By Ernie Palladino
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Rex Ryan’s “playoff” Jets take the practice field for the first time Thursday in Cortland.
At least that’s the kind of team he hopes to see during training camp. Whether he gets his wish or not depends on a lot of things, not the least of which involve overall health and the improvement of youngsters.
He had better pray hard that both those elements come through for him with flying colors because, as he told the Daily News last week, a second straight 8-8 season will represent a huge disappointment.
What he didn’t say is that the aftermath of another .500 season will likely result in Ryan finding something small and pink inside his office mailbox the day after the season ends, or pretty close to it. The fact of the matter remains that this is not a free year for Ryan. There are no mulligans because he’s starting a rookie quarterback, or that his wide receiver corps is wracked with injuries, or that the secondary is a disaster.
He either makes the playoffs this year — a wild-card berth is good enough — or he heads to some other organization as a defensive coordinator or to a seat camera-right on one of those endless, pre-game talk fests.
The process of avoiding these issues begins Thursday with the first practice. There can be no easing into the summer, as the Jets need to accomplish much before the Sept. 7 opener.
Start with the quarterbacks, since that is the position that will determine Ryan’s true future. The job is Geno Smith’s to lose, but he would do well to come right out and prove he indeed deserves that job. He’s laid plenty of groundwork with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg over the offseason, and John Idzik has given him Eric Decker and three drafted receivers to go along with solid Jeremy Kerley and uncertain Stephen Hill as targets.
Smith had best score high on the reading curriculum — reading defenses, that is — if Ryan is truly to go into the season feeling secure. Having former Titans running back Chris Johnson as part of the backfield rotation with bruiser Chris Ivory will certainly help take the heat off Smith. But Smith has to prove early that he can make the important pass consistently and take care of the ball. He absolutely must reduce those 21 interceptions of last year, as well as handle the pass-rush pressure better, as he did in the final four games of 2013, when he rushed for 186 yards and three TDs during the 3-1 finish.
If he doesn’t, then 34-year-old Michael Vick had better be ready because Ryan can’t afford to let his quarterback run on a long leash. But Smith set the bar so low last year — he had the NFL’s worst quarterback rating — that it’s almost impossible to fathom a worse performance.
Those working against the offense will also have to show something immediately. With Ryan’s strength leaning toward the defense, it is that unit which will again carry the Jets. Only this time, the secondary should be better.
The front seven, led by Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, should have little trouble controlling the run. Linebacker David Harris missed 13 tackles last year and didn’t do well in coverage. But if he cleans that up even a little and the rest of the intact front seven can stay healthy, moving the ball will remain a challenge for the opposition.
The secondary needs a big step-up from cornerback Dee Milliner. Last year’s first-rounder must show a mastery of coverage, as the 770 yards he gave up to receivers last year with be far less than acceptable this year. In and out of the lineup last year because of performance-based factors, Milliner needs to prove right away that Ryan can rely on him to shut down his half of the field.
The Jets have much to accomplish this camp. If they get it done, Ryan might just have a shot at sticking around. And who knows? Maybe it all leads to his team giving the hated Patriots a run for their AFC East money.
First things first, though. When the Jets take the field Thursday, Ryan had better see a playoff team before him. Or else.
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