I hope my misgivings are alarmist. But the New York Jets' 2-1 start has obscured some major performance issues that continue to haunt the team.
These issues run deeper than "too many penalties" or "too few takeaways." They concern the Jets' success or lack thereof in evaluating talent, be it through trades, free agency or the draft. They also concern the team's ability to defeat the more formidable opponents that lie ahead. If their three-point loss to a hobbled New England team is any indication, Jets fans should be nervous.
However, all is not dark and dreary in Jets Nation. Their win over Buffalo boasted significant achievements:
- The Jets took a first-half lead and never trailed thereafter. They let Buffalo rally from a 20-6 deficit to tie the game but rallied to score the winning touchdown.
- The Jets offense gained 513 yards, the most for a single game in the Rex Ryan era.
- Quarterback Geno Smith's 331 passing yards, wide receiver Santonio Holmes' 154 receiving yards and running back Bilal Powell's 149 rushing yards were career highs.
- The defense sacked Bills quarterback EJ Manuel eight times.
If the Jets build upon performances like those in the coming weeks, my portents of doom will seem like exercises in anxiety. I hope that's the case. But until the Jets beat stronger opposition than Tampa Bay and Buffalo, there are still personnel and strategic issues to discuss.
Free Agents and Trades Are Not Working Out
So far this season, John Idzik's free-agent signings and trades have a mixed record at best.
The problems started when quarterback David Garrard retired. They continued with running back Mike Goodson's arrest on drug and weapons charges. Then the Jets released nose tackle Antonio Garay and guard Stephen Peterman. Finally, running back Chris Ivory's hamstring injury has limited both his availability and effectiveness.
That leaves right guard Willie Colon and safety Dawan Landry as the only starters obtained via trade or free agency.
Thank goodness for Bilal Powell. If it weren't for him, the Jets' running game would be an absolute mess.
John Idzik obtained two backs who were supposed to upgrade the running game: Ivory and Goodson. So far, they've contributed virtually nothing.
Goodson has yet to play a single snap. His personal and legal woes have cost him eight games. He missed all four preseason games because of personal reasons. His league-mandated suspension for marijuana use is costing him the first four games of the regular season. If he goes to jail because of his recent arrest, he'll miss more.
Then there's Chris Ivory. Thoughts of him duplicating his 56-yard touchdown run against Atlanta while wearing green and white made Jets fans salivate.
However, through three games Ivory has carried the ball 26 times for 72 yards. That's an average of 2.8 yards per carry, nowhere near the career average of 5.1 yards per carry that he brought to the Jets.
The reason for Ivory's poor play is a recurring hamstring injury. It limited his participation in training camp and caused an early exit from the Bills game. Now the date of his return is uncertain.
If Ivory's name appears more often in injury reports than among rushing leaders, one of Idzik's marquee moves may come back to haunt him.
I hope Ivory doesn't let that happen.
Dee Milliner Is Injured and Ineffective
It's too early to label the Jets' first-round draft pick of 2013, Dee Milliner, a bust.
After all, the Jets have kept players like second-rounder Vladimir Ducasse and first-rounder Kyle Wilson around for what seems like years, waiting for them to justify their high draft selection. However, Milliner was supposed to make the Darrelle Revis trade a winning strategy by becoming an immediate starter.
Milliner wasn't supposed to replace Revis, just be a solid No. 2 cornerback opposite Antonio Cromartie. However, his play has been inconsistent at best.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Milliner has lined up for 128 snaps from Week 1 to Week 3: 46 runs and 82 passes. He's achieved a grade of minus-2.0. The poorest element of his play has been pass coverage, where his grade was minus-3.4.
What's even worse is that most of that grade originates from his performance against New England, a game in which Tom Brady lacked his two principal targets. Milliner played his worst game of 2013 against backup receivers. Kyle Wilson replaced him after one quarter.
Milliner has some justification for his slow start. Rehabbing his injured shoulder cost him valued practice snaps. Now, he's battling a hamstring injury that's costing more practice time.
Regardless of the reason, Milliner's failure to assert himself as the Jets' No. 2 cornerback has destabilized the secondary.
You'd think Milliner's growing pains wouldn’t be such a big deal. After all, Kyle Wilson did a decent job as the No. 2 cornerback in 2012 after Darrelle Revis' injury. But 2013 seems different. In Week 3, Wilson's penalties were a significant factor in the Bills' game-tying drive. The Jets cannot afford such generosity.
Someone needs to assert himself as a reliable No. 2 cornerback and do it soon. If it's not Wilson or Milliner, the Jets need to take a chance on someone like Darrin Walls. Walls has played cornerback for 10 snaps in Week 2 and 28 snaps in Week 3. In that limited playing time he's earned an above-average Pro Football Focus grade of 1.3, including 1.2 in pass coverage.
If no one seizes this opportunity, opponents will target the No. 2 cornerback position mercilessly, as the Jets targeted Bills cornerback Justin Rogers. It could be the Achilles' heel of an otherwise solid defense.
There's a Fear of Commitment to Smith
Geno Smith isn't perfect. In many ways, he's a rookie quarterback who makes rookie quarterback mistakes. His six interceptions in three games attest to that.
However, Smith has also shown signs of progress:
- He's won two of his first three NFL games.
- He generates points with his arm and his legs.
- His 331 Week 3 passing yards were a personal best and fifth-highest in the NFL.
Maybe Smith didn't win the preseason quarterback competition. But he seems to be warming to the job. Yet the Jets refuse to name him their season-long starter, preferring to take things week by week.
Compare this stance to Tampa Bay's, which replaced Josh Freeman with rookie Mike Glennon after its Week 3 loss. Head coach Greg Schiano announced the change as permanent, at least for 2013.
Why won't the Jets do the same with Smith?
Here are some possible reasons:
- Smith is starting because Mark Sanchez got hurt. Glennon is starting because Tampa Bay is 0-3 this year and 1-8 in its last nine regular-season games.
- Rex Ryan and the Jets don't want to look like they're "coddling" Smith. Sanchez became the 2009 starter with token competition. Five years later, his mistakes paved the way for Smith. But the Jets fear making the same mistake twice.
- Smith still has the turnover bug. He'll either need to cut those down or win consistently in spite of them to establish himself as a viable successor to Sanchez.
I'm reluctant to compare Smith to Tom Brady or Sanchez to Drew Bledsoe. But the Jets' quarterback situation is similar to that which the Patriots faced in Week 2 of 2001, when Brady replaced an injured Bledsoe. An injury cost Bledsoe his job. The same thing might happen to Sanchez.
How well must Smith play, and for how many games, before the Jets name him this year's starting quarterback?
The Quality of Opposition Will Rise
The Jets' victories have come against teams with a combined 2013 record of 1-5. Their combined margin of victory is eight points.
One win needed a defensive penalty on the Jets' last offensive play to set up the decisive field goal. The other win came despite 20 penalties and two interceptions. The question is: Can the Jets clean up their act to face the coming challenges?
Over the next six weeks, the Jets' opponents include:
- The team that eliminated them from 2012 playoff contention (Tennessee Titans)
- Three 2012 playoff teams (Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals, New England Patriots)
- Quarterbacks Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Andy Dalton, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan
Emerging from this stretch with a respectable record requires cleaning up execution on all sides of the ball.
- Offense: Geno Smith and company must cut down on mistakes and improve productivity. That means Smith must know when to throw, when to run and when to concede an incompletion. The line must continue its good pass protection while reducing penalties. Receivers must haul in catchable balls. Powell must carry the running game until Ivory and Goodson are available.
- Defense: This is the best Jets unit thus far. However, they too must reduce penalties, especially
- in the defensive line and secondary. More takeaways need to be generated too.
- Special teams: The kickoff and punt return games were weak against Tampa Bay and New England. They improved against Buffalo. However, opponents still average 27.0 yards per each returned kickoff and 10.1 yards per each returned punt. The Jets average 18.0 yards per kickoff and 5.7 yards per punt. Worse, opponents have returned 11 of the Jets' 23 punts. The Jets have returned six punts of their opponents' 25. This may be why the Jets replaced punter Robert Malone with Ryan Quigley.
- Coaching: Details matter. Clock management and appropriate use of challenges can be the difference between victory and defeat. Rex Ryan lost seven seconds, time for one play, by not calling timeout immediately after Tampa Bay's last punt. Otherwise, the Jets might have made field goal range without a defensive penalty. Against Buffalo, Ryan used the Jets' last second-half challenge to question a first-down spot. He lost, as do most such challenges. Problem is, when the officials missed E.J. Manuel's fourth-quarter fumble, a much more winnable challenge, Ryan could no longer throw the red flag. Fortunately, the Jets still won. But such cavalier mismanagement of both the clock and the challenge system may haunt Ryan in a closer game against a better opponent.
Things May Not Be So Bad
Not everything's working according to plan. Nothing ever does. It's time to remember the surprises that have counterbalanced the bad news:
- Leger Douzable and Damon Harrison have solidified the defensive line.
- Vladimir Ducasse has won a starting job in a legitimate competition. He's penalty-prone, but he may finally be starting to realize his potential. At least he's holding down the fort until Brian Winters is ready.
- Bilal Powell has rescued the running game.
- Stephen Hill had 108 receiving yards against the Bills, giving the Jets two 100-yard receivers. Could this be the start of his emergence?
That's what makes the 2013 Jets so intriguing. They may lack established talent, but that doesn't mean talent's not there. The fun of this season is learning if this collection of youth, relative unknowns and other teams' castoffs can form a whole bigger than the sum of its parts. They haven't answered the question yet. But they've played well enough to keep us asking.
Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid