By Jeff Capellini
It’s hard to imagine the Jets with a solid passing game, but that’s exactly what they have.
And Eric Decker finds himself right in the middle of all of it, contributing in a way the Jets envisioned when they signed him to that five-year, $36.25 million contract prior to last season.
All he needed was a little help — a competent quarterback and someone to help draw some of the coverage away from him. Teams often take that kind of stuff for granted. Unfortunately for the Jets, they haven’t been good enough of late to warrant inclusion with those kinds of “haves” in the NFL.
But they are getting there.
In his second year with the Jets, Decker has once again become one of the more consistent wide receivers in the league, sort of like the player he was in 2012 and 2013 with the Denver Broncos. Contrary to popular belief, he’s always had good hands and is an excellent route runner, especially underneath, where the tough yards are fought for and the games are generally won and lost.
Yet there were many who felt the Jets overpaid big time for Decker, claiming he was more a product of Peyton Manning than a singular talent gifted enough to be a real difference-maker on a team devoid of true ability at the skill positions, as the Jets were at the time.
Then there were those who didn’t really care what he was paid. They were too busy seething at then-general manager John Idzik for sitting on his hands on the opening day of free agency to pay attention to the dollars and sense. When word got out that Decker was in play and the tweets of images of him having dinner with the Jets’ brain trust started flying around, the prevailing thought was if the Jets could land Decker they would be taking their first step toward moving an archaic offense into the 21st century.
It was a rather prophetic belief.
Though the Jets only won four games last year, a debacle that resulted in the offseason firing of the entire front office and coaching staffs, Decker got better as the season progressed, closing with 19 catches and 342 yards over the final three games.
At the time, the Jets had not had a 1,000-yard receiver in seven years. During the last week of the regular season, Decker made a serious run, hauling in 10 passes for 221 yards at Miami. Though he came up just short of the seasonal benchmark for what is considered quality, Decker finished with 74 receptions and 962 yards, the most in either category for the Jets since Jerricho Cotchery posted 82 and 1,130, respectively, back in 2007.
And he did it mostly with Geno Smith as his quarterback. That’s about as far a cry from Manning as there is.
Ryan Fitzpatrick was eventually acquired and he supplanted Smith as the starter during training camp. His relationship with his wide receivers has been a primary reason why the Jets are 5-3 and would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
The additions of Fitzpatrick and veteran wideout Brandon Marshall have turned the Jets’ passing offense into one of the more efficient units in the NFL. The transformation has been something when you consider that Fitzpatrick was labeled an also-ran at the time of his arrival and began the season as the Jets’ 28th starting quarterback since 1976, Joe Namath’s last year with the franchise.
For his part, the bearded one has proven his detractors quite wrong as he is currently third in the league in Total QBR, behind only Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton, two guys who look like they are destined for a deep run in the playoffs and eventually spots in the Pro Bowl. Having impressive targets like Decker and Marshall is why we’re seeing a quarterback who appears a lot better than his previous 10 years (and five teams) in the league would suggest.
As it stands, the Jets have an excellent shot at having not one but two 1,000-yard receivers this season, something that if it comes to pass would be downright stunning considering all we know about the underwhelming nature of the Jets’ quarterback situation over the decades.
In fact, in the franchise’s 55 years of existence, it has had two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season just six times, the last coming in 1998 when Keyshawn Johnson (83-1,131-10 TDs) and Wayne Chrebet (75-1,083-8) led the Jets to the AFC Championship game.
The others are as follows (receptions-yards-touchdowns):
1986: Al Toon (85-1,176-8) and Wesley Walker (49-1,016-12)
1968: Don Maynard (57-1,297-10) and George Sauer (66-1,141-3)
1967: Don Maynard (71-1,434-10) and George Sauer (75-1,189-6)
1962: Art Powell (64-1,130-8) and Don Maynard (56-1,041-8)
1960: Don Maynard (72-1,265-6) and Art Powell (69-1,167-14)
Decker and Marshall appear poised to add their names to that list.
Decker missed one game earlier this season due to a knee injury, but has still posted 36 catches, 472 yards and six touchdowns. He’s only been held out of the end zone in one game. On the other side, Marshall has been nothing short of a pass-catching monster, recording 54, along with 730 yards and five TDs.
With half the season to go, Fitzpatrick completing nearly 62 percent of his passes and the Jets facing a fairly favorable schedule, there’s no telling where Decker and Marshall will help take this team. Couple their prowess with a running game that when on can be as good as any in football, and the Jets have a real shot to not only make the playoffs, but also to have the type of balance on offense that will be difficult for a lot of teams to handle, especially when the temperature drops.
I can’t say enough what a pleasure it is to see the Jets throw the ball with conviction, to move with relative ease at times down the field and to witness actual pro receivers not running 3-yard pass patterns on 3rd and 4.
The Jets may not be world-beaters, and it’s possible they won’t end up doing much of anything if their season continues past Week 17, but they are at the very least interesting and building toward something, rather than just spinning their wheels, as has been the case far too often during their little over half-century of existence.
They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played today. They score points.
And Eric Decker, the player once considered by many to be nothing more than a decent consolation prize, is playing as if he’s indispensable.
It was without question money well spent.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet