Gone are the days when Ryan would have to lean on his prized defense to withstand the pressure of an anemic offense. For better or worse, the Jets will be a much more even team than Ryan has ever fielded.
Much of this is thanks to an improved offense, but balance does not always equate to success on the field. As much as his offense has seen improvements in personnel and coaching since 2012, Ryan's defense has taken several steps back.
In particular, the Jets secondary that was once regarded as the "No Fly Zone" has become a feasting ground for opposing receivers.
With that said, the Jets were destined to divert from their defense-dependent ways as soon as John Idzik took over as general manager. Ryan's teams would always take a certain amount of pride in their defense, but no longer at the expense of winning.
An Offensive Makeover
In two offseasons, Idzik has replaced nine of the 11 offensive starters on the Jets (counting fullback as a starter). The only two surviving players are mainstay Pro Bowl offensive linemen Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson.
|Position||2012||2014 (projected starter)|
|QB||Mark Sanchez||Geno Smith|
|RB||Shonn Greene||Chris Ivory|
|FB||Lex Hilliard||Tommy Bohanon|
|WR||Santonio Holmes||Eric Decker|
|WR||Stephen Hill||Jeremy Kerley|
|TE||Dustin Keller||Jeff Cumberland|
|G||Matt Slauson, Brandon Moore||Brian Winters, Willie Colon|
|C||Nick Mangold||Nick Mangold|
|T||D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Austin Howard||D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Breno Giacomini|
Idzik deserves credit for giving the Jets the personnel upgrades they needed, but it would have been much harder to find a way to get worse on offense than to make improvements.
Anyone could have fired an underperforming group, but hiring the right players to replace the old ones was where Idzik ignited the rebuilding process.
Adding players like receiver Eric Decker and tackle Breno Giacomini won't draw comparisons between this offense and the Greatest Show on Turf, but these are the types of players that give the Jets a sense of legitimacy.
Decker and Giacomini squared off in the 2013 Super Bowl and are coming off career years—they have operated within functional—in Decker's case, record-breaking—offenses.
Settling for the Jets' old standards of being just good enough to not lose the game for the defense is out of the question.
Of course, as with all offenses, the Jets' success will always come back to second-round quarterback Geno Smith.
It was not long ago that the Jets were in a similar situation with Mark Sanchez, who was ready to enter the 2010 season with heightened expectations that he would evolve into the franchise quarterback they drafted him to be.
Smith may have similar expectations surrounding him with the playoffs on the horizon, but the Jets are handling the quarterback situation in a very different manner this time around.
First off, they hardly babied Smith as a rookie in spite of his inferior surrounding personnel.
Based on how much they threw the deep ball, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg hardly called plays like he was talking to a rookie. Under Smith, the Jets were among the best in the league at throwing the football down the field—so much for easing a rookie into the NFL.
Pro Football Focus
For as much promise as Smith showed last year, the Jets sent him a strong message that anything but a massive improvement upon their 8-8 season would not be tolerated when they brought in Michael Vick as a backup.
While NFL.com's Dan Hanzus suggests signs are pointing to Smith entering the season as the starter, Vick's presence shows that the Jets have no intentions of babying Smith to be their franchise quarterback, as they did with Sanchez. If Smith falls apart, the Jets will have no problem tapping into their $5 million insurance quarterback.
Simply put, the Jets offense will hold higher standards set from both their new personnel and the front office.
Unfortunately for Ryan, the same cannot be said for his once-feared defense.
Ryan is fully capable of winning football games in which he is overmatched in talent—as long as his cornerbacks are in place.
Their impact on the game won't show up on the stat sheet, but Ryan's defenses are built around his coverage men being able to hold up adequately in order to allow his complex defense to function properly.
Rex Ryan's core belief: “There’s two places you can lose a game fastest in this league: Quarterback and Cornerback." #nyj— Manish Mehta (@MMehtaNYDN) March 19, 2014
This explains why the marriage that once existed between Darrelle Revis and the Jets produced some of the best defenses in football—particularly against the pass—on an annual basis.
Without a stud pass-rusher to speak of on the roster—no player on the team hit double-digit sacks—the Jets never fared worse than eighth in overall defense, including a No. 1 ranking in 2009.
Starting a hobbled Antonio Cromartie and a struggling rookie in Dee Milliner at cornerback—ranked 102nd and 68th in Pro Football Focus' rankings, respectively—for the majority of the 2013 season, Ryan fielded the worst NFL defense he was ever in charge of.
The Jets' final ranking of 10th in overall defense was the worst ever for a group with Ryan's stamp on it.
The odd aspect of the 2013 defense is that while its secondary struggles were well-documented, it was working with one of the best defensive fronts in the NFL.
The combination of Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson and Quinton Coples made up the best defensive line Ryan employed in New York by a long shot. Two players—Wilkerson and Calvin Pace—breached the 10-sack mark.
It comes as no surprise that the Jets were the No. 3 run defense in the NFL, but their atrocious pass defense netted them an average unit—especially when compared to previous Ryan units.
Ryan has the balance his team has been needing for a long time, but he will find that it will be much more difficult to coach top-notch defensive football in the NFL.
No longer dependent on one or two star members of the secondary and linebacking corps to carry the unit, the Jets had more balance on defense than they ever had—with inverse results.
Balance has its importance, but at what point can it ultimately dilute the overall talent level of a team?
Does Balanced Equal Better?
The 2014 Jets will be less reliant on one player than in any previous year under Ryan, which will allow them to win games in a greater variety of ways.
They will be able to compete in both shootouts and defensive struggles, but will they be able to win enough of them?
Outside of its run-stoppers, there is no aspect of the Jets roster that truly stands out. Stopping the run sure makes it easier to play defense, but is it enough to get the Jets into anything more than an outside chance at a wild-card spot?
Sheldon Richardson has a ton of promise as a young defensive lineman, but can he overcome the struggles in the secondary?
Balance is an important aspect to any team—after all, the Jets proved to themselves that relying on a cornerback and a couple of offensive linemen to win games is not exactly a formula for sustained success.
But overall talent level, however it may be combined, is even more crucial to a team's success.
A team can be perfectly balanced in how poor it is across the board. On the other hand, an imbalanced roster implies that there is at least some high-level talent to be found on an imperfect depth chart.
The Jets may no longer have Hall of Fame-caliber players on their roster, but they do have an asset they have not enjoyed in quite some time: depth. Loaded with a draft class of 12 rookies to go with their free-agent additions, the Jets will no longer be at the mercy of the health of a few select players.
In the past, the Jets would sink when they lost key players to inevitable injury, whether it be Revis, Nick Mangold or Santonio Holmes.
While losing players of such high caliber will hurt any team, these new Jets have a much stronger foundation that won't collapse when the bottom bricks are pulled out.
Only time will tell whether or not the Jets' new model of team-building will eventually lead to a championship, but for now, their balanced approach will bring more than welcome stability and normalcy to a team that has been through too many turbulent seasons recently.
Advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).