That was precisely where a panel of ESPN experts had the Jets ranked in their annual preseason power rankings.
While the Jets were (and still are) not the most talented team in the league by any stretch, to consider them the 32nd-best roster in football was a notion that was clearly based more on the status of their brand than how well they could block, pass, tackle and run routes this season.
Following a 2012 season that seemed much worse than any six-win season could be, the Jets' brand had become synonymous with failure and ineptitude. Thanks to a combination of having a boisterous head coach and the most famously bad backup quarterback of all time, everyone was just waiting for the Jets to crash and burn.
Last offseason, the Jets saw their once-progressive and forward-thinking brand get dragged through the mud. To outsiders, their operation had become nothing more than a circus act with Rex Ryan as their ringleader. From Tim Tebow having passes go off his helmet to the infamous “butt fumble”, the Jets had become a case study in how to incinerate a winning roster in record time.
Still, as bad as the Jets looked at times in 2012, they were not the complete dumpster fire that they were depicted to be. They picked ninth in the draft, meaning there were eight other teams that were at least as poor as they were in the “win” column.
Fair or not, the Jets had a stigma glued to their franchise that only winning on the field could peel off. Even with a new general manager in place in John Idzik, the Jets needed to show that they were not the circus act everyone assumed them to be—which is where the 2013 season comes in.
A Real Passing Attack
While the Jets received a lot of unwarranted criticism prior to the start of this season, there was some sound reasoning for expecting so little from the Jets in 2013.
Already without their best player in Darrelle Revis, they were starting a rookie quarterback who was turning the ball over like it was going out of style in the preseason. Because of salary cap restrictions, the Jets were reliant on a lot of low-level free agents to get the job done on both sides of the ball.
Pundits were correct when they stated that the Jets had a poor roster. Where they faltered in their analysis is how they vastly underrated the coaching ability of Ryan.
Ryan is accepted as one of the premier defensive minds in the game, but his Achilles’ heel has always been his ability to build an offense that is capable of winning in the modern NFL—meaning, getting away from the “ground and pound” philosophy. Eventually, the Jets had to pass the ball like a professional team should be able to.
Perhaps the best hire Ryan has made was his offensive coordinator, Marty Mornhinweg. Unlike his previous coordinators—Brian Schottenheimer and Tony Sparano, Mornhinweg was an established name with a reputable track record of running a dynamic passing attack.
When the Jets eventually got to the peak of their season at 5-4, it was not because the Jets did it all on the back of their defense to go with a ball-control offense.
While the defense was solid, the Jets were winning because they had a trait they have not had in well over a decade—explosiveness on offense.
Smith may have been a rookie, but with a real offensive mind finally calling the shots, the Jets were getting yards in chunks and beating opponents with exciting offense as much as they were with sound defense.
The Jets were not the most flawless team in the NFL, but for a team that was supposed be the worst team in the league, they were an exciting team to watch. All of their first five wins were decided by seven points or less, with all but one (the Saints) coming down to a game-winning drive of some sort at the end of games.
Sure, they had a few bounces go their way. Nick Folk was perfect on all of his game-deciding field goal attempts, two of which were set up by controversial penalties, including a late hit by Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David and a rare “pushing” penalty at the line of scrimmage by the Patriots.
Nonetheless, the Jets stood at 5-4 headed into their bye week with the “easy” part of the schedule coming up. What could go wrong?
The Jets were 5-4, but their surprising record was built on a cracked, moldy foundation that was going to collapse at some point or another.
As exciting as they were in their wins, they were twice as unwatchable in their losses.
|Team||Points Scored||Points Allowed|
|New England Patriots||13||10|
Inconsistencies on offense were understandable with a rookie quarterback with limited weaponry, but there were also issues on defense that were being swept under the rug.
Jets are 1-5 on the road. In those 5 losses, #NYJ has averaged 9.8 points per game and given up an average of 31.2 points per game.— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaNYDN) December 15, 2013
Just a year removed from an All-Pro season, Antonio Cromartie played as poorly as any cornerback in the league, giving up huge plays on a weekly basis. His counterpart, rookie Dee Milliner, was benched in every game Ryan started him in.
The Jets lived and died on the big play on both sides of the ball—a recipe for instability and eventual collapse.
Cromartie has built a reputation as one of the best cornerbacks in the game, but he hardly played as well as a shutdown cornerback should. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 103rd-best cornerback (out of 110). Playing on the opposite side, rookie Dee Milliner struggled to stay on the field and was benched on three occasions.
Meanwhile, the already-thin skill positions grew leaner by the week. Santonio Holmes took an abnormal amount of time to recover from a hamstring injury, and tight end Kellen Winslow was suspended four weeks for a substance violation.
The most devastating blow came when third-down chain-mover Jeremy Kerley was absent for three weeks with an elbow injury, taking away Smith's security blanket.
Their wins were well deserved, but the fact that their point differential was a massive misrepresentation of their record indicated that the Jets were not quite as good as their record implied, no matter how impressive some of their wins were.
The Familiar Collapse
As he has proven again and again in his career, Ryan is a mastermind at getting an overlooked and underrated team to outplay expectations, using every ounce of negative publicity as fuel.
Rex, however handles success about as well as he calls offensive plays.
Not only did he no longer have the “underdog” card to motivate his players, but he made brash personnel moves in the belief that he could do no wrong.
The signing of Ed Reed after the bye week exemplified everything that is wrong with Rex as a coach. Rather than develop his young players and continue with a roster that was outperforming expectations, he squeezed an old friend onto into the starting lineup out of nostalgia.
The results of starting Reed over young players like Antonio Allen were predictable. The Jets gave up big plays at a record rate, and the result was a three-game skid that cost the Jets a chance to go to the playoffs.
Reed had been released from the Houston Texans for a reason. Although a surefire Hall-of-Famer, Reed was a shell of his former dominant self and cost the Jets more touchdowns than he saved.
The Jets were already giving up big plays at an alarming rate with Cromartie and Milliner playing as poorly as any cornerback tandem in the league. Removing one of the few quality players in the Jets secondary (Allen) in favor of an over-the-hill player who labored to track down balls was an inexcusable decision.
As bad of a decision as it was in bringing in Reed, he was just one example of where the Jets’ flaws finally bled through to the surface.
During their losing streak, the Jets were even more embarrassing on offense, scoring just 20 points in three games. Once there was over a half of a season of tape on Smith and the Jets available to defensive coordinators, the solution to stopping their once-explosive offense was simple.
Once Rob Ryan’s blitz-happy defense grounded the Jets in Week 9, it became obvious to opponents that the Jets were unable to generate their explosive plays with any kind of consistency if Smith did not have an inordinate amount of time to throw the ball.
Compounded by injuries to the receiver position, the explosive plays all but disappeared from the Jets offense—and it took the Jets far too long to make adjustments. Completions were left on the field, as Smith played more like a robot than the quarterback who was winning with come-from-behind drives in prime time.
The three-game skid that essentially ended the Jets season brought everything the team was doing into question. It was not the fact that the Jets were losing—it was that they were regressing and losing by such significant margins.
The Jets were not supposed to win many games in 2013, but they were at least expected to show improvement over the course of the season with a roster that was sprinkled with young talent.
When the Jets fell to 5-7, no one—not Rex Ryan, his assistants or Smith—was guaranteed a job next season.
Rebounding for Rex
Spoiler alert: the Jets missed the playoffs in 2013 for the third straight year.
Was disappointment among the organization abound? You bet.
Did the team decide to lay down their arms and book their golf vacations a few weeks early? No.
There were games to play, jobs to save and statements to be made. There would be no January football in New York, but the Jets had more than enough reason to play as if every game were a playoff game.
Ryan has his share of detractors, but you would be hard-pressed to find many of them on the Jets roster. Ryan is beloved by his players with his passion for the game and his pure love of his players and everyone he works with.
Rex is a flawed man, but he oozes genuineness—a trait that is as rare as a fairly priced season ticket package in the National Football League.
How beloved is Rex? Guard Willie Colon, who had not yet played at full season with the Jets at the time, essentially put his relationship with the front office on the line when he vouched for Ryan as a coach in a tweet by WFAN radio:
Colon is no naive rookie who is caught up in the moment. He is a man who has played for a well-respected, Super Bowl-winning head coach in Mike Tomlin, who had given Colon a much bigger contract than the one he landed with the Jets.
Colon never said anything remotely as supportive about Tomlin as he did about Ryan.
Colon may have been the most vocal Jets player in regards to Ryan’s effectiveness as a coach, but he was far from being the only player to have a real desire to play for Ryan. Based on how well, and how hard the Jets played in the final two meaningless weeks of the season, saving Ryan’s job was as important as saving their own.
Their reaction to finding out about their head coach's return next season said it all:
The team’s improvement stemmed from more than just their love of their head coach. As his pass protection improved, Smith was back to playing the sport naturally as opposed to the robotic ways during their losing stretch.
Milliner finally began to play like the ninth overall player taken in the draft with his first three interceptions in the final two games. Even struggling rookie left guard Brian Winters turned in his cleanest game of the season, allowing just one pressure in the Jets' win over the Dolphins.
As great as it was for Ryan to see his team finish strong with two positive results, the way he had the team’s young nucleus playing near its potential at the end of the season was visual proof that the Jets were finally on the right track.
Rex and his Jets will lament their collapse for a long time. History has shown how well Ryan’s Jets have fared in the two cracks they have had at postseason play. More than anything, however, Ryan should take this season as a lesson in humility.
For a team whose primary goal was to lay its foundation for the future, ending the season with the arrow pointing up is all the Jets could have asked for in 2013.
Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).