For a team that looked on the verge of dilapidation in the preseason, the 2013 season didn't go all that badly for the New York Jets.
Despite seemingly swinging and missing on another high draft pick at quarterback, Rex Ryan coached up his defense and finished what was supposed to be his swan song with an 8-8 record. The surprise competence gave Jets management enough confidence in Ryan to give him a multi-year contract extension, while they went about constructing an offense that could border on competency.
Michael Vick signed a one-year contract to compete with Geno Smith at quarterback. Mark Sanchez, on the other hand, was jettisoned in a cost-cutting move. The coaching staff, for now, has continued faith in Smith, who started all 16 games in 2013 as a rookie.
“Geno Smith, regardless of who’s here at quarterback or who the competition is, is going to be hard to beat out," Ryan recently told reporters. "[Last year] he grew by leaps and bounds.”
Objective observers see it differently. Vick might not be guaranteed the starting gig, but he should and will be given every opportunity to win it. If what Ryan saw last year from Smith was growth "by leaps and bounds," then whatever he sees from Vick in camp might cause him to change a semi-infamous tattoo. The worst-kept secret in football is that Vick will be under center in 2014.
Jets now have NFL's fastest RB (Chris Johnson 99), WR (Jacoby Ford 98) & QB (Michael Vick 92) according to Madden speed rating— Jeremy Lundblad (@JLundbladESPN) April 16, 2014
Vick (OK, or Smith) will be throwing to a receiving corps that also approaches replacement-level for the first time in a good while. Eric Decker was given the typical post-Super Bowl fat contract to leave Denver for New York, while Jacoby Ford is an intriguing athlete, if not someone who can be relied upon every down. Jeremy Kerley should perform better while moving into a less daunting role.
The team also addressed the running back spot by signing former Tennessee Titan Chris Johnson. He should be used in a committee role with Chris Ivory, but the Jets are still a deeply flawed offensive team.
It just might not be the same train wreck as it was in December, when New York finished with the No. 27 offensive Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), per Football Outsiders, and averaged only 318.1 yards per game. Move even into the top 20 in those categories, and perhaps the Jets are a playoff team.
With the upcoming draft and questions suddenly cropping up defensively (specifically at cornerback), New York's offseason is far from over.But the NFL has released the full schedule. So that means it's time for some way-too-early analysis of stuff that's sure to change by September.
|1||Sept. 7||vs. Oakland Raiders||1 p.m.||CBS|
|2||Sept. 14||at Green Bay Packers||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|3||Sept. 22||vs. Chicago Bears||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|4||Sept. 28||vs. Detroit Lions||1 p.m.||FOX|
|5||Oct. 5||at San Diego Chargers||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|6||Oct. 12||vs. Denver Broncos||1 p.m.||CBS|
|7||Oct. 16||at New England Patriots||8:25 p.m.||CBS/NFL Network|
|8||Oct. 26||vs. Buffalo Bills||1 p.m.||CBS|
|9||Nov. 2||at Kansas City Chiefs||1 p.m.||CBS|
|10||Nov. 9||vs. Pittsburgh Steelers||1 p.m.||CBS|
|12||Nov. 23||at Buffalo Bills||1 p.m.||CBS|
|13||Dec. 1||vs. Miami Dolphins||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|14||Dec. 7||at Minnesota Vikings||1 p.m.||CBS|
|15||Dec. 14||at Tennessee Titans||4:05 p.m.||CBS|
|16||Dec. 21||vs. New England Patriots||1 p.m.||CBS|
|17||Dec. 28||at Miami Dolphins||1 p.m.||CBS|
The schedule bot apparently isn't too keen on Rex Ryan. Based on their 2013 records, the Jets have the ninth-hardest slate in football—notably more treacherous than any other squad within their division. Depending on the non-shared opponents, that can sometimes be the case for a second-place team because it has to play its own division winner.
Judging an entire schedule based on a previous season's win-loss record is, of course, inherently flawed. Year-to-year variance within the NFL is higher than any of our other major professional sports, in large part because of roster turnover and its season having a low sample of games. Looking at the individual matchups, there still is some cause for concern about a regression.
The AFC East faces the NFC North and AFC West in its shared non-divisional matchups. The Jets get a boost superficially in both cases.
Going on the road to San Diego and Kansas City—both candidates to fall off from their 2013 form—is preferable to the guaranteed loss that comes with playing Denver. Oakland, as it tends to be, is a wash; the Jets can probably chalk up a home win there.
Even if Green Bay improves with a full year of Aaron Rodgers and considering a trip to Lambeau is never fun, one would think the Jets are happier doing that than the Chicago-Detroit split. The Lions and Bears are both talented enough to compete for an NFC North championship in 2014, while the Jets may wind up favored in Minnesota if their recent trajectory continues.
These are mainly washes that they share with the division-rival Patriots but could be important if they wind up battling Miami or Buffalo for a wild-card spot.
In their non-shared matchups, the Jets essentially get teams on their same trajectory. Pittsburgh and Tennessee have the talent to be in the muck of teams that will finish somewhere between seven to nine wins, and barring injury, that's where they'll wind up. Expect them to split these games, regardless of whether it's a home or road win.
The Patriots are overwhelming favorites again to take the AFC East, and barring a Tom Brady injury, will. They went out this offseason and loaded up on perhaps the best cornerbacks this side of Seattle in Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis, giving them perhaps their best overall defense since the Ty Law era.
Jets-Patriots means something from a rivalry context, but little more. If New York can sneak a win past New England the way it did last season, it will serve as a boost for the team's hopes of nabbing a playoff spot. Even with the offensive improvements, competing for a division title seems like an overzealous goal.
Additionally, most will point to the home Denver tilt as being important. That's not really the case. The Broncos and Patriots are flying on an entirely different trajectory as teams right now. Calling beating a team that will be favored by a touchdown on your home field pivotal isn't genuine. New York probably should and will lose that game; it's just the way things work.
The Jets then need to focus on taking care of business against Buffalo and Miami, neither of which will be an easy out. The Bills should be better in Year 2 of the EJ Manuel era and have solid talent on both sides of the ball. They'll be scarier if they land a receiver like Mike Evans at the top of Round 1, though, offensive tackle is another need.
The Dolphins would have made the playoffs last season if it weren't for these Jets. Miami's inability to decide whether it was one of the best teams in football or one of the worst could be a problem, though. And it's still unclear whether Ryan Tannehill has what it takes to be a franchise QB or if Joe Philbin is a competent head coach. So...there's that.
Similarly, winning games against fellow teams hanging out in the mediocre pool will define this season. Clip the Steelers, Bears and Lions at home, and you're probably looking at a playoff team. Lose two of those three...you're probably looking at a 6-10 or 7-9 record. New York, as it has been for much of Ryan's time in town, is built to hang around and compete for a wild-card spot, and then give teams hell in the playoffs.
It's the swing games—not ones against elite competition—that will decide whether the Jets get there.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter: