Just two months ago, general manager John Idzik's grand plan to revive the New York Jets was deemed to be in shambles.
After his second-round rookie quarterback injured his ankle in the preseason opener, months of careful construction of the "new" New York Jets were supposedly thrown to waste on a routine scramble out of the pocket.
Since the preseason drama, Idzik has made quick work of the eager criticism pointed at him.
With a rookie quarterback and a coach nobody else wanted to keep, the Jets are a respectable 3-3 and have a strong chance to at least be in the playoff picture come December.
As the Jets were coming off one of their most embarrassing seasons in recent memory, Idzik was thrown to the wolves as an easy target for criticism. Every misstep, no matter how insignificant, was going to be critiqued and picked apart with a fine-tooth comb.
How was the mild-mannered Idzik able to overcome such daunting odds to be in position to field a team that can win on a consistent basis? It started when he was able to identify where he needed (and didn't need to) improve.
A Unique Rebuild
The reason the Jets had a general manager opening in the first place was in large part because of the hefty contract given to Mark Sanchez following the 2011 season. What was once a cap-saving gamble turned into a franchise anchoring-mistake that would lead to a regime change.
Sanchez's contract may have opened up the door for Idzik to step in, but he was not stepping into a "desirable" general manager job. The cap implications of parting with Sanchez, combined with the stipulation that he would have to wait at least a year for a chance to pick his own coach, made the Jets a bit of a unique project that scared other top candidates away.
Idzik would not be given a clean easel to work with—but he wouldn't have to do as much painting, either.
Contrary to popular belief, the Jets actually had a decent amount of talent on their roster for a team looking to rebuild. After all, how else would they be playing meaningful games in December with a quarterback who was turning the ball over more than anyone else in the league?
Rebuilding the Jets was not like rebuilding a completely torn-down team, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars or the post-2011 Indianapolis Colts. With a limited cap budget, Idzik was tasked with rebuilding the Jets without doing away with the few aspects of the team that were worth keeping and vital to the Jets' future success.
Talent on the Cheap
Expectations were low for the Jets, but Idzik had to find a way to bring the Jets back to respectability to get them through the 2013 season. Given their dire cap situation, Idzik would have to find treasure where every other GM found trash.
The first area Idzik had to attack was the quarterback position, where the Jets had already allotted nearly $8 million with Mark Sanchez.
Trading for a quick fix such as Alex Smith or signing Michael Vick would have been a waste of valuable resources. Instead, Idzik acquired insurance for the struggling Sanchez by acquiring David Garrard (who would retire in the offseason to return in the middle of October with healthier knees).
Then, with Geno Smith still twiddling his fingers in the "green room" when the Jets were on the clock in the second round, Idzik pulled the trigger on a possible long-term solution at the game's most important position.
Not only is Geno Smith a young player who oozes untapped potential, the fact that he was a second-round pick gives him a relatively cheap cap number for such a highly touted prospect (four years, $5.019 million).
Suddenly, the Jets went from having the worst combination of quarterbacks in the league (with Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow) to having a short-term and long-term solution—all at an affordable price.
While injuries wound up making Smith the opening day starter by default, Idzik was still able to conduct the quarterback battle he envisioned in training camp that helped mold Smith into the viable quarterback he has been through the first six weeks of the season.
|Willie Colon||G||Starting Right Guard|
|Dawan Landry||S||Starting Strong Safety|
|Antwan Barnes||OLB||IR, started first three games at OLB|
|Calvin Pace||OLB||Starting OLB|
|Kellen Winslow||TE||Starting TE (currently serving suspension)|
Still, the quarterback position was just one of many wrinkles that Idzik had to iron out in the spring.
Idzik made a slew of low-risk, high-reward transactions in free agency that have given the Jets quality starters or role players without paying a premium price for bigger names in free agency:
Even the players who have landed themselves on injured reserve (Mike Goodson and Antwan Barnes) were productive players when they were on the field. Barnes provided terrific value as a situational pass-rusher and gave the Jets insurance when Quinton Coples was absent.
Meanwhile, Mike Goodson was averaging 8.7 yards per carry before he tore his ACL making a tackle on an interception.
While the Jets were able to avoid a disastrous season with their quietly strong free-agent class, how the Jets fared in the draft (beyond the selection of Geno Smith) would be key to building for the future and expediting the rebuilding process to the point where they would be immediately competitive.
Best Player Available
Being an NFL general manager sounds like a dream job to many fans, but messing around with your team in Madden does not give you insight as to how to go about building a winning team.
Fielding a winning team is not predicated on filling as many roster holes as possible with big names. From a general manager's standpoint, acquiring as much talent as possible (in relation to positional importance) is the baseline for winning games.
After all, if the general manager builds a roster that has enough talent to win, the onus falls on the coach to manufacture wins every week.
Because the Jets offense was so inept in 2012, surface-level analysis suggests that the Jets should have used all of their draft resources—or at least one of their first-round picks—on offensive help.
However, an experienced football man like Idzik knows that building a winning team is not as simple as filling holes in succession by reaching on draft picks. Instead of making the picks that would have pleased the media for a few months, he took the top football players available according to his board.
As a result, Idzik resisted the temptation of sacrificing draft picks for receiver Tavon Austin (for whom the Rams had moved up to draft one spot before the Jets picked) or reaching for a tight end like Tyler Eifert.
Instead, Idzik stuck to his guns and took Dee Milliner, the consensus top cornerback in the draft, and Sheldon Richardson, the third consecutive defensive lineman the Jets would take in the first round.
While Dee Milliner has struggled out of the gate (he has not started a game since Week 2), Richardson has been everything the Jets had been hoping they would get—and then some.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Richardson is the third-best 3-4 defensive end in all of football through six weeks and the second-best against the run.
Meanwhile, while Tyler Eifert has been a nice addition to the Bengals offense, would he have been much of an upgrade over the combination of Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow?
|Jets Tight Ends vs. Tyler Eifert|
The Jets would certainly welcome a player like Tyler Eifert onto their team, but it would have been at the cost of one of the premier defensive players in the league—who is only going to get better.
In the end, Idzik made the decision that maximized the talent level of his roster, which is exactly what the Jets pay him to do.
If there is anything we can derive from Idzik's character and approach to his job, it's that he is blind to the immediate criticism he gets from making a transaction. In any sport, a good general manager knows that he will be judged over what happens over the coming weeks, months and years—not by how much it effects his team's rating in next year's Madden.
Although we're only through six weeks of the regular season, Idzik has proven that he can find quality players in the draft as well as the depths of free agency. As soon as the Jets are freed from the shackles of Mark Sanchez's contract (among several bloated contracts), Idzik will have the freedom to add the exact pieces he wants.
No matter what happens from here on out, Idzik has at least earned the right to be judged based on wins and losses rather than petty preseason quarterback drama.
Advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).