A Rough Landing for the Jets

On Monday, following a dismal end to a dismal season, the New York Jets fired Mike Tannenbaum, their General Manager since 2006. Rex Ryan, hired as head coach four years ago this month, was not fired, nor was first year offensive coordinator, Tony Sparano. As I have detailed on multiple occasions, the New York Jets failed to adequately replace key offensive players that made them a legitimate playoff contender from 2004 through 2010. Beginning with the 2011 season, Mark Sanchez and the Jets offense began taking numerous, clear steps backwards. Their rushing attack, which was the class of the league in 2009 and 2010, disappeared. Because of this, extra burden was placed on Sanchez to lead the offense, which he proved to be incapable of doing.

All of this is because Tannenbaum and Ryan tried to take the easy way to a championship. They signed or traded for high priced players such as Santonio Holmes, Bart Scott, LaRon Landry, Antonio Cromartie, and Tim Tebow while failing to build from the ground up. Essentially, they became the NFL’s version of the 2012 Los Angeles Lakers, except they tried to do it with talent that progressively became worse. It nearly worked – the Jets were a solid second half away from winning their AFC Championship game in 2010, and a solid first half away from defeating Pittsburgh in the following year’s game. They came up short both years, and their disregard of their forfeiture of draft picks as well as salary cap issues that will affect their team in 2013 has put them in a hole that may take years to climb out of.

Ultimately, the blame was placed on Tannenbaum, who is out of a job despite drafting David Harris, Darrelle Revis, D’Brickishaw Ferguson, and Nick Mangold. Since Rex Ryan’s arrival, his draft selections have been lackluster. This includes changes to the offensive line that have turned what was once the Jets most potent weapon into its most glaring weakness. The Jets failed to surround Sanchez with the quality of receivers that he had in his first two seasons. Braylon Edwards, who was Sanchez’s security blanket, was released in 2011, as was Jericho Cotchery. To cap everything off, Jets management traded draft picks in exchange for Tim Tebow, who was rarely used and had no purpose for even being on the team.

The Jets came to an agreement with Sanchez for a contract extension last spring, guaranteeing him over twenty million dollars over the next two seasons. Expecting Sanchez to recover from a sub-par 2011 season with Sparano running a ground and pound offense, the Jets felt confident that their offense would be enough to get them into the playoffs. The could not have been more incorrect. Disregarding an opening week explosion against Buffalo, the Jets scored 15.5 points per game, and that includes points scored by their defense and special teams unit. Jets quarterbacks were intercepted nearly four percent of the time that a quarterback threw the ball, the second highest rate in the league. In December, Sanchez was benched in the third quarter of a game against Arizona to be replace by – not Tebow – Greg McElroy. Sanchez was given two more chances – against lowly Jacksonville and a slightly less lowly Tennessee squad – and failed to perform well enough to keep his job. McElroy started in the second to last game of the season, but was sacked ten times and suffered from concussion symptoms which forced him to miss the season finale against the Bills. Tim Tebow, brought in to help run a wild cat offense and to compete for a starting job should Sanchez struggle was never effectively used for either purpose.

There seemed to be a clear disconnect between the moves that the front office made and the way that Rex Ryan coached the team. Tebow is the prime example. I believe that Ryan never wanted Tebow on the team, and was a panic move made by the Jets after they found themselves out of the Peyton Manning sweepstakes. Yet instead of trying to find a quality quarterback deeper in the draft (such as Russell Wilson (3rd round) or Kirk Cousins (4th round)), the Jets opted to sacrifice draft picks for the allure of Tebow. The Jets spent their top two picks on defensive end Quinton Coples and wide receiver Stephen Hill. Coples provided 5.5 sacks, but Hill registered only 252 yards in eleven games. Despite it being their Achilles heel in 2011, the offensive line did not receive any tweaking until Wayne Hunter was replaced by Austin Howard in the pre-season. Vladimir Ducasse, their second round pick in the 2010 draft, did not start a single game.

Despite not bringing in any new talent, Rex Ryan job is safe for at least another season. He has his defense to thank. Despite the Jets having one of the worst offenses in the game, the Jets gave up only 323 yards per game, 7th best in the league. Even stingier was their passing defense, which ranked second in the league. It is clear that Ryan can lead a defense, and when he has the appropriate tools, can get enough out of his offense to win playoff games. Consider that the Jets average margin of victory came out to be -6 points, meaning they were good enough to compete in most of their games. They kept pace with the Texans in a Monday Night game in October, and were a classic Tom Brady drive away from upsetting New England on the road. The Jets were not brutally bad in 2012, their offense was brutally bad. The Jets gave up an average of 23.4 points per game, including defensive scores against them. Their offense was roughly five points per game below the league average. If their offense had been even average, the Jets average point margin would have been -0.7 points per game, close enough to turn some losses into wins. That’s even without taking into account the massive amounts of turnovers that they committed (they were tied with the Eagles and Chiefs for most in the league), or the impact that the additional rest would have on their already strong defense.

There are a few places the Jets can go from here, all of which is dependent on who the Jets bring in as their new GM. Let me first say that if I were hiring the General Manager, my number one target would be Marc Ross, the current Director of College Scouting for the Giants. The Giants have done remarkably well in the draft, particularly with wide receivers where Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz have turned into stars.

Let’s start out with the path that is the least drastic. The Jets can continue to build around their defense and slowly build up their offense, starting with their offensive line. This would be done through the draft, and take a few years before the team becomes good enough to compete. Sanchez or McElroy remains as the quarterback until they can find a suitable replacement, and continue to rely on their defense and hope their running game re-emerges. Picture them as the Ravens were when Kyle Boller was their quarterback. It took some time, but they developed a defensive core through smart drafting, slowly pieced together an offensive line, and were able to make that jump to a perennial playoff team when they drafted Joe Flacco and Ray Rice. Along the way, they took a gamble on Steve McNair and made a playoff trip, but it was the only year from 2004-2007 where they made the postseason. I find this path to be the most likely. The key is to draft wisely, and find the missing piece of the puzzle through free agency.

A slightly more aggressive route would be to replace Sanchez (it’s awful hard to cut him, so he’d likely still stay on the team as a backup) and see if any teams are willing to deal a backup quarterback if the Jets dangle a defensive player their way. One dramatic move I’ve been playing around with is if they were to offer Darrelle Revis to Seattle or Washington and see if they could pry away Matt Flynn or Kirk Cousins. Of course, trades are always a nasty business in the NFL, so that remains unlikely. A fan can fantasize.

The most dramatic of solutions, and probably least likely of them is a complete rebuilding mode. I don’t think that will be the path they choose, because I think Ryan would have lost his job by now. This would be a complete overhaul of the team, including cutting any defensive players that would not cut into their salary cap in order to rebuild the team with an emphasis on the offense and see if they can scrap together a young team that can compete. This isn’t completely crazy, considering that the Colts managed to rebound from a 2-14 season by finding gifted rookies. Granted, it doesn’t happen often, but its not impossible. The right personnel and coaching staff can do quite a lot.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – dynasties are built from within. They require excellent scouting evaluations, smart draft moves, and timely free agent signings. The Denver Broncos have done that excellently in 2012, putting together a talented team in 2011 that was missing a great quarterback to throw to talented receivers and support a defense that was overtaxed because of the ineffective Tebow-led offense. Now, they are a favorite to advance to the Super Bowl. I’ve brought up New England before, because they continue to be the shining example of how an NFL team goes from futility to dynasty within the span of four years. You can’t try and cheat the system as the Mike Tannenbaum did.

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