By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — In the case of Derrick Mason, age is without question just a number.
The latest uproar among many Jets fans has been palpable and, once again, way off base. Many are upset that General Manager Mike Tannenbaum chose to release a revered 29-year-old like Jerricho Cotchery, just to turn around and sign a 37-year-old in Mason.
From where I am standing, if that’s all they have in their arsenal to criticize the Jets’ front office, they don’t have much.
No one will ever say Cotchery wasn’t the heart and soul of the Jets’ offense. No one will ever forget all the big plays he made during his seven seasons in green. His signature moment was a diving catch against Cleveland in overtime last season that prolonged an eventual game-winning drive. Cotchery actually injured himself during the play and was seen hopping around before he somehow summoned the strength to break free of coverage and turn a needed nine yards into a spectacular diving catch for 10.
The Jets went on to win a few plays later.
That’s what Cotchery was about. He was one of the few Jets to put ego and bravado aside and represent himself in a manner that was completely anti the franchise’s public persona under head coach Rex Ryan. He was a spokesman for all that should be right about this team. He was a leader, a mentor and an inspiration to all of his teammates.
But, unfortunately for him, he was also a very old 29. Nagging injuries the last few seasons sent his numbers south. It is true the Jets have been more of a running team since Ryan assumed control a few years ago, but that approach actually hid Cotchery’s weaknesses. Throw in this past offseason’s back surgery and it’s completely understandable why Tannenbaum and Ryan may have had their doubts that “JCo” could still do it at the level this team needs.
Then came the news last week following his release that Cotchery actually asked to be moved. He reportedly wanted to be one of the team’s top two receivers. Clearly the Jets were not going to have that happen, not with Santonio Holmes and Plaxico Burress signed, sealed and delivered. So, Ryan, claiming he’s a man of his word, tried to make it so Cotchery would have enough time to join another team and not be completely behind the 8-ball before the season started.
Enter Mason, the 14-year veteran who has done nothing but put up great numbers year in and year out, doing it mostly for teams that weren’t pass-first operations. In eight years with the Tennessee Titans, Mason put up four 1,000-yard-plus seasons, all of which coming after then-coach Jeff Fisher decided asking the guy to be a receiver and kick returner was simply asking too much. Mason put up stellar numbers in 2003 and 2004, hauling in 95 and 96 passes, respectively.
From 2005 through last season Mason was the epitome of consistent for the Baltimore Ravens, recording four more 1,000-yard seasons. Now you must remember the bulk of that time was spent with Kyle Boller, a diminishing Steve McNair, Anthony Wright and a very young Joe Flacco under center. See where I’m going with this?
Mason may be the greatest wide receiver you’ve never really heard that much about. If you look at his numbers, the only thing probably standing between him and a place in Canton is a Super Bowl title. He’s 12th all-time with 924 receptions, has averaged 66 catches per season, has nearly 12,000 receiving yards and 66 touchdowns. He had 61 receptions last season, which would have led the Jets.
Mason’s yards-per-catch average for his career is 12.9 and he has 634 career grabs that have resulted in first downs. He has another 49 catches in 16 career postseason games.
And probably most important, through all of his consistency over his 14 years is the NFL, Mason has proven to be a physical specimen, missing just six games, including exactly zero since 2002. Think about how rare it is for a starting NFL receiver to not miss a game in eight seasons.
So, please forgive me for not worrying too much about Mason being eight years older than Cotchery. There’s no question he’s a very young 37.
No matter how you slice it, the trio of Holmes, Burress and Mason is far superior to Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Cotchery. And even though many fans are up to their usual whining about the team losing players they have become attached to for any number of reasons, they are just going to have to get over it. On his best day Edwards cannot take over a game like Burress can and Cotchery cannot be the possession receiver Mason has been and still is.
For a long while, Tannenbaum’s mission has been to give now-third-year quarterback Mark Sanchez more weapons. With Mason brought in to patrol the slot, the GM has done it. The Jets will have a more balanced offense this season. They won’t have to rely solely on the wrecking ball, ball-control nature of “ground and pound.” They now have quick strike capability and they have attained it at precisely the time highly touted quarterbacks begin to come into their own.
Rightfully, all the attention this season will be on Holmes and Burress, but it will be players like Mason and tight end Dustin Keller who will do more than their fair share to put this team in position to win on a weekly basis. They should provide the Jets with unlimited looks on third down. Couple those two with the team’s already solid running game and the sticks will keep moving long enough for the top two receivers to get into position to change games.
Sanchez had 29 TD passes and completed slightly above 54 percent of his passes over his first two pro seasons. With Mason and Keller doing their things over the middle, basically forcing opponents to leave Holmes and Burress in single coverage a lot, expect Sanchez to challenge 25 TD passes and complete closer to 60 percent of his throws this season.
Mason is that type of catalyst, mostly because he’s never given any indication that he’s not. He’s won everywhere he’s ever been. He leads by example both on and off the field. He will inject character into this team — and he’ll likely do all these things without opening his mouth like the Jets are accustomed to opening their mouths.
I hope Cotchery finds a home and gets to continue being the solid pro and fine upstanding citizen he is. I really do. He’s just not what the Jets needed to take this offense to the next level. Mason will make everyone better in a manner in which Cotchery would not.
You don’t excel in this league for 14 years by accident. Mason is the right guy at what the Jets have already said repeatedly is the right time.
So get over your heartbreak. This is the NFL, the place where only the true warriors survive.
Please read more columns by Jeff Capellini.
What are your realistic expectations for Mason? How many catches and touchdowns will make this move worthwhile? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.