ESPN's NFL Power Rankings considered the 2013 New York Jets the worst team in the league when the regular season began. By Week 11, those rankings placed the 5-4 Jets in 12th. Head coach Rex Ryan received accolades galore. He became a Coach of the Year candidate.
Their post-bye slump knocked them out of the playoffs and down a few pegs, but an 8-8 record, second place in the AFC East and 19th place in the power rankings was more than many thought possible. Ryan didn't earn Coach of the Year honors, but he earned a contract extension, a chance to come back and fight another day.
It's 2014. The Jets have improved their offensive skill positions and the secondary. On paper, they're a better team than last year. That doesn't guarantee a playoff trip. They still must overcome some unfilled needs and a challenging schedule, particularly its first half.
Several positions remain question marks after the draft. There are new faces available, but many are new to the NFL or have limited NFL experience.
The Jets lack an established big-play wide receiver. Eric Decker is an upgrade, but he's not a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Unless a young veteran such as Stephen Hill fulfills expectations or a rookie such as Jalen Saunders, Shaq Evans or Quincy Enunwa emerges, the deep passing game will not be a major part of the Jets' offensive arsenal.
Cornerback and edge-rusher are defensive shortcomings. It's too early to measure the impact of offseason signings, draft picks and signs of improvement in 2013. One ominous sign is the slow recovery of outside linebacker Antwan Barnes from 2013's season-ending knee injury.
Willie Colon's recent knee surgery exposed a need for depth in the offensive line. If he doesn't make it to training camp or falls to injury thereafter, Caleb Schlauderaff, Oday Aboushi, William Campbell or Dakota Dozier need to step up their level of play.
In 2013, the Jets schedule included a stretch of five games in which they faced elite or near-elite quarterbacks: Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, Atlanta's Matt Ryan, New England's Tom Brady, Cincinnati's Andy Dalton and New Orleans' Drew Brees. They were 2-2 entering this stretch. They emerged from it 5-4 and in control of their own playoff destiny.
There's a similar stretch of games in 2014. It begins in Week 2 with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. Then the Jets face Chicago's Jay Cutler, Detroit's Matthew Stafford, San Diego's Philip Rivers, Denver's Peyton Manning and Brady. That stretch may make or break the Jets' postseason hopes.
There is one sign of progress. The 2014 post-draft ESPN NFL Power Rankings ranks the Jets 21st. That's much better than 32nd but still not playoff-level. It looks like Ryan has another year of making the whole worth more than the sum of its parts.
That's what he does best. Whether it was getting two wild-card teams to the brink of the Super Bowl or remaining a playoff contender for most of 2013, Ryan displayed a gift for getting his players to exceed expectations.
To be Coach of the Year in 2014, he'll have to do it again. He'll have to reach the playoffs and advance a round or two, but thanks to the Jets' offseason acquisitions, it shouldn't be as much of an uphill climb.