Lichtenstein: Questions, Questions And More Questions As Jets Open Camp
By Steve Lichtenstein
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In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve taken a bit of a break when it comes to the Jets. This is my first column on them this year.
It’s not because I’ve given up after 40-plus years of futility as a fan, or that there’s been a dearth of news.
It’s just that when it comes to expectations for this upcoming season, the only logical answer to so many questions facing this team has to be, “I don’t know.”
This is in contrast to the last couple of seasons, when I was fully prepared by this point to watch an offense that was woefully ill-equipped to execute 21st century football. Sure, it turned out that the defense was strong and healthy enough to keep the Jets in many games last season — that and a relatively easy schedule enabled them to attain a respectable 8-8 record.
Still, while the standings may have teased some into believing that the Jets were oh-so-close to competing on bigger stages, most fans understood that much work needed to be done by the front office in order for coach Rex Ryan to have a realistic chance to achieve his oft-stated goals in what many thought would be his last go-round at it.
So as the Jets head to Cortland for training camp this week, questions abound related to the specifics of general manager John Idzik’s offseason retooling.
For instance, is Eric Decker really a No. 1 receiver, or was it just that Denver quarterback Peyton Manning is a savant who can transform the mediocre into a weapon? Do we have a real threat here on the outside or was Idzik’s most prized free agent acquisition a mere baby-step upgrade above David Nelson?
And where did all the corners go? After years of prioritizing the position in the draft and free agency, the Jets are now down to 2013 first-round pick Dee Milliner, 2010 first-round bust Kyle Wilson, and oft-injured veteran Dimitri Patterson. The Jets’ pass rush can sometimes help disguise deficiencies in this area, but take a look at the quarterback gauntlet the Jets will face in Games 2 through 7 this season: Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Philip Rivers, Manning and Tom Brady. I’d say cornerback depth will be kind of important in those games.
Of course, the biggest question mark relates to the most important position on the field — quarterback.
Don’t be fooled by anything you hear from Ryan’s mouth these next few weeks — it’s as unsettled as it’s ever been.
At least Mark Sanchez is no longer in the debate.
Geno Smith may have won the job last season by default, due to Sanchez injuring his shoulder in a preseason game, but Jets fans had seen enough of the error-prone Sanchez to know that he had to be eradicated from the franchise in order for the club to move forward. Sanchez is now taking snaps behind Philadelphia’s reserve offensive line — without complaint, no doubt.
Smith then experienced all the setbacks typical of most rookie quarterbacks — the what-was-he-thinking interceptions, the missed opportunities, and the holding-the-ball-too-long-in-the-pocket sacks.
On the bright side, Smith showcased decent arm strength, exciting escapability, and fearlessness late in games. He had some success early and late in the season, though the middle portion was mostly a messy muddle of mistakes.
Many of Smith’s stats were remarkably similar to those compiled by Sanchez during his own rookie campaign, though it should be noted that offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was a bit more aggressive with Smith in terms of pass plays called than Brian Schottenheimer was with Sanchez.
While those numbers were deemed so sufficient back in 2009 that the Jets decided not to bring in a serious challenger to Sanchez’ job the following season, Idzik went the opposite route. He signed free agent Michael Vick.
Regardless of what Smith does well — arm strength, speed, leadership — Vick does it better.
Now add in the experience of 11 NFL seasons (interrupted, of course, by his jail sentence for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring) and I just can’t believe Vick is getting paid all that money to babysit Smith.
Get ready for daily Smith versus Vick updates, Jets fans.
Who got more reps? Who got more first-team reps? Who had a higher completion percentage in the drills? And — my favorite from when Mornhinweg used to try to pump up Sanchez — who had a higher accuracy percentage?
It’s only due to Vick’s lack of durability that this becomes a fair fight. Vick hasn’t played more than 13 games in any season since 2006 — his last with the Falcons before the legal troubles detoured his career.
Last season it was a hamstring injury that forced Vick to the sidelines, where he remained after Nick Foles usurped him on the depth chart.
Unless Smith makes the leap Sanchez never could and improves his accuracy while reducing the number of negative plays, I have to believe that Vick will be the Jets’ signal-caller on Sept. 7.
But I really don’t know.
I’m hoping the Vick signing is in reality a challenge that the Jets issued to Smith to make him aware that he needs to step up his game in order to stay on the field. That’s how football teams should function.
As opposed to some Tim Tebow-type of marketing scheme where Vick gets a token handful of plays out of the Wildcat every game.
We know what a disaster that can be.
But there’s a lot we don’t know a lot about these Jets, which is OK. Competition for spots — even at quarterback — doesn’t have to mean chaos.
Jets fans — from the fantasizers to the most pessimistic — should get that expectations and predictions for this team are pointless. Just let it play out.
All these questions will be answered in due time.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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