Making the Call on Every New York Jets Assistant Coach
Now that the New York Jets have retained head coach Rex Ryan, it is time for us to examine his first major decision of the 2014 season: whether to keep or ditch the assistant coaches with expiring contracts.
Actually, hold that thought. General manager John Idzik may want a more extensive housecleaning. With that in mind, we might as well assess every one of Ryan's principal assistants, then make the call on their 2014 status.
One coach needs replacing. Linebackers’ coach Brian VanGorder is leaving the Jets to become Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator.
The other decisions are less clear-cut. It's not the assistant coaching that caused the Jets to play inconsistently, it's the inconsistent levels of talent on the team. For example, defensive line coach Karl Dunbar has been mentioned as a target. It's true that the defensive line's sack rate declined significantly after the bye week.
There's an easy explanation that does not involve coaching incompetence. It is that Jets opponents recognized the line as the key to the defense and focused on stopping it. The relative lack of talent elsewhere, especially in the secondary, made it difficult for the jets to compensate. Dunbar's coaching had nothing to do with it.
Keep that in mind as you read these verdicts. It won't be the end of the world if all of these assistants return, regardless of their verdicts here. What will be a shame is if the 2014 draft and free agent season fail to upgrade the team's personnel and make it easy for the coaches to look good.
It is time to meet these assistants and assess their fates.
Tight Ends Coach Steve Hagen
In 2013, the Jets' top two tight ends combined for 57 catches, 786 yards and six touchdowns. In 2012, those numbers were 57 catches, 676 yards and five touchdowns.
This was Jeff Cumberland's chance to improve upon his 29 catches, 359 yards and three touchdowns and establish himself as a legitimate starter. Instead, Cumberland's production only improved slightly. He made 26 catches for 398 yards and four touchdowns. Neither Cumberland nor Kellen Winslow Jr. emerged as a dominant force at tight end.
Tight ends coach Steve Hagen deserves credit for maintaining the productivity of this platoon system. In 2012, Dustin Keller's inability to stay healthy was the main challenge. In 2013, Winslow signed during minicamp after an impressive tryout. He managed to contribute despite a chronic knee condition that limited his participation in practice. Plus, he served a four-game midseason suspension.
The Jets will try to obtain a full-time tight end either through free agency or the draft. Ideally they would get an "All-World" tight end whose receiving numbers at least combine those of Winslow and Cumberland and who can also block.
If this tight end comes through the draft, Hagen will get an opportunity to mold a rookie into the next Tony Gonzalez or Rob Gronkowski. That should be fun to watch. Until then we can just applaud Hagen's resourcefulness in working with the talent he has.
Wide Receivers Coach Sanjay Lal
Sanjay Lal may epitomize the coach whose achievements are limited not by his own efforts, but by the abilities of his charges.
Those who think receivers like Stephen Hill have unrealized potential probably see Lal's work as an impediment. Those who think Hill was a draft bust will say there was nothing Lal could have done.
Here is what the Jets' top wide receivers accomplished in 2012 and 2013:
2013: 146 catches for 1,858 yards and seven touchdowns
2012: 151 catches for 1,989 yards and eight touchdowns
It was a relatively flat year for the Jets' passing game. Net yardage improved only slightly over that of 2012: 2,932 yards against 2,891. However, wide receiver production appears to have declined.
Lal does not deserve complete blame for this. Injuries to Kerley, Hill, Gates and Holmes made all of them miss part to most of the year. Adjusting to a third offensive coordinator in three years as well as initiating a rookie quarterback did not help.
Lal's main failing was in providing a backup scenario for Jeremy Kerley's absence. When Kerley was active, the Jets were 8-4. They lost all four games in which he did not play, including the three-game streak that ended their playoff hopes.
Still, the ultimate fault for that may lie with the scouting and personnel departments, not with Lal. That is the only reason Lal deserves one more chance. If the Jets draft or acquire legitimate wide receiver talent in 2014 and wide receiver play still stagnates, that will be the end of Lal's Jets career.
Verdict: Keep (on probation)
Defensive Backs Coach Tim McDonald
In 2012, the Jets' secondary was the pride and joy of the team, supplying two Pro Bowl players and being the main reason behind the defense's No. 2 ranking in pass defense. This year, both the pass defense ranking and secondary performance were not nearly as good.
Defensive backs coach Tim McDonald had a rookie cornerback to initiate and two new starting safeties, one of whom came via free agency. After Week 10, Ed Reed's arrival created more upheaval, from which the secondary may not have recovered until the Week 16 victory against Cleveland.
That is when rookie cornerback Dee Milliner began catching interceptions instead of dropping them. Reed moved from being an every-down safety to a pass defense specialist. That too paid off as he tied Milliner and cornerback Antonio Cromartie for the team lead in interceptions with three.
However, despite the mitigating circumstances and late-season rally, either McDonald or defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman may lose their job because of pass defense issues.
It may be logistically more feasible to let McDonald go and change Thurman's title from defensive coordinator to assistant head coach of defensive backs. Thurman could run the defense in Ryan's absence while making the secondary his main focus.
Offensive Line Coach Mike Devlin
The Jets' offensive line play has regressed in recent years, as players like Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson age, players like Brandon Moore retire and others like Matt Slauson move on.
With the departure of Moore and Slauson, guard play became an issue in 2013. On the left side, Vladimir Ducasse won the starting job in preseason, but quickly lost it to rookie Brian Winters, who showed rookie growing pains. On the right side, Willie Colon brought a history of injuries when he signed his one-year deal. He also brought a history of penalties. That he played in all 16 games is a significant accomplishment. However, Colon continued his penalty-prone play.
Colon was not the only culprit, but he was part of the reason the Jets led the NFL in pre-snap penalties. He was the team's overall penalty culprit with 12, five of which came pre-snap.
The offensive line committed 33 of the Jets' 107 penalties. Guards committed 25. Guards committed nine of the line's 12 pre-snap penalties.
The line also surrendered 47 sacks for a total loss of 337 yards. That made the 41 sacks by the Jets' defense almost sound like a trade-off. However, the length of time Geno Smith held the ball was also a factor.
If an assistant's head must roll this offseason, the offensive line's performance makes Devlin a prime candidate.
Defensive Line Coach Karl Dunbar
Dunbar is responsible for the continued development of the Jets' crown jewel: the "Sons of Anarchy" defensive line. In 2013, Muhammad Wilkerson had a career year in sacks with 10.5, first-round pick Sheldon Richardson's all-around play made him a serious Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate and Damon "Snacks" Harrison became a superb run-stopping force, helping the Jets' defense finish third in the league against the run.
It sounds like Dunbar should be able to name his price. However, detractors would note that the "Sons'" play seemed to decline after the bye week. Wilkerson, for one, only had half a sack in the Jets' last five games.
Maybe the truth is that teams wised up to how to play the Jets: Stop the "Sons" and expose the weak spots behind them. It worked as long as Antonio Cromartie was showing the effects of his hip injury and Ed Reed was trying to find his place.
Suddenly, however, Milliner figured out how to cover top receivers like Cleveland's Josh Gordon and Miami's Mike Wallace, Reed rediscovered his ball-hawking skills, and Cromartie returned kicks in addition to playing defense. As a result, the Jets only yielded two touchdowns and 20 points in their last two games.
The Jets defense is learning that if one piece has a bad week, it is the other pieces' duty to pick up the slack. Things will come full circle and the "Sons" will dominate future games. It is up to Dunbar to prepare them to accept that there are games in which they dominate, games in which they do not dominate, but provide enough presence to disrupt and games in which they barely contribute.
The poor games will be fewer and fewer as the defense's overall talent improves and opponents learn that they must stop the whole defense to win.
Quarterback Coach David Lee
Those who criticize Geno Smith's play may hold David Lee responsible. He can, however, claim a clear success story: Matt Simms.
When Simms reported to training camp, his reputation was that of a strong-armed but inaccurate gunslinger. He was not a factor in the competition for starting quarterback. Had Greg McElroy not suffered a camp-ending injury, Simms might not have made the team for the second consecutive year.
But he got the chance and made the most of it. He won the "Snoopy Bowl" against the Giants after Mark Sanchez suffered his season-ending shoulder injury, then won the preseason finale against Philadelphia. Most importantly, Simms completed over 70 percent of his passes. His work during the season, while not as impressive, was competent. He deserves to compete for the 2014 starting role.
Geno Smith's story is incomplete. His 25 turnovers must improve. However, he has also set new Jets rookie passing records in positive categories. Smith's 3,046 passing yards make him the first Jets' rookie to surpass the 3,000-yard mark. His 443 attempts, 247 completions, and 55.8 completion percentage are new rookie records as well.
All of these marks broke records Mark Sanchez set in 2009. They are no guarantee of ultimate success, but they offer positive signs.
Lee has a no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is style that his charges appreciate. It looks like that style has helped him make progress with both Simms and Smith. He deserves the chance to continue.
Assistant Head Coach and Running Backs Coach Anthony Lynn
Two words summarize Lynn's value to the New York Jets: ball security.
It is true that the Jets did not have a 1,000-yard rusher in 2013. However, their total rushing yardage of 2,158 yards was 262 yards more than 2012's 1,896 yards.
Quarterbacks accounted for 403 yards, 366 by Geno Smith, compared to 160 yards in 2012. Excluding quarterback rushes from both years narrows the 2013 season's edge to 17 yards, 1,753 yards to 1,736.
Bilal Powell was the only 2012 ballcarrier with 100 or more carries to average at least 4.0 yards per carry. In 2013, Chris Ivory joined him. More impressively, both man had over 175 carries.
Two running backs were receiving threats as well. Bilal Powell's 36 receptions tied Dave Nelson for second place on the team, while Tommy Bohanon contributed 11 more.
Those statistics alone support Lynn's retention. However, he also plays a pivotal role in implementing ball security. At first glance, the Jets' turnover ratio of -14 does not make Lynn look successful. However, consider that ratio's composition.
The Jets surrendered 22 interceptions against 13 picks of their own and lost seven fumbles while recovering two from opponents. However, 21 interceptions and four lost fumbles were the fault of one man: quarterback Geno Smith.
In fact, only four teams fumbled less often than the Jets in 2013. Only four teams lost fewer fumbles as well. It sounds like Lynn's ball security efforts are working.
Lynn's closest thing to a black mark may lie in the running backs' blocking, which many consider inconsistent. However, 2013 was a good year for the Jets' running game. Lynn deserves the chance to continue his work.
Special Teams Coordinator Ben Kotwica
In 2012, it seemed that the Jets special teams made at least one crucial blunder every week. The most memorable were Joe McKnight's fumbled kickoffs in the end zone, a Thanksgiving gift to New England.
After debacles like those, stable if unspectacular play would mark a step in the right direction. Ben Kotwica's direction provided that, and sometimes more:
- Opponents did not return a kickoff or punt for a touchdown.
- The Jets blocked two opponents' punts while surrendering one.
- Nick Folk had a career year, missing only three field goals in 36 attempts. None of his misses lost a game.
The biggest strike against the Jets' special teams was the lack of a dynamic return game. However, Josh Cribbs' performance in the six games he could play indicated that they could develop a return threat with the right man. Cribbs, at 31, may be too old to re-sign. However, acquiring a return threat in 2014 would make the Jets' special teams a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
It's no secret that Kotwica has interviewed elsewhere, like for Army's head coaching job. But if he's available for 2014, his steady direction combined with better return men should be a positive force for the Jets' special teams.
Defensive Coordinator Dennis Thurman
When Rex Ryan announced he would assume a hands-on role with the defense in 2013, new defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman's role quickly became a subject for discussion.
Ryan denied that Thurman's inexperience prompted his decision, however, he spent so much time teaching the defense that during the Jets' first preseason game he missed Mark Sanchez's opening drive pick-six. Ryan had his back to the field.
Thurman probably ran the defense when Ryan's other coaching duties intervened. But Ryan had clearly pronounced that the 2013 version of the Jets' defense would be his responsibility. It makes Thurman's presence sound redundant.
Thurman commands respect on his own merits in one aspect of defense: the secondary. He was a nine-year NFL veteran at safety and cornerback with the Dallas Cowboys and Saint Louis Rams from 1978 to 1986. Thurman intercepted 36 passes, scoring four touchdowns, and defended 96 others.
However, Thurman's area of greatest expertise was the Jets' greatest defensive weakness. Losing three-quarters of last year's unit, veteran safety Yeremiah Bell, 2012 Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry and perennial All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, was a huge blow.
To Thurman's credit, however, secondary play improved as the season ended. Milliner shows promise of fulfilling his potential and Ed Reed became a passing down specialist. That probably helped the Jets win three of their last four games.
Still the question is, the Jets already have a defensive backs coach, Tim McDonald. Who gets the credit here?
Thurman cannot win here. If the Jets' defense does well, Rex Ryan gets the credit. The best Thurman can hope for no matter how the defense does is anonymity. That may translate to job security.
If John Idzik makes Rex Ryan fire Thurman, defensive coordinator candidates know that Ryan will micro-manage the defense. Established candidates will avoid the opening, meaning that John Idzik will have to find a promising assistant who will trade autonomy for a shot at a coordinator role. Idzik should recognize the predicament. He faced a similar one in taking the general manager's job without having the power to name his own coach.
That may be Thurman's salvation. However, as Tim McDonald's slide discusses, there is another option.
Let McDonald go and designate Thurman as an assistant head coach in charge of defensive backs. Ryan can continue his hands-on role with Thurman available to conduct practices and meetings in his absence.
Ryan would become head coach and defensive coordinator. He may not hold both titles. But he will do both jobs.
Verdict: Keep, with modified title and duties.
Offensive Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg
From the first preseason game of 2013 to the season finale, the Jets' offense was clearly taking a better direction. It didn't post great numbers, but it displayed a poise that was often lacking in 2012. Credit the Jets' most valuable assistant: offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
Mornhinweg was known as a West Coast Offense proponent, but he had a reputation for expanding that systems's core, especially with the long pass.
That suits Geno Smith's arm strength well as, for all of his turnovers he throws one of the best long balls in the NFL.
Mornhinweg's flexibility also includes combining newer formations like the pistol with the standard pro set to ease Smith's transition to the NFL. At its best, the Jets' offense combines the pro set, Wildcat and the pistol to confront defenses with multiple looks and personnel packages. While many of these plays do not gain significant yardage, they often set up the defense for subsequent plays' success.
The Jets' offense was among the league's worst, but its improved poise and individual highlights at least left observers hoping for more. They have the right man in charge, now it is up to John Idzik to give him more options.
Idzik has much more cap room to use in signing free agents, more draft picks because of the Revis trade and free agent compensation and the rookie starters of 2013, particularly Geno Smith, will have an offseason to review their performances and upgrade their play.
All signs point to a revitalized offense in 2014, with Mornhinweg at its helm.
Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid.
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