The New York Jets are just about out of the playoff hunt, but barring a three-game winning streak (which would be the Jets' first winning streak of any kind this year) coupled with a collapse or two from AFC rivals, the Jets will watch the playoffs from home for the third straight year.
Despite that, all is not lost for the remainder of the season in New York. Rex Ryan could be coaching for his job, and several players still have time to get some good (or bad) tape to help (or hurt) their case for more (or less) playing time (or a contract) next season.
This isn't just about players earning playing time or contracts. This is about the players and coaching staff making the most of what are only a few remaining opportunities to get game reps before next August, when preseason begins again.
The Jets hopes for the present may be slim, but they could get a better sense of the outlook for the future with these final three games. Here's how they do it.
Less Ed Reed, More Antonio Allen
There's almost no question in anyone's mind that second-year safety Antonio Allen should be getting more snaps than veteran safety Ed Reed. The only one that seems to disagree is Ryan, and it's pretty clear that his emotions are getting in the way of making the right decision for the team.
|Antonio Allen (pre-Ed Reed)||9||409||63.4|
|Antonio Allen (post-Ed Reed)||4||49||17.1|
|Antonio Allen (total)||13||458||49.1|
|Pro Football Focus|
"Look, the way I am, so I could say absolutely yes. I would like him on our team," Ryan said of Reed before the team signed him. He added, "Anybody that I've ever coached, that bled for me, I want them. Trevor Pryce, if Trevor called, I'd love to have Trevor on the team. That's how I feel."
Yes, that's the same Trevor Pryce that's been out of football since 2010.
It's simply not fair to young players with potential for veteran players past their prime to earn more playing time.
How many times does Reed have to be directly involved in a bad play before he gets the cane for good?
The long touchdown reception to Jacoby Jones wasn't enough; in fact, Ryan scoffed when asked if Reed was the one responsible, saying he would "probably be third on that list" of who to blame for the touchdown.
It certainly looked like Reed was the one that got in the way of the coverage, either because he lost sight of the ball or poorly misjudged its trajectory—which sounds more like what Ryan did when he signed Reed. It has stunted the growth of Allen, and hasn't made a greatly positive impact on the defense.
Sure, you probably don't want a 35-year-old safety who spent the offseason recovering from a hip injury to be the guy with deep responsibility in Cover 1, but you would certainly hope to be able to count on that player to take good angles when making a tackle. Not on this play, as Reed was badly beaten by Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline in the open field after the receiver had already broken past two Jets defenders on a slant route.
Reed may not be the worst player on the defense, but he's certainly not giving the Jets a foundation for the future.
"I have nothing to prove to nobody, especially not anybody holding a microphone or a camera," Reed said after the game, according to Seth Walder of the New York Daily News. "I have nothing to prove. I just go out and do what I’m supposed to do. There's a reason why I'm on this side of the fence and y'all on the other side. Nobody's perfect playing this game. People miss tackles, people miss plays. Every game."
He's right—everyone makes mistakes. That being said, doesn't it make more sense to let Allen, the younger player, be the one out there making the mistakes? Missing the tackles, losing sight of a deep pass or facing any other trial that an NFL safety faces on a weekly basis?
Before Reed arrived, Allen had played fewer than 50 percent of the snaps in only one game, and more than 60 percent in six of nine games. Since then, he has not crossed the 50 percent plateau in any game.
Why was he benched? It wasn't for poor play; in his last game as a starter, Allen gave up just two receptions on three targets against Saints quarterback Drew Brees as the Jets held the league's seventh-best offense to 20 points, the second-fewest points they've scored in a loss this season.
There are some valuable lessons Reed could teach Allen.
For example, Reed made a great play on an interception against the Raiders. He read the play perfectly, seeing Raiders quarterback Matt McGloin staring down his receiver on the left. The coverage was tight, but the Jets' pressure was closing in, forcing McGloin to step up in the pocket.
He saw the void over the middle of the field, and thought he could fit the ball in before Reed would get there. However, Reed had already broken that direction, and was able to undercut the pass and make the interception.
There is still value in having Reed on the roster. Allen could probably use the tips from Reed on studying film, and Reed might serve as a solid dime defensive back, if used appropriately (i.e. not in deep coverage). Although Reed said he'd like to play two more years, the Jets have an opportunity to see if Allen can play.
Experiment with Edge Defenders
While we're on the subject of young players, how about a longer look at some of the other edge defenders, as well? Calvin Pace is the experienced veteran, but much like Reed, Pace's best years are behind him at 33 years old.
|Jets outside linebackers|
|Pro Football Focus|
How about more opportunities for Jermaine Cunningham? Garrett McIntyre?
The Jets have a strong defensive line, but their lack of edge pressure has been a weakness dating back a few years. They will likely need to target an edge defender at some point this offseason—be it in free agency or the draft—but the Jets have an opportunity to find out if they need more depth in addition to an upgrade at the position.
McIntyre has missed time this year, and hasn't been on the field much even when healthy. He's produced eight pressures and two sacks on 113 pass-rush attempts this year, so it's not as if he's incapable of reaching the quarterback.
Cunningham might be a bit of a stretch to sell as the future of the defense; he was cut by New England because he couldn't stay healthy and got caught up in the wash amid a youth movement at the position. The Patriots even had a hard time finding out exactly what Cunningham was; they drafted him to be a 3-4 outside linebacker, before switching to a 4-3 scheme, where he eventually earned a niche role as an interior pass-rusher in sub packages.
They also have a decision to make on outside linebacker Antwan Barnes, who signed a three-year deal in 2013 only to go down with a season-ending knee injury in Week 5. Barnes has battled knee injuries throughout his career, so the Jets may look to hedge their bets on a player who would only count for $600,000 in dead money if released, according to sports contracts website Spotrac.
Don't Bench Geno Smith
Geno Smith's rookie season hasn't gone like anyone in New York hoped it would, but with three games left to play, what positive impact would benching Smith have for the team?
Sure, Ryan might be looking to the example set by Mike Shanahan, who made a dubious decision to shelf franchise quarterback Robert Griffin III for the remainder of the season to "give him an opportunity to go into that third year injury free to get a chance to get better in the offseason," but benching Smith at this juncture would only serve to create more chaos for an offense that's been in disarray all season.
Besides, Smith finally showed his first glimmer of hope since Week 7 against the Patriots when he scored two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) and led the Jets to their highest scoring output of the season against the Raiders.
He didn't get there without making one boneheaded decision on a sideline throw for a well-covered Jeremy Kerley that was intercepted by linebacker Kevin Burnett, but as we all know, it's not how you start, it's how you finished. Geno Smith went 3-of-6 for 41 yards and the interception on the first two series of the game, but went 13-of-19 for 178 yards and a touchdown from there on out.
Sticking with Geno, despite the early struggle, was the right decision.
At this point, benching Smith during a bad game would do little else besides limit the number of learning opportunities for the young quarterback. The next time he'll get any such opportunities won't come until next August in preseason.
|Geno Smith's pocket statistics|
|Measure||Time (seconds)||NFL rank (30 qualifying QBs)|
|Pro Football Focus|
Regardless of the final outcome, he ranks among the longest in terms of how long he spends in the pocket. We see it manifested week after week, interception after interception.
That's exactly what led to his first-quarter interception, where he stared down receiver Jeremy Kerley on the out route, allowing Raiders linebacker Kevin Burnett to get a jump on the ball. Smith might have found David Nelson open underneath on a short curl, or Santonio Holmes streaking free through the seam.
He would only have found those receivers if he had quickly come off his first read, which he should have done the moment he saw Burnett in tight coverage.
Coaches often talk about how a player's play speed improves from their first to second year; Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin recently remarked that was one of the areas where quarterback Ryan Tannehill has improved the most since entering the league. The only way Smith will make those improvements is with more reps.
Let Geno Stretch His Legs
It's no coincidence that many of Smith's best highlights this season have come on scrambles.
Thinking back to the win over the Patriots, Smith had a pair of scrambles, for 14 yards on 3rd-and-14 and for eight yards on 2nd-and-goal for a touchdown that put the Jets ahead.
Smith once again made a pair of big plays with his legs against the Raiders—including the above 32-yard scramble. This definitely wasn't a designed run, because the receivers made no effort to block. Instead, Smith simply tucked the ball when his first read wasn't open, and he tucked through a giant gap in the defensive line.
From there, he weaved through the linebackers at the second level to pick up the longest run of his career, and the third-longest run by a quarterback in Jets history.
Two plays later, the Jets were in the end zone and up by 17 points in the fourth quarter.
Earlier in the game, we saw the Jets finally make use of the read-option. We have seen it in spurts this year, but not nearly as often as we should for a quarterback with Smith's athletic ability. He showed why when he made it pay off with an easy score. The linebacker on the offensive left was the read, and when he read the handoff for the running back, Smith kept the ball and ran off that side.
These are often the runs we see from Smith—when the running lane is wide open. That's smart for a quarterback to not open himself up to too many unnecessary risks, but it's not wise for the coaching staff to limit their athletic quarterback by keeping him in the pocket all the time.
That being said, at this point, you could make the case that the Jets should hold off on opening up too many running opportunities for Smith, which would also open up the possibility that he takes an unnecessary hit and gets injured headed into the offseason.
Still, now is a good opportunity to see just how effective the Jets can be with a bit more focus on the read-option.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.