By Steve Lichtenstein
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When the Jets were 5-4 and had the NFL world marveling at their resilience after beating the Saints, coach Rex Ryan had to avoid one word the rest of the way to stifle the calls for his job.
After Sunday’s desultory 23-3 loss to Miami at home, there’s no doubt that the Jets are officially in a tailspin.
Forget for a moment that the Jets’ third straight defeat figuratively, though somehow not mathematically, crushed any hope that they could sneak into a weak AFC postseason tournament. We all knew from the beginning that this team was in pure rebuilding mode, with a rookie quarterback and few weapons.
It’s that this was the Jets’ third consecutive noncompetitive effort, coming at a point where we all expected to see progress.
You see, if these performances occurred in September, we’d be more forgiving. Yeah, there would be some troublemakers spewing “I told you so’s” for Ryan’s decision to play quarterback Mark Sanchez in the fourth quarter of a meaningless exhibition game in which he injured his shoulder. But most of us had seen enough of Sanchez and begged for the Geno Smith era to start as soon as possible.
So these past three outings, in which Smith has completed a ridiculously-low 38 percent of his passes with six interceptions and no touchdowns, wouldn’t seem so out of the ordinary. Chalk it up to pretty normal growing pains. Welcome to the NFL.
Then if Smith responded by leading the Jets to three late-game wins, including an unforgettable one in overtime over the hated Patriots, we’d have different talking points today.
Unfortunately, we are looking at a different chronological order, and it makes all the difference when evaluating the job Ryan has done this season.
Not only have we not seen improvement in the Jets’ young players, with the exception of a few in the defensive front seven, but they have generally played worse. Ryan, who oversees his staff, knows where the buck stops.
For instance, a player like cornerback Dee Milliner, the Jets’ first-round selection (and ninth overall) in this year’s draft, was benched for the third time on Sunday after several boneheaded maneuvers in pass coverage and tackling. It’s reached the point where Jets fans are shocked when he uses the correct technique and looks back to find the ball.
While the secondary has been atrocious all season, Ryan’s bugaboo has always been on the offensive side of the ball.
First, I want to know what Ryan has done with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Was he body-snatched by Tony Sparano?
Mornhinweg is a notoriously pass-happy play-caller, so much so that the unbalanced passing attack contributed to the Jets being unable to escape New England with a victory in the second game of the season. Since the Jets’ bye, however, all of a sudden Mornhinweg is afraid to call a first-down pass. Mornhinweg even called runs on the first seven first downs when Matt Simms replaced Smith to start the second half yesterday.
I’ve got to believe that was Ryan’s directive, as it should have been, since the head coach has to answer for the entire game plan.
But that also means that Ryan hasn’t learned that you can’t win consistently in today’s NFL unless your quarterback makes plays. He is foolish if he still believes he can count solely on producing sufficient points off turnovers and a running game. He will also have a hard time in interviews for future prospective employers trying to explain that.
Opposing defenses have made their adjustments knowing that the Jets are afraid to beat them through the air. The offensive line has been besieged by blitzes, with Jets quarterbacks getting dropped 11 times in the last three games, including four sacks by the Dolphins on Sunday.
Even worse, the future doesn’t look so great either. The Jets’ best young receiver, Jeremy Kerley, hasn’t played in a month, and 2012 second-round pick Stephen Hill might as well have been listed as inactive considering his meager recent production. The running back tandem of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell has been contained. Take away two long Ivory runs in garbage time and they are averaging 3.2 yards per carry over the last three games.
And then there is Smith.
Despite some early-season successes, thanks to above-average mobility and arm strength, no one has confidence in him right now. Not the coaches, who have game-planned around his penchant for negative plays; not the fans, many of whom would walk out of the stadium if Simms isn’t under center next week against Oakland; and possibly not his teammates, who have not exactly stepped up to give him the help he needs.
In his postgame press conference, Ryan said that he will review the tape and figure out with his staff which quarterback gives the Jets “the best chance to win the game” next week.
As if anyone really cares about that at this point. While I know plenty who want to see what Simms can do given regular practice reps and playing time, no one can really believe he is the Jets’ quarterback of the future.
Which means that the Jets will have to go shopping for a quarterback in the offseason, either through the draft — whereby winning these final games would result in the Jets having a worse first-round slot — or the NFL marketplace.
And if that’s the case, anyone think general manager John Idzik would entrust Ryan with another quarterback given all the regression that has occurred in his tenure?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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