By Jeff Capellini
Jets fans are giddy about a .500 season. It’s hard to blame them considering what this team was coming into the regular season and expected to be over 17 weeks.
That’s how good of a job Rex Ryan did.
And today he’s being rightfully lauded all over the place by writers, football insiders and fans as he celebrates avoiding the “Black Monday” ax.
But let’s not forget the job general manager John Idzik did as well. Remember, he inherited a salary cap mess, considering what properly run NFL teams’ operating budgets generally are. He was also saddled with very little talent in certain key areas. You know them as the skill positions — and they don’t just apply to the offensive side of the ball.
Idzik did what he could to address quarterback prior to Mark Sanchez getting injured. But once the one veteran Idzik had went down he was stuck with limited resources to find anyone suitable to back up rookie Geno Smith, whom he drafted, I believe, more out of necessity than any great insider knowledge of the former West Virginia signal-caller’s potential.
Regardless of Idzik’s reasoning, it appears he has found a quarterback, maybe not a quarterback who will take the world by storm during his sophomore season, but certainly a player gifted and dedicated enough to give the fan base hope.
The budget also wasn’t there to give Smith decent weapons. The hope was Santonio Holmes would take a time machine back to 2010, when he was about as clutch a receiver as there was in the NFL, before his temper and injuries derailed his Jets career. It just didn’t happen, and barring something bizarre the Jets will cut the former Super Bowl MVP for some needed cap relief. A lot also hinged on the development of Stephen Hill, but the second-year wideout from Georgia Tech actually regressed, proving to many of his detractors that he wasn’t worth a second round selection.
But Idzik still managed to piece a receiving corps together, one that wasn’t great by any means but did manage to get better as the season progressed. The signing of David Nelson prior to the Week 5 win in Atlanta proved to be a stroke of genius. Jeremy Kerley, when healthy, showed that he has all the tools to be a premier slot receiver in this league. Greg Salas was imported from the practice squad and contributed as well.
But the offensive issues and remedies you knew about because they were constantly debated as the season progressed. The moves Idzik made on defense were just as important.
The trade that sent corner Darrelle Revis to Tampa Bay ultimately brought back two players that may very well help define what the Jets will be for years. I think it’s readily apparent to everyone that defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was taken No. 14 overall in the draft, is the real deal. He literally says and does all the right things, and when alongside the Jets’ other young defensive studs — namely Muhammad Wilkerson, Quinton Coples and Damon Harrison, and to a lesser degree Kenrick Ellis and Leger Douzable — it’s pretty obvious that the Jets will remain excellent run stoppers and QB disruptors for a long time.
The selection of Dee Milliner at No. 9 overall in the draft was met with mixed reviews. On one hand there was no doubting the Alabama corner’s raw ability when healthy. On the other there was his multitude of surgeries and concerns over how quickly such a banged-up guy would adapt to the intensity and responsibility of playing defensive back in the NFL.
As everyone saw, Milliner largely struggled, but like Smith at quarterback, he persevered. Is it any coincidence the two best games Milliner played were also the two best games Smith played, and both came at the tail end of their rookie seasons? I think Milliner could be a keeper, provided he works his rear end off this offseason and continues to show the same study habits Ryan lauded during his postgame press conference on Sunday.
Idzik also found other secondary help in the form of safeties Dawan Landry and Ed Reed. Landry, the younger brother of LaRon Landry, who became a favorite among fans due to his play-making and hard-hitting abilities, simply priced himself out of the Jets’ cap hell and split for Indianapolis during the offseason, but his kid brother came in and quietly had an excellent season, recording 100 tackles, seven passes defensed and an interception.
A lot was made of the Reed signing late in the season, but to me Idzik didn’t bring the future Hall of Famer here to make a massive impact on the field so much as he brought him in to help teach these youngsters how to play the game. Do you think it was a coincidence that Milliner had three interceptions after Reed was brought on board? It wasn’t. And while Reed will probably not be brought back due to the Jets really needing to give all the reps to emerging Antonio Allen, if they did it wouldn’t be a bad idea due to his tutelage and the impact he can still make situationally on the field, as evidenced by his three picks in just a handful of games.
So that was basically the season that was for Idzik, the front office executive plucked literally by committee from Seattle and forced to inherit a head coach by an owner in Woody Johnson who is as unconventional as they come.
What happens next will define Idzik. If legacy shopping is something Idzik craves, beyond being able to hire his own head coach, which we know he won’t be able to do for at least one more year now that Ryan has been retained, I can’t imagine a better opportunity. The Jets will have reportedly more than $40 million of cap space and at least nine draft picks to work with.
Idzik basically has his dad’s credit card and is poised to go insane with very few, if any, restrictions.
But what he does with those assets will ultimately tell everyone if he was the right choice when Johnson used an outside consulting firm to find a new general manager after firing Mike Tannenbaum.
He simply cannot screw this up.
The Jets need to focus on the offensive side of the ball this offseason. They need at least one premier wide receiver, an upgrade at tight end, perhaps more help on the offensive line and a veteran quarterback who doesn’t necessarily have to be brought here to start the 2014 season, but one who can step in at a moment’s notice and adequately relieve Smith should he not develop further.
Much of this the Jets will have the cap space to pull off. The rest they can target early in the draft. And with the abundance of extra picks they have there will be a lot of wiggle room to trade up or down or ship off selections to other teams to get more proven players in here.
Idzik simply could not ask for a better situation.
And while people will continue to harp on Ryan, especially if he does come back as a true lame duck without an extension to his contract, the job that Idzik does will likely cement the futures of both men.
I say that because I have always believed that Ryan can flat out coach. Some want to kill him for his neglect of the offense, but if the Jets truly have a quarterback and talented weapons around him and actually execute like a 21st century offense under offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, which they did at times this season despite all their deficiencies, I don’t think people will give a damn if Rex pays one second of attention to the offense or not.
The fact remains that in his first five years Ryan never really had the pieces on offense in an offense-driven league, and the sheer fact that he somehow managed to get the Jets to consecutive AFC championship games in 2009 and ’10 was a miracle and more a testament to his overall coaching abilities than any shortcomings as an offensive mind can do to his reputation.
But now it’s Idzik’s turn to be constantly under the microscope. Every move he makes from now until training camp should be overanalyzed, because he doesn’t have any excuses for not taking these truly mediocre-yet-talent-deficient Jets to the next level. The fact remains the Jets are trending upward, regardless of how ugly they were at times in 2013.
So, let the “Offseason of Idzik” begin.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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