By Steve Lichtenstein
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I hate to be a buzz-kill after the Jets’ improbable, yet thrilling 18-17 win over Tampa Bay in front of a rocking Opening Day crowd at Met Life Stadium.
Granted, it was nice to be on the other side of one of these games, with Tampa Bay this time grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. I had empathy for Bucs linebacker Lavonte David, whose late hit out of bounds on Jets quarterback Geno Smith with seven seconds remaining brought back painful memories of similar gaffes made by former Jets Mark Gastineau and Eric Barton. David’s personal foul penalty put Jets kicker Nick Folk in range to nail a game-winning 48-yard field goal.
Jets coach Rex Ryan was correct, though, in his post-game comments — there’s no apology for winning an ugly game in the NFL.
But he also must know that he was oh-so-close to getting run out of town only one game into his final contract year.
For if the Jets had not pulled off this miracle, we’d all be focusing on a pair of Ryan’s brain lapses in the game’s most crucial moments.
The Jets were holding on to a 15-14 lead when they punted the ball back to Tampa Bay with 2:14 remaining.
This should have been Ryan’s moment. After all, Ryan may have dialed back on his overall prediction bravado, but he has been maintaining his over-the-top confidence in his defense. Ryan resumed defensive play-calling duties this season after letting defensive coordinator Mike Pettine depart to Buffalo.
For 46 minutes, the Jets had backed him up, allowing only two short-field touchdowns while leaving the Bucs in-fighting and confused.
However, it’s a defense’s performance in the closing two-minute drill that so often determines the outcome of NFL games and, with it, the designation as a top-level unit.
The Jets were in prime position to get the big stop, with Tampa Bay facing a third-and-10 at its 37-yard line.
Ryan was a risk-taker all game, blitzing Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman from all angles. Sometimes, the Bucs beat it with big gains to wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. But you can’t argue with the plan’s overall success, as the Jets unleashed a pass rush unseen in these parts the last few years. The Jets sacked Freeman three times and forced more than half his passes to miss its target.
So I would have been the first to rant had Ryan abandoned his principles (like the way the Jets allowed Tom Brady to stroll down the field late in a key game in New England last season) and dropped into coverage with a three-man rush.
But the defensive call on this play was bungled. For some reason, both defensive backs (Isaiah Trufant and Antonio Allen) on Jackson’s side blitzed, leaving Jackson alone to run free out of the slot. From his safety position, Dawan Landry tried to make the tackle on the quick-hitter to Jackson, but he missed. Jackson scampered down the left side until DeMario Davis’ hustle tracked him down at the Jets 26-yard line.
Ryan stood up to take the blame for the blown coverage in his postgame press conference, calling it “a communication” breakdown.
It’s one thing to lose a game if Jackson, a big and talented receiver, had beaten, say, Antonio Cromartie, the Jets best cover corner, in that spot. When you just forget about him like that, well, that’s like leaving Carmelo Anthony alone underneath while double-teaming Raymond Felton with a one-point lead on the last possession.
But, with the Jets holding three timeouts, at least this wasn’t the last possession. The Jets defense recovered to hold Tampa Bay’s Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin to seven yards on three carries.
The Jets took Martin to the ground on his third attempt with 46 seconds remaining when the whistle blew. Ryan surely would use his third timeout here to maximize the time for a possible comeback attempt after the Bucs’ field goal.
Tick, tick, tick.
There were five more ticks—eight precious yet wasted seconds total—before the clock stopped at :38.
Can you imagine the fallout had the refs not thrown the flag on that close call on David’s shove along the sideline with seven seconds left? Instead of a 48-yarder (which is a high-percentage kick for almost every NFL kicker but Folk), Ryan would have had to choose between having Folk attempt a record-tying 63-yard field goal or call for a Hail Mary.
Those eight squandered seconds would have surely made Ryan a target in the media all this week leading up to Thursday’s game in New England. He’s had a tough enough time these last few weeks with the real and imagined controversies over his quarterback and his trip to visit his son. This would have gotten ugly.
There are plenty of fans and media members who wanted Ryan axed even before he’s had this one final season to salvage his job. They have grown tired of his swagger and, though Ryan is well-regarded for his defensive mind, it has made him reliant on offensive coordinators who prior to this season had done a poor job in developing young talent.
To add in these play-calling and clock management blunders would have been the final straw. Ryan might not have been fired during a short week like this, but, if the Jets also lost in New England to go 0-2, there would have been good odds that owner Woody Johnson and first-year general manager John Idzik would have used the ensuing 10-day respite to make a change.
Instead, Jets fans can feel good for a few days over the new plan—despite everyone’s preseason worries (including me) regarding the Jets ineptitude, they won’t be winless.
Smith certainly wasn’t horrific in his first NFL start as many had predicted. It took some time, but offensive Marty Mornhinweg got better in putting Smith in a comfort zone, using moving pockets and screen passes. Smith’s stats measured favorably with most of Mark Sanchez’s work over the last two seasons. Smith’s 47 yards rushing also led the team.
But it was after the last of Smith’s 10-yard scramble, right when he was pushed out-of-bounds by David, which probably had the biggest impact. It likely saved Ryan’s job — for now.
That’s just the tenuous life of an NFL head coach.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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