By Peter Schwartz
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Welcome to Opening Day 2012!
No matter the sport, it’s a day that has a magical feeling to it. In the NFL, every team’s record is 0-0, and after four preseason games, it’s a chance to play a real contest — one that counts.
And in the case of the Jets, it’s finally a chance to turn the page on last season’s miserable ending.
The Jets open up the 2012 regular season on Sunday against the Bills. With all the controversy and attention Gang Green has received since January, a strong start to the season is essential.
“It’s important to play well the entire game,” said quarterback Mark Sanchez. “That’s start fast, finish strong, and everything in between. We’re going to need a great effort against a tough Buffalo defense and a great team effort in all three phases. I’m excited about the opportunity we have to get things going for real. It would be nice to get the first one, so we have to work hard.”
Despite their futile final three games last season, and their moves — or lack of — during the offseason, the Jets have managed to maintain something that is very important to the franchise.
The back pages of the newspapers.
On Sunday, we’ll finally get answers to some of the questions that have surrounded the team since they last took the field for real in Miami back in January…
Will the acquisition of Tim Tebow work out?
Is the offensive line capable of protecting whoever is playing quarterback?
Will the defense live up to high expectations?
Did head coach Rex Ryan find the pulse of the team?
What does owner Woody Johnson care more about: winning, selling PSLs or creating headlines?
All of these questions, and many more, will be answered as the season unfolds. But for now, the Jets hope to get off on the right foot.
“It’s just exciting to get ready to play somebody and to game-plan specifically about a specific opponent,” said Ryan. “I’m excited to see that. I think we’re all excited to see some Wildcat plays and things. I’m just excited to see our guys and see our guys compete.”
The Jets acquired Tebow to be the centerpiece of the wildcat, something that they were successful with when they had Brad Smith a couple of years ago. Smith signed with Buffalo last year and the Jets’ wildcat then sputtered with the likes of Jeremy Kerley and Joe McKnight at the helm.
Enter arguably the most popular player in the NFL to run the wildcat while also serving as backup quarterback, punt protector and overall optimist.
“I’m excited,” said Tebow. “I’m excited to just play a real game. It’s been a long time coming here, getting ready for Buffalo. We’re excited. They’re a great opponent. It’ll be a fun game. (The Bills) have a very good defense. I just want to be able to help anyway I can. Hopefully, I’m able to do something to help this team win football games.”
Just how New York runs the wildcat is still a mystery. There were two days in training camp where the media was allowed to watch but couldn’t report on it. Although the Jets have been pretty secretive about it, it’s not hard for someone who follows the team and knows the personnel to figure out some formations that the Jets could use. If the media can come up with ideas and the fans can dream things up, you can be sure that the Jets’ first opponent will be ready.
“You have to pay attention to it,” said Bills head coach Chan Gailey. “You know they’ve got it. They’ve got a good weapon in Tebow so you have to expect it. You have to work on it. You’re guessing what they’re going to do a little bit, but you have to spend time on it.”
Whether the Jets run the wildcat, base offense, triple option, wishbone, or the Levittown Red Devils pee-wee formation, it won’t mean a thing if the quarterback, Sanchez or Tebow, isn’t given the necessary protection.
The Jets’ right tackle situation is clearly still an issue. Austin Howard will be the opening day starter, but Jason Smith, the former second-overall pick acquired from the Rams for Wayne Hunter, is lurking as a potential possibility.
Licking his chops for an opportunity to play against this offense line Sunday is Bills defensive end Mario Williams.
“My thing is that I am really more excited about just getting back out there on the field,” said Williams, who was signed by the Bills as a free agent during the offseason. “With everything that has happened with my situation, I just want to get back out there and play ball. That is what I am looking forward to doing no matter who it is against. You should be chomping the bit against whoever you are facing.”
You can be sure that even the most loyal of Jets fans are worried about just how much damage Williams will be able to do on Sunday.
This figures to be tough sledding for a Jets offense that mustered only one touchdown during the preseason — and that was a pass from Greg McElroy to Terrance Ganaway.
To put it in perspective, McElroy will only play if Sanchez and Tebow get hurt. And Ganaway is now on the Rams after getting waived.
Needless to say, that has the Jets’ critics doubting how good this offense can be.
“I’m pretty sure there are, but that’s not one of my concerns (and) neither should it be (a concern for) anyone else that wears a green jersey,” said wide receiver Santonio Holmes. “It’s not how many people (are) doubting us, it’s about what we believe in in this locker room, how hard we’re going to go out and compete every week and how badly we want to win every ball game this season.”
At the end of the day, the Jets would love to see the offense light up the scoreboard. They have heard the negative comments from the media and the fans since February. All they have heard is that this won’t work. However, the bottom line is not to go out and score 35 points — although that would be nice.
“I don’t care about how many we score,” said Ryan. “I don’t care about any of that. I just want to have one more point than the Bills do and that’s every week. It doesn’t matter. The defense has to hold them to this. The offense has to score. We don’t care. It’s all about getting one more point than the opponent and that’s it. If that means we don’t score a touchdown and we still win, we’ll be happy and the Jet fans will be happy.”
While the offense has its share of questions, the Jets’ defense figures to be one of the best in the NFL this season.
On Sunday, they will face a Bills offense that it loaded with talent including quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, along with wide receiver Stevie Johnson.
“Oh, very much so, and that definitely can’t be understated, how far Buffalo’s team has come over the past few years,” said linebacker and former Bill Aaron Maybin. “With me, starting out there and progressing, I’ve kind of been able to see that over the past few years. (Ryan) Fitzpatrick has settled in now. He’s their bona fide leader. They’re behind him, and they’re producing for him. It’s definitely a game where you’ve got to be on top of everything. You have to know what the game plan is, you have to know how they’re going to attack you and you have to execute.”
A victory on Sunday would go a long way in calming down Jets Nation. It’s opening day against a divisional opponent that has become a popular pick by the experts to go to the playoffs.
That chic pick used to be the Jets. This year, they seem to be the butt of the joke from fans and analysts alike.
On Sunday, the Jets would like to change the punchline.
CAN BILLS COPE WITH THE JETS’ FIRST PICK?
Jets first-round pick Quinton Coples makes his NFL debut on Sunday. The former North Carolina star tied for the NFL preseason lead with 4.5 sacks and hopes to help improve a Jets pass rush that has been less than stellar over the last few years.
I caught up with Coples this week:
I admit that I was not very high on the selection of Coples. There were also times during training camp when you could see why many college football experts said that Coples took plays off during his Tar Heel career.
Coples, at times, looked like he was giving up on plays during camp. However, during the games, he was a beast. We’ll see how things transpire this season.
The Bills lead the all-time regular season series against the Jets 52-49. The Jets are 26-24 in the regular season at home against Buffalo.
The Jets have beaten the Bills five straight teams including a sweep last season, 27-11 at Buffalo and 28-24 at MetLife Stadium.
These two AFC East rivals have met once in the post-season with the Bills winning 31-27 in the AFC Wild Card Playoff in 1981 at Shea Stadium.
The Jets are reminding fans to make sure that they bring tickets and parking passes marked “Bills Game 1.”
Parking lots will open at 8 a.m., so be sure to get there early and listen to Mike Francesa and the NFL Now starting at 9 a.m. while you’re chowing down on your bagel… or whatever you might be partaking in that early that morning.
The will call windows open at 10 a.m. while the stadium gates open at 11 a.m.
Pregame warmups start around noon. The Jets ask that you arrive at the gates by 12:15 p.m. to ensure that you are in your seats by kickoff.
The national anthem will be performed by Jenna Ushkowitz from the television show “Glee.” I don’t watch “Glee” so I don’t know who that is.
BEHIND ENEMY LINES
Since the Jets are going to unveil their new wildcat offense led by Tim Tebow on Sunday, it’s appropriate that we highlight Brad Smith. The former Jets wide receiver and wildcat specialist has been suffering from a groin injury and may not play.
“(He’s) getting better,” said Gailey. “Hopefully we’ll get him for Sunday.”
While the Bills will have to be ready for whatever Tebow brings to the table, the Jets will have to be ready for Smith.
“Anytime you have a weapon like Brad Smith, you have to be prepared for it,” said Ryan. “We’ll benefit from having to face Tebow and the Wildcat here, they’re going to benefit having to face Brad. So I think both teams might not be surprised by what they do with the Wildcat, but you still have to prepare for it.”
Smith was taken by the Jets in the fourth round of the 2006 NFL draft. In four seasons with the Green and White, he notched 60 receptions for 513 yards and two touchdowns. He made some electrifying plays for the Jets.
Who could ever forget his memorable Thanksgiving night kickoff return for a touchdown against the Bengals?
And he did it with one shoe!
There’s no question that Wayne Hunter was not very popular among Jets fans. Gang Green nation had to be thrilled when the Jets shipped Hunter to the Rams in exchange for Jason Smith.
But did you catch what Hunter had to say about Jets fans this week?
“They’re like sharks,” Hunter told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “If they don’t like you, they let you know right off the bat. And even if you’re doing good, they might just not like you for the heck of it. It’s brutal over there. Those fans, they know what they want, and they pretty much demand it. So if you don’t give it to them, they’ll let you know.”
He added: “There’s no words to describe it. If you can handle the ‘Concrete Jungle,’ you can handle anywhere. I’ve been through it all.”
Hey Wayne! All that those sharks asked of you was to keep Mark Sanchez on his feet once in a while!
Enjoy St. Louis!
CURTIS MARTIN DAY
The Jets will honor one of the newest Pro Football Hall Of Famers on Sunday when they retire Curtis Martin’s No. 28 at halftime of their game against the Bills. All fans in attendance will receive a commemorative towel. Martin will become the fourth Jets player to have his number retired. He joins Joe Namath, Don Maynard and Joe Klecko.
Martin will not be the only Jet honored this season. Dennis Byrd will have his No. 90 retired at halftime of the Jets-Dolphins game on October 28.
MY PREDICTION… FOR THE GAME AND THE SEASON
This is a tough spot for the Jets. They start the season with a new right tackle in Austin Howard and his job is to contain Mario Williams. I think the Jets defense will play a strong game but I don’t know if Mark Sanchez and company will be able to make enough plays.
Bills 17, Jets 10.
As far as the season goes, I look for the Jets to have a top five defense but they have an offense that has a boat-load of questions and concerns. I’m giving them an incomplete for the preseason so we’ll see how things shake out during the regular season.
In all my years of watching and covering this team, I’ve never had such a difficult time figuring out what to expect. This season can blow up in a hurry but if things break right, the Jets can challenge for a playoff spot.
At this point, I’m picking the Jets to go 7-9 and finish in third place in the AFC East behind the Patriots (12-4) and the Bills (9-7). The Dolphins will bring up the rear at 6-10.
ONE FINAL NOTE
I had Jets season tickets for ten years and I loved to tailgate. However, I’d like to remind everybody that the Meadowlands/MetLife Stadium has a strict tailgate policy that I would like to bring to the attention of those fans that have made it very difficult for me to find a parking spot over the last few years.
From the Jets’ official website:
“One Car, One Spot Parking Policy
Tailgating is an exciting ritual on gameday and is permitted provided guests tailgate in the same space occupied by their vehicle. Please be courteous to your fellow fans — open parking spaces should not be used for tailgating. This season MetLife Stadium and the Jets will be actively monitoring all lots with additional security and patrols in bright green vests enforcing the One Car, One Spot policy.”
After attending Wednesday night’s Giants game, I send out the following challenge to Jets fans:
DON’T BE LIKE THE GIANTS FANS! Make it easy for everyone to find a parking spot. If you tailgate, please use just one spot.
I’ll be looking around for violators!
That’s all for now! Enjoy the game and check back on Monday for a recap of the season opener!
Schwartz sees a Jets loss. What’s your prediction? Be heard in the comments below!