By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — Now in his seventh season, Mike Tannenbaum has experienced more ups than downs as Jets general manager. He’s made many moves over the years that helped erase a stigma that had often plagued this franchise, one consisting of a glaring lack of leadership and smart decision making at the top of an operation that so desperately wanted to show the world that it was more than mediocrity.
But despite a roster core that is among the best in the NFL, last season’s major step back from AFC elite status to .500 and utter disarray on the field has taken much of the luster off Tannenbaum’s entire body of work.
In a lot of ways, he’s back at square one, back to the point where he has to prove once again that he can be every bit as good a talent evaluator as he is a capologist and shrewd money man.
I’ve never worried about the Jets’ salary cap situation, mostly because where there is cash to be found, regardless of the seemingly direness of the situation, Tannenbaum has much more often than not found a way to wiggle his way around, rework this and signing bonus that to get the Jets where they’ve needed to be to improve themselves. Case in point, the Jets reportedly entered this offseason at or near what the projected 2012 salary cap will eventually be. Fear and loathing immediately set in among the fans, but Tannenbaum managed to get the Jets approximately $8 million under with all signs pointing to him possibly doubling that number before all is said and done.
The Jets will likely be players once free agency starts next week. Tannenbaum, himself, has said he will be ready to go when the madness begins. And while he likely won’t be in a position to spend like Paris Hilton, he will be able to address some of the glaring holes the Jets currently have, maybe not with big ticket items, but address the problems to some degree he will.
The ongoing issues with quarterback Mark Sanchez aside, the Jets currently need help primarily at wide receiver, somewhat along the offensive line, and throughout their linebacker and safety positions. They also need more immediate impact on the defensive line, for getting to the quarterback remains a conundrum of the highest order.
But Tannenbaum cannot and likely will not completely revamp each of those positions with owner Woody Johnson’s checkbook. Expect this general manager to supplement responsible spending with what he hopes is one home run of a draft, something he really needs to do personally following last year’s relative yawn-fest.
And therein lies my biggest fear. There’s really no creativity needed when signing rookies. They get paid what the NFL collective bargaining agreement says they should get paid, according to where they were drafted.
My concern is whether Tannenbaum can pull off the type of draft the Jets really need at this point to plug their holes, provide immediate impact and set in the right direction a course that will lead them to a sorely lacking identity. You see, the Jets think they know what they want to be, a smash-mouth offensive club that will rely on its running game and stout defense to lead them far into the postseason.
But the problem is the Jets abandoned that very same idea on the offensive side of the ball last season, instead moving away from their bread-and-butter running game to more of an air attack, with Sanchez being given the keys to the plane. Tannenbaum made many controversial decisions at the skill positions, most notably jettisoning his quarterback’s two most reliable targets, Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery, for more experienced — and combustible — receivers in Plaxico Burress and Derrick Mason.
The results were less than scintillating over the season’s first month. Yes, Sanchez’s numbers were pretty good, but the running game struggled mightily and the defense, primarily because it couldn’t consistently apply pressure to opposing quarterbacks, often looked lost.
The Jets then panicked following embarrassing showings in Oakland and Baltimore in weeks 4 and 5, respectively, publicly announcing that “ground and pound” would return. But by then the rest of the league was on to them and the dissension in the ranks, be it caused by Sanchez’s lack of leadership, head coach Rex Ryan’s failure to take control or the attitudes of the divas out wide, was about to become an epidemic, a disease that would eventually lead to the Jets’ ultimate undoing and failure to get back to the playoffs.
So it has been on Tannenbaum to fix that mess since the Jets fell apart in Miami to conclude the regular season. They weren’t getting into the playoffs regardless of what they did that day, but throughout their loss to the Dolphins their future was still not set in stone. The problem was the Jets unraveled in spectacular fashion, screaming of seasons of yesteryear followed by that familiar refrain, one the fans love to turn to in times of despair, but one that will not be mentioned in this space now or any time soon.
Sanchez rightfully got brutalized following the loss and the weeks that followed were filled with one PR disaster after another, hanging collectively like an albatross around the entire franchise’s neck. But barring something going down in the next few weeks that is right now really not worth getting into yet again, Sanchez is going to be the man again come the 2012 opener.
The Jets have tried to set a new course. They have changed coaches, most notably replacing besieged Brian Schottenheimer with Tony Sparano, an offensive coordinator who seems to get what the Jets should be all about. Ryan has publicly stated he will tone down his arrogant vitriol. There’s even been talk of at least one familiar face rejoining the team to help the passing game.
The Jets also have a new defensive line coach in Karl Dunbar, who is known for playing a lot of guys. It was a subtle move, but one that could speak volumes about the defense’s approach going forward. The Jets are going to try beat teams with numbers assisting the scheme, a Ryan defense that generates its pressure on the quarterback from outside linebacker. Aaron Maybin, though one dimensional, showed he could be that guy last season and the Jets hope to get their other outside linebacker in the first round of the upcoming draft, provided the cards go to Commissioner Roger Goodell in a certain way.
At the end of the day, both the immediate and long-term future of this franchise will be hitched to what Tannenbaum does over the next six weeks. He’s made big splashes before, fixing the Jets’ disastrous cap situation in 2006, stealing Thomas Jones from Chicago, signing proven stars like Alan Faneca and Kris Jenkins, trading for Brett Favre and moving up in the draft to take the likes of Darrelle Revis and David Harris, not to mention standing pat and selecting perennial Pro Bowlers Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson. These were all moves that for the most part worked out well and, at the time, were both necessary and celebrated.
But Tannenbaum has also made mistakes, albeit not as many as his triumphs but glaring ones nonetheless and none of them seemed to have to do with crazy amounts of money. Some Jets fans may never forgive him for Vernon Gholston, or for not securing offensive line depth last season. Sanchez has never had a true backup and Dwight Lowery, a consistent and heady player, was traded away. The 2010 draft was “highlighted” by an as-of-yet still unproven Kyle Wilson, Joe McKnight seems to be a player without a position and Vladimir Ducasse may prove ultimately to be the biggest project in modern NFL history.
Last year’s draft was largely a disappointment short of the selection of shifty slot receiver Jeremy Kerley. The Jets did pick two seemingly talented defensive linemen in Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis, players who had fleeting moments in 2011 and will look to take the next step toward becoming impact statements over the next few seasons. But other than those three the Jets drafted a whole lot of nothing.
Then there’s the great unknown in Sanchez, the one player that could singlehandedly elevate or destroy Tannebaum’s reputation, short of the Jets actually winning a Super Bowl under his watch. Now three full years into the Sanchez experience we still don’t know if trading all the way up to No. 5 to pick him in the 2009 draft was the right decision. I suppose in the extremely unlikely event that Sanchez is replaced over the next few weeks we’ll have our answer. But short of the unlikely going down, Sanchez is heading into the most pivotal season of his five-year contract. If he doesn’t become a consistently reliable quarterback in 2012, lame duck status will be a compliment heading into his free agent year.
Tannenbaum has been around the block. He knows the ins and out of how to accomplish the ultimate goal. His problem is he’s no different than the vast majority of professional sports executives in that eventually they find themselves back on the street corner where they started, looking for a new and inventive way to take that step forward.
But in New York, where everything is magnified ten-fold, what have you done for me lately is the rule rather than the exception.
Tannenbaum is a very good GM, but it remains to be seen if he’s truly the right front office leader to take the Jets, one of, if not the most puzzling and often maddening franchises in sports history, to greater heights.
The time is now, Mike. And don’t forget to pack your parachute.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
Do you have faith that Tannenbaum will put the best possible team on the field in 2012? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below. …