By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) — When reliable fan favorite Jay Feely flew the coop in the offseason there was nothing but fear and trepidation over who the Jets would bring in to fill the kicking void.
The speculation was general manager Mike Tannenbaum and head coach Rex Ryan would do due diligence in finding someone who would almost certainly be called upon to make pressure kicks on a team that wasn’t expected to be an offensive juggernaut.
However, the combination of who they signed and, more importantly, who they didn’t sign seems to speak volumes about what the front office thinks of the importance of the position.
Or does it?
Don’t get me wrong, Nick Folk has been extremely solid through two preseason games, making 6-of-7 attempts from a variety of distances. His leg will never be questioned. It’s his head and leadership I’m worried about, mostly because his predecessor was every bit the go-to guy as any other relied upon veteran from last season’s squad.
As was the case with many of the veterans whose contracts had expired — and some still signed who everyone figured would be looking for some kind of an extension — the Jets played hardball with Feely. It was believed that Feely’s agents and Tannenbaum would do their little posturing dance for a while but would eventually come to their senses and hammer something out.
But might I remind everyone this is the NFL. One never knows what can and often does happen.
In this case, Feely got a more lucrative deal from Arizona and packed his bags. What followed was your typical outrage from the fans. Understand, Feely was every bit admired for what he did off the field as on it. He was a team spokesman, which is rare for a kicker. He never shied away from speaking his mind on everything from football-related topics to how to improve the economy. He was someone who you knew would stand up and take the heat, even if a Jets loss had little to do with his performance.
What does Folk stand for? Nobody knows.
Between the lines, Feely wasn’t perfect, but was pretty darn close, going 30-for-36 with a long of 55 yards in 2009. During his two-year stint in green, Feely made 84 percent of his attempts (54-of-64), and won over everyone by pretending to be a gunner on special teams. The man was never afraid to throw his fullback-type frame into the fray.
Fans fall in love with a player like that.
But through his actions, Tannenbaum seemed to suggest re-signing a hard-nosed and accurate kicker wasn’t a priority. To me, that was somewhat alarming because guys like Feely don’t grow on trees. Then again, maybe the parting of ways was just the nature of the NFL’s economic beast. The Jets didn’t think the two-year, $3.5 million deal the Cardinals gave him was the smart play, even with his reputation for putting his money where his mouth is. Instead, the Jets gave Folk, who was coming off an injury-plagued season in Dallas, less than $500,000 for one season.
A smart move? In my mind the jury could be out on this one for as many as 16 games.
At this point, Folk seems to be an upgrade on longer field goal attempts, meaning you may not see Ryan choose to pin teams back inside their own 10 as much as he did last season. The real difference here should be on kickoffs. In two preseason games, Folk has reached the end zone seven of nine times. Feely, on the other hand, recorded touchbacks only 10 percent of the time (17 of 162 kick-offs) in two seasons with the Jets.
Maybe that’s why he tried to tackle everyone. He knew he didn’t have the oomph to spare his teammates a beating.
Folk’s injury problems from last season are ancient history. The question now becomes can this guy make eight or nine of every 10 attempts? What’s he going to do on kicks that will tie or break tie games? How will he respond to the final two minutes of regulation? Will he be money in overtime if that’s where he finds himself?
Most importantly, how will this guy react after missing one or two, or God forbid, three?
Again, nobody really knows.
After making 87 percent (46-of-53) of his attempts in his first two seasons with the Cowboys, Folk suffered through a somewhat disastrous 2009 that saw him go just 18-of-28, including missing at least one attempt in six straight games. Now, there might have been a good reason for his wildly inconsistent season. Folk suffered a right hip injury at the end of the 2008 season and rushed to get back last year because the Cowboys went out and drafted a kicker. Maybe he feared he’d lose his job. Whatever the reason, Folk struggled and after the Cowboys didn’t re-sign him and he latched on with the Jets he struggled some more during offseason workouts.
But as summer turned to late summer Ryan declared Folk his guy and the Jets have not even felt the need to bring anyone in to challenge for the job.
On the surface this seems like an ill-advised maneuver. But, then again, Ryan is all about instilling confidence in his players. It’s been his MO since he arrived prior to last season. You are my guy. Go out there and don’t make me look like an idiot. That has to work wonders for a player’s confidence, especially at a position where there is absolutely no margin for error.
This is definitely going to be interesting. Fans aren’t in the business of waiting around for a player to come around, especially not during a season where the difference between a shot at the Super Bowl may very well hinge on the right leg of a redemption project. In a season where the Jets have cheaped out here and taken risks there they’ve rolled the dice at a position that requires perfection.
And because of that, Nick has been left with no choice but to prove on a game-by-game basis he can be the fans’ next Folk hero.
(Jeff Capellini is a senior editorial editor for CBSNewYork.com. He also writes under the moniker “The Green Lantern” on the Jets, Yankees, Islanders and many other things Gotham sports. Please follow him on Twitter at @greenlanternjet)