When the Jets acquired Brett Favre before the start of last season, expectations for the team increased dramatically. They finally had a quarterback who could stretch the field and scare defenses with his arm strength.
But the problem was that they already formed an identity for their offense by going out in the offseason and signing some big-name offensive linemen (Alan Faneca, Damien Woody) as well as a punishing lead blocker (Tony Richardson).
They also traded up to grab a pass catching tight end (Dustin Keller) who can work the short to intermediate areas of the field.
They were all set on being a team who would pound the ball and control the game with a short, efficient passing attack—something that is not and was not Favre's game. And while they started fast at 8-3, they stumbled down the stretch, going 1-4 and missing the playoffs as Favre's age and questionable coaching decisions by Eric Mangini plagued them.
Flash forward to present day—Favre is cutting grass on his farm in Mississippi (for now), and Eric Mangini continues to ruffle feathers, but this time at the Cleveland Browns' complex. So the two things that seemed to be so problematic at the end of '08 will not be around this coming season.
The Jets replaced the "Mangenius" with Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, who is poised to bring an aggressive, smash-mouth style of defense to Gang Green. Baltimore's defense has been ranked second, sixth, and first during the last three seasons with Ryan at the helm. They also brought in former Ravens LB Bart Scott and S Jim Leonhard to come in and anchor the D.
The Jets also brought in CB Lito Sheppard to play opposite Darrelle Revis. And they still have massive DT Kris Jenkins to anchor the middle of that defensive line.
Of course none of those acquisitions can hold a candle to the one they made during the draft, trading up from No. 17 to No. 5 to select USC quarterback Mark Sanchez, a guy who will undoubtedly be the face of the franchise for the next decade-plus.
Most scouts agree that he is "the real deal" and will be a legitimate NFL quarterback, but the only question left to answer is how quickly he will make his impact.
So what does all this mean for the 2009 Jets? Let's take a look at where they've improved:
While some may disagree, I think a healthy Mark Sanchez who would have had the entire offseason to learn the playbook is better than an aging, injured Brett Favre who learned the Jets' offense on the fly last season.
Even if Kellen Clemens starts the season, it would be his fourth year in the offense. So I still think the team is better off.
Just when you thought they couldn't get any better at the position, they draft Iowa RB Shonn Greene. Greene is a "bowling ball" of a runner who can get the tough yards between the tackles. Just another dimension added to the offense.
With the addition of the aforementioned Scott and the fact that Vernon Gholston is a year older and more experienced, there's no doubt they will get even more production from these guys under Ryan's new scheme.
Adding Sheppard and Leonhard was excellent because it allows the defense to be that much more versatile. Leonhard is a guy who is always flying around and making plays and is physical enough to come up and play in the box against the run.
Now, on paper they may have regressed at receiver, losing Laveranues Coles to the Bengals. However, guys like Chansi Stuckey, David Clowney, and Brad Smith are expected to step up. It's possible two of those three can emerge and exceed Coles' production in '08.
The Jets are also pretty thin on the defensive line. Other than Jenkins, there really isn't a game changer in the pack. But somebody could emerge come training camp. The team is said to be really high on rookie DE Jamaal Westerman from Rutgers.
The moves GM Mike Tannenbaum has made over the last few seasons have been made with one reason in mind—to win the AFC East.
I think those expectations are no different in 2009. Obviously every team's goal is to win the Super Bowl. But for the Jets, that starts with defeating the Patriots and winning the division.
Since 2001, the Jets are just 4-12 against the Pats (0-8 at home). During that span they have won the division just once, in 2002. Last season the Dolphins won the division with an 11-5 record, and I believe that's the minimum record it's going to take to do it again this year.
As somebody who follows the Jets, I believe 11 wins is a reasonable expectation.
This team won nine games last season with a broken-down quarterback and a secondary that was ranked 29th against the pass. This year, with Ryan directing a more aggressive defense, quarterbacks will not have time to sit back there (as the Jets rush two or three guys) and pick them apart.
For the Jets to exceed my expectations, a few things will probably have to happen.
First, Mark Sanchez will have to play well beyond what anyone predicts. I'm talking even better than Joe Flacco last season. Because as improved as the Jets defense will be, Sanchez is not going to be playing with that '08 Ravens unit.
Secondly, somebody will have to emerge as a legitimate receiver opposite Jerricho Cotchery. And I'm talking about being a big-time player. Whether it be the aforementioned Stuckey, Clowney, or Smith, one of those guys will need to come to the forefront.
TE Dustin Keller will definitely improve upon his 48 catches and three TDs, but it's going to take a big season from another receiver for the Jets to become an elite team in 2009.
Lastly, we know the Jets defense is going to be aggressive, but will they create turnovers?
The Ravens had 34 takeaways last season, propelling them into the AFC Championship Game. If the Jets are at the top of the list in terms of takeaways, they'll really have a chance to do great things. Because now you're talking about putting your offense in great positions to be successful.
On the flip side, there's always the challenge of adjusting to new players and a new coaching staff. If the Jets struggle in those areas, I could see them dipping below last year's nine wins.
If for some reason Mark Sanchez goes through some serious growing pains and the running game sputters, the offense could become inept.
It's hard to imagine the running game faltering with the quality of linemen and backs the Jets have, but if that ugly "I" word rears its head, as with any team, the Jets would be in trouble.
If nobody steps up and grabs hold of that No. 2 receiver spot, that could be trouble for whoever is at quarterback. Teams will double Jerricho Cotchery, and it will have a domino effect on the rest of the offense.
Same goes for the defense. Success is going to depend upon how quickly the players adapt to Ryan's schemes. If there's a steep learning curve, then you might see hesitancy from players, which will result in giving up big plays.
And what about Ryan?
People assume he's going to be a slam dunk at head coach due to the success of Atlanta's Mike Smith and Baltimore's John Harbaugh in 2008. But what if he stumbles?
The Jets just got rid of a coach who made too many questionable choices, if Ryan comes out of the gates in the same manner, I can see the fans and media getting on him early.
In the end, Jets fans are eternal pessimists. At least most have been conditioned to think that way due to the team's history of near triumphs and disappointing moments. However, I truly believe the sky is the limit for this 2009 team.
They finally have a franchise quarterback (who's inheriting a pretty talented offensive unit) and they have a coach who seemingly isn't afraid to be aggressive and take chances.
There's no way of knowing how the upcoming season will turn out, but it all starts within the division for the Jets. And they certainly look primed to meet that challenge and take the next step.