By Jeff Capellini
I should know better than to say this, but I’m going to say it anyway.
The Jets are the real deal.
I might end up regretting those words. It wouldn’t be the first time my eyes have deceived me. But there’s something about this team and this coach that rings true.
Just how good the Jets will ultimately be will depend on them meeting realistic expectations now that we know for certain that they have a defense from hell and an offense that is a work in progress, but has all the makings of at the very least being competent.
That, in my eyes, is a very unorthodox recipe for winning in today’s pass-first, high-scoring NFL. But if a team does one thing exceptionally well it can be flawed yet still feared and buy itself some time. The Jets can only get better on the offensive side of the ball. It’s highly unlikely they’ll just suddenly forget how to play defense.
If the Jets get to the point where they are routinely scoring in the 20s, the sky could be the limit, because it seems like it’s going to take an act of God for teams to routinely score in the 20s against them.
General manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles have greatly improved many of the things the Jets struggled to get right under John Idzik and Rex Ryan. Under the tutelage of coordinator Kacy Rodgers, the defense is operating in all of its ball-hawking glory, forcing 10 turnovers in the season’s first two games after recording just 13 all of last season.
The Jets now have a secondary that’s responsible enough to allow six or seven players to really get after opposing quarterbacks. That’s a departure from the smoke-and-mirrors approach of the previous four seasons when getting sacks and hurries were a weekly goal but rarely a weekly accomplishment.
The Jets have ferocious playmakers all over their defense, from Muhammad Wilkerson and Damon Harrison up front to ageless David Harris and improving Demario Davis in the middle to legendary Darrelle Revis, still-capable Antonio Cromartie and energetic Buster Skrine in the back.
But just you wait until Sheldon Richardson returns from suspension and Leonard Williams starts to show why he was touted by many as the best talent in this year’s draft. Or if Calvin Pryor gets more accomplished as one of Bowles’ hybrid linebackers and safety Marcus Gilchrist becomes more comfortable as the last line of defense.
It could end up being the best defense in the NFL — for real this time — as opposed to previous seasons in which we were told how great the unit was only to see it routinely hemorrhage 90-yard scoring drives or break rather than bend late in tight games.
Perhaps the most telling bit of evidence to suggest that the Jets are going to be around for the long haul is Bowles, a first-year head coach so gifted with knowledge, meticulous in his preparation and grounded in his sense of self he’s already endeared himself to a fan base usually very short on patience.
Bowles kept his team focused despite a tumultuous offseason that featured two of the franchise’s most important players getting involved in the type off-the-field stupidity that can totally hijack a team’s mission statement. And now that the Jets have allowed just 17 points in two games and have done enough good things on offense to avoid being labeled as one-dimensional, Bowles is preaching staying the course and staying away from the unnecessary spotlight.
Similar things can be said of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, who probably has the second-most difficult task of any coach on the Jets’ staff. The good news is he’s also been given a fighting chance by his general manager.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the franchise’s 28th starting quarterback since Joe Namath played his last game for the Jets in 1976. Initially acquired from the Houston Texans this summer for a late-round conditional pick in 2016, Fitzpatrick didn’t exactly command a ton of confidence from a fan base that by and large wanted little to do with incumbent Geno Smith.
Yet, since Fitzpatrick snatched the starting job, a role that Bowles said Tuesday will remain his even when Smith is fully recovered from his broken jaw, he’s quietly led the Jets by example, taking advantage of his prior knowledge of the Gailey offense.
The knock on Fitzpatrick has been he was just a combined 33-55-1 as a starter on five previous teams, but what a lot of people fail to acknowledge is his individual numbers were pretty good and that with the Jets he’s playing on by far the most talented team of his 11-year career.
And that fact has been obvious during the Jets’ 2-0 start as he’s completed nearly 64 percent of his throws for 423 yards and four touchdowns, precisely what has been needed to complement the Chris Ivory-led power running game.
Of course, it also helps that Maccagnan was able to steal wide receiver Brandon Marshall away from the Chicago Bears back in May for a fifth-round pick. Marshall, who is easily the Jets’ best receiver since Keyshawn Johnson in the late 1990s, has 13 catches, 163 yards and two TDs in the early going, displaying a determination after the catch not seen in these parts in some time.
Fitzpatrick and Marshall righted the ship during the Jets’ 20-7 win in Indianapolis on Monday night. New York’s defense played superbly into the fourth quarter, but then tired a bit and gave up a long touchdown drive that made it a 10-7 game with plenty of time to go.
Enter “FitzMagic” and “Machine.” The duo spearheaded an immediate seven-play, 80-yard answer that culminated with Marshall taking a 10-yard out and carrying a pair of Colts the final five yards into the end zone.
The Jets and their fans exhaled and the Colts never recovered.
The win wasn’t without some stress as wideout Eric Decker suffered a sprained knee during the second half and is day to day, while youngster Chris Owusu was hobbling around Tuesday with banged-up leg that might keep him out a few weeks. The Jets hope to have rookie burner Devin Smith back for the game against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Smith, an integral part of Ohio State’s national championship last season, has been out since the early part of training camp due to broken ribs.
The Jets’ fast start has captured the attention of the league and has the mainstream media looking to jump on the bandwagon, but the truth is despite what we’ve seen thus far this team has a long way to go. Sure, the Jets have already proven that they’re capable of accomplishing a lot more than initially predicted, but an NFL season is without a doubt a marathon. What looks good today could easily go off the rails tomorrow.
It will be up to Bowles to keep the Jets on message.
If they play their cards right they may end up having a lot to say.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet