By Steve Lichtenstein
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The NFL season officially opens tonight.
As a Jets fan, I wouldn’t have minded a delay of the games.
For my expectations for this season couldn’t be any lower. Virtually every major media outlet is predicting Gang Green to finish at or near the bottom of the AFC. This has the potential to be a historically awful team, one that would only compare favorably with the 1-15 Rick Kotite-led Jets of 1996.
But there’s another way for fans to view this season as it unfolds besides absorbing the pain from each defeat. Instead, I’ve resolved that this will be one of those seasons that I shouldn’t grade in the usual win-loss manner.
No, this season needs to be measured in terms of progress, like how teachers in underperforming schools should be evaluated. The test scores themselves matter less than the students’ margin of improvement.
In that vein, I want to see the Jets develop some young players for a change so they will have a chance to compete in 2014 and beyond. That’s how the elite teams work—they build a network, mostly through the draft, so that their seasons don’t go down the tubes when, say, their center gets hurt. You need a host of young players to fill in holes.
Unfortunately, Jetland is full of craters, thanks to years of the killer combination of inept scouting and personnel choices under former general manager Mike Tannenbaum and ineffective player tutelage (mostly on the offensive side) from Rex Ryan’s coaching staff.
Of course, most eyes will focus on just one of them. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith supplanted incompetent incumbent Mark Sanchez only after Sanchez was ruled out of Sunday’s opener versus Tampa Bay with a shoulder injury. Quarterbacks are the headliners, so I get the massive amount of attention paid to the position.
Smith, however, won’t have any chance to succeed without help–from his line, his receivers, and ballcarriers.
Smith, whose release looks to me to be more Pat Ryan than Matt Ryan (albeit Smith has significantly superior arm strength and mobility than the long-ago Jet backup), will likely experience major growing pains in his first go-round the league anyway, as was typical for rookies prior to the wondrous 2012 campaigns of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson.
Smith needs time to work on his timing with his receivers—their different speeds as well as the depth and options on their routes. He also hasn’t experienced the variety of pressure packages that opposing defenses will throw at him to bait him into mistakes.
But the hope is that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg can design an offense that maximizes Smith’s strengths while getting him used to the speed of the NFL game, so that by the end of the year Smith looks more like the next Brett Favre than the next Browning Nagle. Smith appears to be comfortable with moving pockets and screen passes and will generate some respect when he starts throwing downfield.
Still, the Jets need players on the other end to catch it.
The Jets’ draft room neglected the wide receiver position for too many years. Before Stephen Hill in 2012, the Jets had not drafted a receiver within the first three rounds since making Santana Moss their first-round pick in 2001.
Hill is one of a dozen or so other young players besides Smith whose progress I will be watching closely. Hill showed flashes of dynamism in an injury-plagued rookie season and he has the potential to make game-changing plays if he improves one minor skill — how to hold on to the ball.
Cohort Jeremy Kerley has been one of the few young offensive players to exceed expectations under Ryan’s reign, leading the Jets in receptions and yards received last year. If Santonio Holmes is able to return to form following the Lisfranc injury that cut short his 2012 season, Kerley’s targets will drop but he can still be effective running out of the slot.
Other young players who will be given a shot to shine include running back Bilal Powell (who won the starting nod over Chris Ivory), tight end Jeff Cumberland, tackle Austin Howard, and guard Vladimir Ducasse (or should I say rookie Brian Winters, when Ducasse inevitably caves). I’m hoping Mornhinweg and his staff can get these guys to play at higher levels by the end of the year.
Whatever you may think of Ryan, he does have a much better track record with his defense. You don’t take down Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive road playoff games without knowing how to game plan and put players in their proper positions.
The Legend of Revis Island, which has been re-located to Tampa Bay following the offseason trade, doesn’t blossom without Ryan. The open question is: what is to become of that vacated property in the left corner?
It should have been bequeathed to 2010 first-rounder Kyle Wilson. Except that Wilson has had a miserable time trying to cover opposing receivers, which is kind of a prerequisite. So now it’s Dee Milliner’s turn, assuming this year’s top draft pick has recovered from a nagging calf injury.
Milliner won’t be the only secondary member playing with a huge target on his chest. Between multiple receiver sets and injuries, teams without depth here play at their own peril. If this is indeed a top-five defense, as Ryan has boasted, then some of those young guys, like Ellis Lankster and Isaiah Trufant, in addition to Wilson have to step up when called upon.
It’s of enormous help to have a pass rush, which was the bane of Ryan’s defense last season. Only five teams sacked the quarterback fewer times than the Jets in 2012, despite Ryan’s renowned exotic blitzing schemes.
With the Jets offense a giant question mark, this is an area that has to be consistent for the Jets to just stay in games. The front seven is loaded with high draft picks. Inside linebacker David Harris is in his prime and defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson is poised for a breakout year.
But the Jets need more. Will they get the same big plays from 2012 first-rounder Quinton Coples (once he returns from the fractured ankle) that they got at the end of last season now that he’s moved to outside linebacker? Will Kenrick Ellis (or, if Ellis’ back doesn’t hold up, Damon Harrison) sufficiently keep blockers off Harris to shut down opposing running games? And will someone wake up veteran linebacker Calvin Pace?
General manager John Idzik did a commendable job cutting many of the Jets’ unproductive high-earners in the offseason so a new road can be paved. But it won’t matter if these new models underachieve as well. We were all sold on players like Shonn Greene, Joe McKnight, Vernon Gholston and Wayne Hunter in the past few years.
Oh, and Sanchez, too.
You can argue whether it was poor scouting or development, but none of those guys deserve to start for a current NFL team. (As for Sanchez being upset about getting hurt playing with backups, well, he better get used to it. After this season, what other team is handing him the keys to a starting job? Welcome to Curtis Painter’s world.)
Ryan may be on his last leg in his contract but his job, whether he likes it or not, is to get this current crop performing at a competitive level by the end of the year, even if it means suffering painful growth spurts along the way.
It will be tough, as Ryan’s Jets have mostly depended on veterans to surround Sanchez. They earned the right to stay the course in 2012 after what they believed to be a one-year 8-8 blip followed back-to-back runs to the AFC Championship game. Unfortunately, that plan crashed and burned.
The 2013 Jets may finish with a record worse than 6-10, but if they can develop a new young core, including, but not limited to, Smith, then they will have come out ahead.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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