Rex Ryan and the New York Jets Walk the Walk While Leaving Room For Improvement

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Rex Ryan and the New York Jets Walk the Walk While Leaving Room For Improvement
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It doesn't get much better than Jets versus Dolphins in prime time. These teams have faced off numerous times in such an atmosphere and they never seem to disappoint.

Last night was no different.

The Jets came out like a house on fire, going ahead 14-0 on two Mark Sanchez touchdown passes—both to tight end Dustin Keller.

But the Dolphins responded, scoring 17 unanswered points to take a 17-14 lead into the third quarter. It seemed that the Dolphins were not going be denied in their home opener, as Chad Henne methodically moved the Miami offense down the field against what was supposed to be a staunch Jets defense.

It was at that point that Braylon Edwards, playing the goat all week as a result of his drunken driving arrest at five in the morning, became the hero. From their own 33 yard line, Edwards caught a 10-yard pass from Sanchez, turned upfield out of the reach of Jason Allen, who slipped on the field, and sprinted the rest of the way into the endzone to complete the 67 yard touchdown.

The Jets never looked back, winning 31-23 when Brodney Pool knocked a Chad Henne pass into the arms of the Jets fifth cornerback, Drew Coleman, on a 4th and goal play.

The win evens the Jets and Dolphins records at 2-1, placing them in a three-way tie atop the AFC East along with the Patriots.

Despite the even records, it is now the Jets that hold the early advantage after defeating both the Dolphins and the Patriots early in the season.

In a way, these last two weeks have been among the most exciting in New York Jets history (sad as that may sound).

The Jets are not a team that often live up to their fan's expectations. I only need one finger to count the times this team has lived up to their preseason hype in my lifetime; that was 1998, Bill Parcells' second year as head coach, when the team lost to the Broncos in the AFC Championship, 23-10.

The next season Elway retired and Jets fans were certain 1999 would be their year. Then starting quarterback Vinny Testaverde ruptured his Achilles' tendon in the season opener against the Pats. Just like that, all our hopes and dreams were squashed.

So heading into this season, Jets fans anxiously awaited actual results despite all of Rex Ryan's bluster. In the preseason all a team can be is talk. We had to wait until the games counted for the team to prove they could walk the walk.

And before the team got deep into the season, dark portents gathered to spell doom for the Jets. Star cornerback Darrelle Revis' prolonged holdout lead to a hamstring injury, Calvin Pace broke a bone in his foot and still hasn't recovered, Kris Jenkins was lost for the season in the very first game, and Mark Sanchez struggled in the season opener against the Ravens while Santonio Holmes sat at home serving a suspension.

Even when the Jets defeated the Patriots 28-14 in Week 2, Braylon Edwards' arrest dampened the hopes of the Jets faithful.

But after last night's victory there is no denying that this is a talented Jets team, one that can walk the walk, overcome adversity, and play as a cohesive unit. Let's take a look at how the Jets have gone about proving their doubters wrong.

 

Inglorious Bastards

Go ahead and call them mercenaries. Rex Ryan and his band of lunatics may just be mercenaries. From veterans such as Jason Taylor and LaDainian Tomlinson to troubled also-rans such as Braylon Edwards, Antonio Cromartie, and Santonio Holmes, the Jets are a team that is built with players that could have been classified as other team's trash.

When the Jets got Braylon Edwards in a trade with the Cleveland Browns most of the talk was about how Edwards was a troublemaker that couldn't catch the ball.

What most failed to realize was the immediate effect Edwards had on the Jets offense when he arrived from Cleveland, and not as a receiving threat.

In the first four games of the season the Jets averaged 131 yards per game on the ground on just under four yards per carry. With the arrival of Edwards the Jets averaged 186 yards per game on the ground in their final 12 games on 4.7 yards per carry.

Once the Jets put Edwards on the field defenses had to respect the deep pass, opening up the running game. This is about the time when you'd cue the jokes about Braylon Edwards case of the dropsies. Too bad that issue is overstated. Edwards rate of dropped balls is not nearly as high as his detractors would like to think. Edwards just tends to drop passes in the most egregious manner, like when they hit him in the face.

However, Edwards actually dropped fewer passes than the Jets other big name wide receiver acquisition, Santonio Holmes.

But dropped passes have never been a criticism of Holmes, who is currently serving a four game suspension for violation of the league's substance abuse policy.

Holmes, the former Super Bowl MVP, was jettisoned from Pittsburgh following numerous off-field incidents. The Jets pounced, buying low on the troubled wide receiver and acquiring him for just a fifth round pick.

So far Holmes has been a model citizen. At the start of training camp he purposely requested Mark Sanchez as a roommate so he could bond with his new quarterback. Then Jets fans got to watch Holmes step up and mentor struggling rookie running back, Joe McKnight, on Hard Knocks.

It seems leadership roles are coming naturally for "the bastards." In the wake of the Inez Sainz incident and Braylon Edwards arrest, tumult threatened to overtake the Jets locker room. Then LaDainian Tomlinson stepped forward and asked to speak to the team.

What ensued was a speech about dedication that invoked Vince Lombardi, and described by ESPNNewYork's Rich Cimini as "an E.F. Hutton moment."

But Tomlinson isn't just leading in the locker room. He is leading on the field as well. Once thought of as washed up, Tomlinson has 268 total yards through Week 3. More importantly, Tomlinson has provided a jolt of confidence to the Jets.

This was on full display against the Patriots, as Tomlinson totaled over one hundred yards of total offense, fired up the home crowd, and sealed the game with a breathtaking leap over the Patriots defensive line on a 4th and 1 play that reminded us all of the old LT, the one who dominated for the Chargers.

And Tomlinson isn't the only veteran playing as if he's found the fountain of youth.

When Rex Ryan recruited Jason Taylor he told the former Miami Dolphin that he would get him 15 sacks this year. People scoffed at that claim as they scoffed when the Jets signed Tomlinson. They thought both were has-beens.

All Taylor has done is assume a starting position in the wake of Calvin Pace's foot injury and recorded two sacks, including the game sealing sack and forced fumble against Tom Brady and the Patriots in Week 2.

Also contributing in the game against the Patriots was Antonio Cromartie, who filled in for an injured Darrelle Revis and shut down Randy Moss in the second half of the game.

Cromartie was considered soft after he blatantly avoided a tackle attempt against Shonn Greene of the Jets in the AFC Divisional Round of the playoffs. But Cromartie was not being utilized properly in San Diego, just like Tomlinson.

Cromartie's physical abilities are tailored for a man-to-man defense, which the Jets run—or hope to run once Darrelle Revis returns. Though he's had some trouble with penalties, he has intercepted two passes so far this season.

No it hasn't been completely smooth sailing, but the Jets have found success early on because of these inglorious bastards. From Edwards touchdown catch to Brodney Pool's breakup of Henne's fourth down pass, the "garbage" from other teams have become the Jets' treasures.

 

"It's only Week 3 and Rex Ryan is already pouring Gatorade on motherf@#$ers."

That sentiment, expressed in the jubilation of the Jets win Sunday night by a friend of mine, explains why Rex Ryan is the perfect coach to lead the misfits described above.

If it was any other coach the chemistry of this team might be untenable; the roster would have imploded in on itself early in training camp.

But Rex Ryan is the perfect coach for this situation because he doesn't care what others think as long as he is confident that he is right.

He didn't care that Antonio Cromartie had eight kids, in five different states, with seven different mothers.

He didn't care that most of the NFL thought LaDainian Tomlinson was done.

He didn't care that Santonio Holmes had a bad reputation.

And he didn't care that Jason Taylor was a villain around the Meadowlands just a few months ago.

He didn't care because he loved Cromartie's athleticism, he could see with his own eyes that Tomlinson wasn't finished, he knew he could turn Taylor into a feared pass rusher again, and he just had to have Holmes because "That f---er" cost him a ring.

What Rex has going for him is his humility. Some may say the man may have confidence issues because of the way he makes fun of his own weight problems. But Ryan does that because he realizes it is one of his many flaws. Just as he realizes everybody has flaws.

The intense media scrutiny of the Jets following the Edwards arrest was completely unwarranted but not unexpected. Another coach might have wilted to pressure from the media when put in Rex Ryan's position. But Ryan didn't blink.

The front office decided Edwards would sit a quarter, even though no teams have benched players in the past for similar offenses. If Rex Ryan had his way, Edwards would have sat for one play and then gone right back out onto the field.

Rex doesn't think what Edwards did was right. But he understands that players have their faults. Overreacting to the situation could only have alienated Edwards at a time when he was already feeling pretty crumby.

So Edwards sat, and when he came back into the game the Jets threw the ball his way, as if he was never gone, as if to say he was still one of them.

That's what Ryan does. He brings an attitude and an identity to this team that it hasn't had since the days of Broadway Joe. This attitude and identity is important because it is what allows this team of mercenaries to be so tight knit.

The players might mess up occasionally, like Edwards did last week, but they will always be Jets; which means Rex and the rest of the team will always have their back.

Being a Jet also entails having both fun and confidence on the football field, two things which Ryan personifies.

Ryan mocks his own weight because of his humility, not because he lacks confidence. He's not good at staying in shape, so he's not going to brag about it or let his flaws go unannounced.

But he is a great defensive mind and he goes about announcing his talents the same way he does his flaws: loudly and clearly.

The Jets brash confidence finds its genesis in Ryan's self-assuredness on the defensive side of the ball. He knows what he's doing, and just as he didn't care about the shortcomings of his inglorious bastards, he doesn't care what you are going to do or what you think about his braggadocio because he always thinks he is going to win when it comes to the game of football.

So do his players; from the core four of Revis, Nick Mangold, D'Brickashaw Ferguson, and David Harris, to the mercenaries listed above, the New York Jets know how good they are on the football field, and they're not afraid to let you know it.

Along with that confidence comes the natural ability to enjoy yourself. If you know your good and you know you're putting in the work to be your best, then there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to enjoy yourself.

So when Braylon Edwards does "the Dougie" after scoring a touchdown, Rex Ryan pays no mind—other then to maybe make fun of Edwards for how silly he looked, of course. Problems arise when you let having fun get in the way of your ability to dominate on the football field, as Edwards did when he was arrested driving drunk at five in the morning the day after the Patriots game.

Rex Ryan is no stranger to controversy. When he was photographed flipping off a Dolphins fan at an MMA event he was roundly criticized. What people don't bring up much is that the Dolphins fan spit at Ryan.

So when Edwards makes an ass of himself Rex can sympathize. But he can also sympathize when Edwards does the Dougie; after all, it was Ryan dumping Gatorade on Jason Taylor Sunday night.

It was a throwaway moment, but it encapsulates Rex Ryan and why the Jets are walking the walk under his watch. Ryan was having fun, but in doing so he was making a subtle statement. The dumping of Gatorade over somebody on the sidelines is a ritual saved for a moment of accomplishment. That Ryan was doing it in Week 3 speaks to his confidence. That he was dumping Gatorade on Taylor speaks to the fact that Taylor and the other "mercenaries" aren't mercenaries so much as they are just Jets.

The Rise of the Sanchize

During Darrelle Revis' holdout any intelligent Jets fan would have told you that the Jets could have fielded a winning team without Revis...if Mark Sanchez began to play more like the franchise quarterback the team drafted him to be.

Sanchez often gets a pass for his horrid season in 2009 because of the Jets postseason success. He was pretty bad. But he was also a rookie that only started one season at USC. At times he was downright terrible, throwing 15 of his 20 interceptions in just four games.

When the Jets offense struggled in the preseason and in Week 1 against the Ravens, many were throwing their hands up in the air calling out Sanchez. It was common to see him described as a right-handed Matt Leinart.

Isn't it strange what a couple of weeks will do for somebody's image?

Against the Patriots and Dolphins Sanchez has completed 36 of 58 passes (62 percent completion percentage) for 476 yards, six touchdowns, no interceptions, and a quarterback rating exceeding 120.

However, this upward trend in Sanchez' play goes back to last year. In Sanchez' last seven games, dating back to Week 17 of the 2009 season against the Bengals, he has completed 95 of 153 passes (again, a 62 percent completion percentage) for 1152 yards with 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions.

Andrew Burton/Getty Images

In that span the Jets are 5-2 against six teams that went a combined 63-33 in 2009, five of which were playoff teams.

Of course we can't get ahead of ourselves. Sunday night was only Sanchez' eighteenth start in the NFL. Combined over college and the NFL Sanchez has only started 34 games.

And to be fair, there were two passes that could have easily been interceptions in that game last night.

Nobody is saying Sanchez is a finished product yet. However, the improvement he has shown is something that Jets fans can allow themselves to get excited about. It also begs the question, just how good can he get?

We don't know the answer to that question. In fact, we can be far more certain that Sanchez will have games where he struggles mightily. That's only natural. The 23-year old quarterback is still learning the pro game.

His ceiling may not be that of a Peyton Manning or Philip Rivers—few players have that sort of ceiling—but the Jets are slowly but surely putting to rest the notion that Mark Sanchez cannot be a good enough quarterback to guide this team to success in the NFL.

Mark Sanchez is no Matt Leinart. He is starting to prove it with his play. Jets fans knew it all along from the personality of their SoCal QB.

Unable to move around because of a knee operation, Sanchez spent the entire offseason with his head in the Jets' playbook. When he was able to play football again, he called on his tight ends and receivers to attend "Jets West Camp" at his home in California so that they could make up for time he lost getting familiar with them and the offense in minicamp when he was unable to play.

Then there was how he commanded the attention of his teammates in the locker room following the Week 2 victory against the Patriots.

It would be great if Sanchez kept up the pace he is on now. That is not likely to happen. However, if he could just avoid those three and five interception games with a bit more regularity, Rex Ryan, his teammates, and Jets fans would be happy because it's an improvement. Besides, the young quarterback isn't the only part of the team that will be improving.

 

Why You're Going to Hate the Jets Soon Enough

Forgive me if you think it a bit too presumptuous to declare that the Jets are "walking the walk" so early in the season.

Like Rex Ryan I am only trusting what my eyes see, and what my eyes see gives me confidence.

It isn't so much that the Jets beat their two greatest division rivals in back-to-back weeks to take an early command of the division.

It isn't because they made the Patriots vaunted offense look silly in the second half of that Week 2 game, or because, as much as everybody likes to say the Ravens manhandled the Jets, the team's one loss was by one point to a popular Super Bowl pick.

It's because these Jets are not operating at maximum capacity.

Lest you think it's all roses and rainbows in Jet-land, the pass defense has been obnoxiously bad given last year's dominance. But you won't really find a Jets fan that is too worried about it.

Darrelle Revis is coming back, which should fortify the secondary. On top of that, Kyle Wilson will only improve as he gains more and more experience.

Not only will Revis' return bolster the pass defense, but Calvin Pace's return should work wonders as well. Pace is the best pass rusher on the Jets. When he returns Jason Taylor will take a bit of a reduced role, allowing him to stay fresh.

With Revis returning the Jets will play more man coverage on the outside. As a result, they will be able to dial up the blitzes and utilize their full complement of pass rushers. Can you imagine what Rex Ryan could do on passing downs with Taylor and Pace on the field at the same time? Last season Pace was an underrated pass rusher. Despite missing the first four games due to a suspension he finished with eight sacks.

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

But the defense isn't the only unit that will improve.

If Mark Sanchez' play is critical to the Jets success it's a good thing he is getting a new toy come Week 5 when Santonio Holmes returns from suspension.

Many people thought the Jets would go 0-3 out of the gate. That was with Revis, Pace, and Kris Jenkins.

Now they are 2-1, have the upper-hand in their division, and have reinforcements on the way. The only thing that stands between the Jets and having all their personnel suited up to play is an away game against the Bills.

In the preseason all the talk was about the potential for an implosion from the amalgamation that was the Jets roster. And there is definitely still a chance that that happens. The NFL season is long and arduous. Even the game against the Bills next week is far from a sure thing.

But did anybody stop to think what would happen if this roster—which, at full strength, features 13 former first round picks in the starting lineup—came together under this slovenly, loudmouthed, defensive savant?

It would be awfully interesting to find out.

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