Rex Ryan is headed back to the drawing board
Nobody saw this coming. After two straight AFC championship appearances, it appeared the New York Jets had finally turned the corner as an organization. With a confident, outspoken head coach and a cap-savvy general manager, the Jets appeared to be closer to shedding the stepbrother image the city of New York branded them with years ago.
They would head into the 2011 season with their sights set on playing for the Lombardi Trophy in Indy. Anything less would be a complete failure.
The result? Same old Jets. Murphy's Law strolled into the Jets locker room and decided to wreak havoc the entire team. Everything the Jets feared for this 2011 team became a reality this season.
Mark Sanchez regressed in his third year as the Jets starting quarterback. Wayne Hunter embarrassed himself game in and game out. Eric Smith played like he was trying to lose his starting job, while the special teams unit looked undisciplined and unprepared, not something you see from a Mike Westhoff unit.
The Jets finished the season 8-8 and now begin a long offseason that will not be short of drama. From Brian Schottenheimer's job status to Santonio Holmes' captain status, the Jets will most likely dominate the back pages in New York once again, but not the way Rex and Mike Tannenbaum dreamt they would.
Here are five key areas of focus for the Jets going into the offseason.
Mike Westhoff must live up the his reputation as the best special teams coach in the NFL
The Jets special teams, a typical strong point of this team, played a huge role in the eight Jets losses. The only silver lining was Joe McKnight emerging as a solid kickoff return man after flopping as a possible punt return threat (two fumbles on only five returns). The Jets averaged 26.3 yards a return, good enough for fourth in the NFL largely in part to McKnight's emergence (31.6 yards a return).
They'll have to improve the punt return game, just 18th in the league with an embarrassing 9.7 yards a return. Whether it was McKnight, Jeremy Kerley, Jim Leonhard or Antonio Cromartie, each of them looked out of place. Kerley is the likely punt returner next season, but don't be surprised if the Jets bring in some competition during camp.
Protecting the football is what killed special teams this season. The Jets had nine fumbles on kickoff/punt returns, most in the NFL. Mike Westhoff is one of the best special teams coaches in the game so most will chalk this season up to bad luck, but it can't be ignored going into training camp.
The Jets special teams looked out of sorts all season long on punt returns. Although there is not stat I can find, I am sure the Jets were right at the top of league in fielding kickoffs/punts within the 10-yard line, which is inexcusable.
T.J. Conley is not the answer at punter and made the Jets long for the days of Steve Weatherford and his shake weight pranks. Although he was ranked third in the NFL with 32 punts inside the 20, Conley ranked 30th in average yards per punt (42.7).
With the way the Jets offense played this season, they needed more consistency out of their punter to give an overworked defense something to work with. Conley is on a one year contract, so I wouldn't be shocked if the Jets moved on brought in two, if not three punters to battle it out in camp next season.
The Jets will need to either upgrade at linebacker or pray for a 2009 version of Calvin Pace
The Jets ranked 17th in the league in sacks, which isn't terrible, but it isn't exactly good considering how much they blitz. The lack of pressure on the opposing team's quarterback exposed everyone in the secondary not named Darrelle Revis.
The Jets leading pass rusher was Aaron Maybin (six sacks), a Buffalo castoff who the Jets actually cut coming out of camp. Maybin gave the Jets pass rush some life early in the season, but he quickly faded in the second half. He'll probably be remembered for taking one of the worst personal fouls of the season against the Giants.
Maybin might be back, but can you really count on him? The answer is no. Maybin did a nice job restoring his reputation this season, but he can't be relied upon to anchor a pass rush.
David Harris had five sacks, but he is more of a run stuffer than a pass rusherl his focus should be getting better at covering tight ends. Mo Wilkerson had a decent rookie season with three sacks, and Jamaal Westerman (3.5 sacks) did a nice job filling in for the injured Bryan Thomas, but the Jets will need a lot more from both of them next season, especially with rumors already circulating that Bart Scott will not be back.
The real cause for alarm is the regression of Calvin Pace. Pace only recorded 4.5 sacks, which is down from 5.5 in 2010 and 8.0 in 2009. Pace's step back in the sack game makes the need for a speed rusher more glaring. The Jets will be patient with Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis on the defensive line, but they cannot ignore the need for a pass rusher in the linebacking core.
If Bart Scott does not return, the Jets could have some cap room to sign a big-time linebacker. Anthony Spencer is the ideal fit, but don't expect Rex to rob one of his brother's most talented players. Detroit linebacker Stephen Tulloch is also a possible target, but will probably be too expensive for the Jets, making April's draft a likely solution.
The Jets will pick 16th in the draft. They'll have to decide whether to go with a pass rushing linebacker or safety. Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw could be available along with Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict, neither of which stand out in terms of putting pressure on the quarterback. The Jets will most likely pick a safety at 16 and pray that Houston linebacker Sammy Brown falls to them in the second round.
Without a productive offensive line, the Jets will never be Superbowl contenders
At the risk of sounding like a Sanchez apologist, it's very difficult for a quarterback to take the next step when his offensive line is deteriorating by the second. Hunter was clearly not ready to take over the starting right tackle position, Brandon Moore is 31 years old coming off serious hip surgery, Nick Mangold battled an ankle injury all season and Matt Slauson isn't that good.
Compile all of that with the preseason loss of Robert Turner, and it really puts everything into perspective. The failure to get the running game going and the lack of time for Sanchez really falls on the offensive line.
I can show you a bunch of teams that have won Super Bowls with average to below-average play from their quarterback. I cannot think of one team that has won a Super Bowl with a below-average offensive line. To say that the Jets offensive line was below average in 2011 is really an understatement.
Hunter was rewarded in the offseason with a four-year, 13 million dollar contract extension, so don't count on him going anywhere. Plus, the market for right tackles will be extremely thin this offseason.
The best move for the Jets moving forward would be to bring in a free agent right guard and move Brandon Moore to left guard, elminitating Matt Slauson, who was just as brutal as Hunter. Moore should be 100 percent next season, and although moving him to left guard is a risk, it's really the only move in order to get better.
The disaster at right tackle really put the spotlight on Mike Tannenbaum and his inability to create depth on the O-line. Vlad Ducasse, who was supposed to be the future at right tackle, has looked like a complete bust and did not make any improvements in his second full year in the NFL.
Although the Jets need help at linebacker, the problems on the offensive line lead me to believe that they will spend most of their offseason money on a proven offensive lineman to protect Sanchez.
The Jets won't be in the market for pricey top free agent guards such as Carl Nicks and Ben Grubbs. With no viable upgrades in house, they'll most likely have to overpay for Cincinnati's Bobbie Williams.
Eric Smith was ineffective and is most likely ticketed for the unemployment line
Eric Smith was one of the worst defenders on the Jets defense this season and arguably the worst free safety in the AFC.
He can't tackle in the open field, he doesn't play the run and he cannot cover the middle of the field. The only notable thing Smith has done in the last five years is almost end Anquan Boldin's career. His hard-hitting style has become a detriment to the Jets defense given the new rules put in place for "defenseless receivers."
Smith signed a three-year, 7.5 million dollar extension in the offseason, but the cap hit may not save him.
Brodney Pool will most likely join Smith on the unemployment line. The Jets will most likely look towards the draft as a solution to their free safety woes. Picking at 16th, they'll most likely be able to grab Mark Barron out of Alabama if they decide against selecting a linebacker.
Either way, Smith cannot be starting for the Jets next season. Opposing teams picked on him all season, and with the success they had, I can't imagine much will change next year. Upgrading the middle of the field is an absolute necessity and could quite possibly be the Jets No. 1 priority this offseason.
The Jets must move on from Brian Schottenheimer's complicated offense
Brian Schottenheimer has done nothing to show that he deserves to return as offensive coordinator next season. The Jets offense never formed an identity in 2011. They went into the season with their typical "ground and pound" slogan that quickly turned into "three and out."
Like I said earlier, the offensive line has to shoulder a lot of the blame for the Jets offensive woes, but it is up to the offensive coordinator to formulate a game plan that gets around the short comings of the offensive personnel. Schottenheimer's game plans became stale and predictable, ingredients for an average football team awaiting the draft in April.
I truly believe that a huge part of Mark Sanchez's regression falls on Schottenheimer's shoulders. Watch some of Sanchez's games at USC. You will see an exciting quarterback who loved to roll of the pocket and make things happen on the move.
Now, turn on the some of his games this season, and you will see a quarterback with a leash on him who looks scared to take charge of the offense because he lacks the support of his coaching staff.
Schottenheimer turned Sanchez into a system quarterback when he clearly has the talent to be much more than that. The key to the Jets getting their offense back on track is building a solid offensive line and telling Sanchez to go out there and BE A QUARTERBACK! Don't look to the sideline for your offensive coordinator. Make the call yourself.
Don't misinterpret my point; Mark Sanchez must be better than he was this season. There were games this year, most notably against the Giants and Dolphins, where Sanchez was dreadful. He will get better, but he will only get better when he has an offensive coordinator who believes in him and gives him free reign over the offense.
If you don't agree with me, then I'll point to Brett Favre, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He spent one season under Schottenheimer, and that was enough for him. Several sources have said that Favre felt Schottenheimer's offense was too complicated. Take a look at the man's resume; he might know what he's talking about.
The Jets must move on from Brian Schottenheimer. Then, and only then, will the Jets be considered Super Bowl contenders.