throat the entire year, and followed it up by doing the same in 2010. On the field, he knows what he’s doing. But as more of the players become guys that Ryan has brought in, the more it becomes clear – he’s clueless when it comes to building a team.
I don’t even mind if he talks a lot, or guarantees crazy and impossible Super Bowl victories. I don’t love it, but I don’t hold it against him. He likes to talk, it makes the press conferences fun, it makes for good sound bytes. Plus, he may not have cashed in on any of those guarantees, but he’s come a hell of a lot closer to the Super Bowl than any other Jets coach has. All that matters is how he is constructing this team. He’s flat out constructed it poorly.
Great teams are built primarily through the draft. Belichick drafted key players such as Tom Brady, Richard Seymore, Matt Light, Asante Samuel, and many others in building their long-lasting dynasty. The Steelers used the draft to get Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, and Casey Hampton. Every successful team uses the draft to build the core of their team, and free agency to fill in the gaps. Yes, a big free agent move can help a lot. The Patriots gave Rodney Harrison a contract in 2003, and he was essential in their two championships. However, rarely does a team primarily comprised of free agents end up being successful. Just ask the Washington Redskins. The key to winning in the NFL is being smart in the draft, and finding the right pieces of the puzzle in free agency. Ryan seems to have this in reverse.
Until Rex Ryan learns how to build a team, the Jets are destined for failure. Will that be enough time for him? The Jets are 2-2, and are tied for first in an AFC East that has been surprisingly balanced. Something must be done to spark the Jets offense.
And it starts with benching Mark Sanchez. Whether it’s Tebow or Greg McElroy, it doesn’t matter. That’s the only way of surely knowing whether what I (and conventional football wisdom) say is the reason the Jets are struggling, or whether the problem is simply Mark Sanchez. I don’t think the problem is Sanchez. I think he’s a victim of the degrading overall talent of the team. He’s not going to be the franchise quarterback that everyone thought he was going to be, but he’s not this bad. The problem is Rex Ryan and how his architectural skills are abysmally bad, and if he doesn’t turn the team around quickly, his job will be up for debate.
Follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo, and also check back later in the week when I hand out my second annual MLB Idiot Awards.