By Jeff Capellini
The names have come to haunt the Jets fan.
In the pantheon of coaches who have been tasked with guiding the Jets’ offense over the years, those three put a maddeningly unique spin on the term “conservative.” The Jets’ problems scoring points may not have always been their fault, considering this franchise’s uncanny ability to always get the quarterback position wrong, but they nonetheless ended up as the poster boys for offensive ineptitude.
What often took other teams seconds, used to take the Jets an eternity. Touchdowns were more a special event than a common occurrence.
Remember the three-yard pass patterns on 3rd-and-4?
What about 1st-and-goal from the 9 and three straight runs?
How about the art of playing not to lose?
He’s only been here for five games, but already new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is proving to be nothing like his predecessors. He’s creative. He’s aggressive. He loves to throw the ball. He believes in balance.
I literally can’t believe the Jets hired him.
The Jets are a surprising 3-2 following their stunning 30-28 win in Atlanta on Monday night, and are one game out of first place in the AFC East with the winless Pittsburgh Steelers coming to MetLife Stadium on Sunday. Though they are in the middle of the pack in most major offensive categories, these Jets feel more explosive than any team since Vinny Testaverde, Curtis Martin and Keyshawn Johnson took Gang Green to the AFC championship game during the 1998 season.
That might not be saying much to the average fan, but to the Jets fan it’s saying a lot.
Mornhinweg has been around as a coordinator and was even once the head coach of the Detroit Lions. That gig ended with just five wins in 32 games, but everywhere he’s been his teams didn’t lose because they couldn’t score. The 51-year-old played a big role alongside Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles, creating an explosive-yet-balanced offense that put up a lot of points during a mostly successful 10-year run, the last seven as offensive coordinator.
All this went on while the Jets, under coordinators like Hackett, Schottenheimer and Sparano, often left themselves very little margin for error on the scoreboard.
So should we call this a relationship of mutual benefit? Mornhinweg departed Philadelphia at the end of last season, the same season the Jets were among the worst offenses in the NFL under Sparano. Remember the game against Arizona? Words cannot describe the horror of what went on that day. It was an NFL football game in name only.
The Jets saw something in Mornhinweg, likely his longing to do what former coordinators were reluctant to do for years.
Like throw the ball down the field.
And though the Jets didn’t hit on many long plays on Monday night, they had over their previous four games. They had four completions of at least 40 yards against Buffalo alone and, though Smith struggled mightily, kept throwing the ball down the field during the loss to Tennessee two weeks ago.
According to defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, all week leading up to Monday night head coach Rex Ryan implored his Jets to be fearless against the Falcons, a team that was seemingly much better than its 1-3 record then and 1-4 mark now. The Jets were that and more, giving just as much as they got before they ultimately sealed the deal.
And though the Jets were outgained, had 11 less first downs and nearly 11 minutes less in time of possession, Mornhinweg made the most of the time he did have with the ball.
The Jets ran just 42 plays from scrimmage. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan attempted 46 passes alone. But in those plays, Geno Smith went 16-of-20 for 199 yards and three touchdowns, and three running backs plus Smith combined for 118 yards on the ground on 5.4 yards per pop.
Mornhinweg’s formations confused everyone, including people in the TV booth. Of course there was the obligatory wildcat, but three running backs on the field at once on some plays? And while we’re at it, who is this team’s No. 1 back? Or does it matter? Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson lining up at fullback?
It’s all a little bit crazy, but at the same time quite effective.
And while Smith’s performance was rightfully lauded on television and Wilkerson was among those worshiped on the radio, as far as I was concerned Mornhinweg should have been praised on all mediums.
For Smith to take over at the Jets’ 20, down one point with 1:54 left, and drive them into range for Nick Folk to kick the winner took a lot more than Smith’s athleticism and Folk’s cannon for a leg. Mornhinweg rightly informed Smith to take what he was given. And while the Falcons struggled to apply pressure, Smith went to work, hitting Stephen Hill — who had not seen a pass all game — for 12 yards, and then Jeremy Kerley for 13 and Hill for nine more before Geno scrambled away from trouble for eight.
Mornhinweg then showed his own fearlessness, calling Bilal Powell’s number on first down from the 38. Following the four-yard run, the Jets called timeout and then Smith went to Clyde Gates, another guy not heard from much, for three yards. Then, with 25 seconds left following a second timeout, Mornhinweg went back to Powell, the Jets’ most reliable if unspectacular player, for a key six yards that could have ended in disaster if not for his elusiveness.
The Jets moved 45 yards in seven plays before Folk won it. They got contributions from all over on that drive, which was really a microcosm of the whole night. In all, four different players carried the ball and eight caught at least one pass. Smith put up a 147.7 passer rating and the Jets topped 100 yards on the ground for the third time in five games.
Have they been successful because they have superior talents at their skill positions? I think we all know the answer to that question. Just like we know the Jets’ offensive line is good, but not necessarily great — yet.
What we have here is an unpredictable talent in Smith that doesn’t scare Mornhinweg. Come hell or high water he’s going to continue to turn this kid loose, no matter how many interceptions he throws. He’s simply forcing the second-round pick to grow up in a hurry.
What we are seeing in the process is a young man up to the task and starting to come into his own.
And an older man making the most of his latest shot.
I have no idea what the Jets are going to be the rest of the way, but I do know they are already more than I expected. I always say this is a league of parity, and the idea of predicting 2-14 or something similar — which is what a lot of blowhards did back in the preseason — was silly when you consider the talent this team had then and still has now on its offensive and defensive lines.
But if the Jets can continue to move the football and score points the way they did more or less over the season’s first five games, there’s really no telling what they can be, especially when you factor in a defense that opponents can’t run against and has no problem bringing the house one minute and bending but not breaking the next.
Smith’s progression now has the attention of the entire football universe.
But for the Jets and their fans, what 2013 ultimately ends up being may come down to an offensive coordinator keeping his foot on the gas, even when the overall talent of his players may suggest at least doing the speed limit.
Either way, seeing the Jets with a 21st century offense for once is a sight to behold.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet
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